Thoughts from our lunch with Clay Shirky

26 03 2010

Just back from a splendid nPBA lunch with Clay Shirky, hosted at the Taxpayers’ Alliance. A few highlights below.

Clay spoke about four aspects of the web: the personal (e.g. Lolcats); the communal (e.g. Yahoo Groups for cancer sufferers); the public (wikipedia, linux); and the civic (The Pink Chaddi Campaign against the Hindu Ram Sena).

He argued that the status of the first two groups, the personal and the communal, were least under threat. In these groups, the value is contained within the groups that use them, and it rarely permeates out. Public and civic value are much harder to achieve, especially when they attempt (as civic value does) to challenge and then to change well-established cultural norms.

What conditions need to exist to create public or civic value?

1. A platform which is appropriate to the audience and activity. Clay used the example of the crowdsourcing platform that The Guardian ‘assembled overnight’ to allow readers to trawl through the mass of MPs’ expenses data. The Guardian owns lots of technology structured to produce a national newspaper, but the platform needed a quick and easy way to comment, leaderboards of participation, and easy reporting.

2. Rhetorical norms. Internet stories which create civic or public value are framed as stories of interest and amusement – rather than treated as victories for civil rights or ‘serious’ issues. Clay argued that these stories are not ‘one-offs’, but part of meaningful change in the world.

3. Cultural norms. Clay claimed that he realised as a teenager that while it was ‘stupid’ to do anything productive in your free time, it was totally acceptable to watch TV  for an average of 20-30 hours per week. Free time is an important resource, and the cultural notion that is acceptable or even preferable to passively consume television as your main activity still stands as a blockade in the way of creating civic value.

A New Angle on Transparency and Open Data

Clay offered a couple of iconoclastic caveats about transparency in government. He cited the example of the ‘Sunshine Laws’ enacted after Nixon’s resignation. One of the unintended consequences of the laws was to cause the lobbying industry to mushroom. In the days of obscurity, politicians could take lobbyists’ money from all sides, and then claim that they had voted however they liked. When their votes were made a matter of public business, the lobbyists could check their ROI in an instant.

Another problem Clay identified was that of the use of open government data. He claimed that the technical problems of opening government datasets were easily surmountable, but that understanding and ‘creating stories’ out of the data was neither easy nor guaranteed. There is also the issue of scale in collaboration. Small-scale projects need as much collaboration as possible, whereas large projects often need ways to limit collaboration. The example used was of the ‘average’ wikipedia editor who only makes one edit, and does not want to become burdened by the system.

Recognizing Temporary Power

Clay also argued that the state will struggle to harness the utility of local collaborations, until it finds a means of recognizing that power has both a geographical and a temporal locality. Groups will come together to solve an issue, then disperse. The Coalition for a Passengers’ Bill of Rights in the US is a prime example.

These groups present some new challenges to government. First, they will not accept compromise in the manner that other stakeholders will. They exist to get a result, and their temporal status means that they cannot be placated by promises of future rewards and have little incentive to compromise.

The Role of Women

Clay proposed that involving women in both the design and implementation phases of projects is an important way of facilitating successful participation, both at a local community level and in large bureaucracies.

Ali Unwin (@aliunwin)




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