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Clay Shirky Says The Revolution Is Now Here.

by Ken Yeung on August 19, 2009

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Search Engine Strategies 2009 - San Jose - Clay ShirkyYou can typically judge the motivation of conference attendees through several factors – one of them being the keynote and how good it resonated with the audience. It’s quite odd how these keynotes no longer are in the afternoon, but rather bright and early in the morning. This really throws me off and causes me to to wake up early – often when no mere mortal dare wakes up lest they become grumpy throughout the day. However, the first keynote of the 2009 Search Engine Strategies conference helped shape my impressions of what to expect over the next several days. Just who helped set the pace of the conference? That would be Clay Shirky, author of the book Here Comes Everybody who gave a rousing talk about how our thinking about this marvelous “revolution” in using new technology is flawed. It’s not “us” who can control when this revolution takes place, but rather society is in control.

With his keynote, Shirky basically lays out that the tools presented to us online have allowed for us to connect to each other easier than in the past. It seems that society has caught up with using social media but companies haven’t really acknowledged that the web can have an influence on their business.

One example given is with banking giant HSBC. Shirky states that once the bank offered graduates a no-penalty checking account but then changes the policy and charges graduates a fee for the account thinking that no one will be able to do anything about it. Worse situation is that these graduates decide to leave the bank and go elsewhere, as the bank thinks. To their surprise, the students decide to protest the change by organizing using available web tools at their disposal, including setting up a group on Facebook. The media catches wind of this change and then HSBC ultimately acquiesces right before the Facebook-created organization decides to take their group offline and protest physically in front of the HSBC office. Just an example of how society’s adoption of new technology can change the way we behave and shows how a network like Facebook can be used for information and coordination.

Did you also know that the Internet is the first form of media that is native to supporting communication to many groups – that it provides organization without ORGANIZATIONS? Prior to this era, there were only a few  instances where media has changed the way we did things. The first being with movable pipes (e.g. the printing press). The next being the telephone/telegraph, film & moving pictures and the harnessing of electromagnetic waves (e.g. television). These were not forms of communication that spread the message from many to many. Instead, these were all two way conversations or conversations that went to the masses but from a central point. The point that Shirky is trying to make simply is this:  It’s not when the shiny new tool arrives does media change. It’s when the masses adopt the technology.

Search Engine Strategies 2009 - San Jose - Clay ShirkyOther takeaways presented at the keynote include the fact that we, as marketers, need to understand that the characteristics of the user’s motivations are what’s important. Using an example of Josh Groban and his fan base, Shirky cites how a charity event has prospered and grown simply because of the evangelists of the singer. Having first started out as a fundraiser to give money to one of Groban’s charities in honor of the singer’s birthday, this event has started becoming an auction of goods that fans buy from one another and the proceeds go towards benefiting others. When the singer goes out on tour, these dedicated fans also follow suit and host meetups and networking events to connect one another based on a common interest. These series of events nets charity a considerable amount of money and Groban’s lawyers are bewildered so they set up a foundation in the singer’s name to try and keep the money “clean”. It wasn’t the shock of the money that confused everyone. Rather it was the motivation and actions of the consumers who did it all of their own accord without any instructions from anyone affiliated with the singer.

When surprising new thing happens, don’t be surprised. Ask WHY it’s a surprise, not why it’s new.

Shirky wraps up his keynote with some additional key points that help shape our thinking about these “shiny new objects”.  The reason why user behavior online is so surprising to us is because of belief & motivation. We originally thought intrinsic and external motivations were the same.  They’re not. There is also part of life that is not part of the market. Sometimes we like to produce. Sometimes we like to share. Before we didn’t have a media that allowed us to produce or share, especially to the masses. That’s all changed.

The world of the Internet and its technology have allowed us, consumers, and other businesses to connect with each other on a growing scale and while you may think that technology like Twitter or Facebook are widely adopted, it’s not up to the business to set the standard for what consumers will use to communicate. It’s the consumers themselves that have the power.

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