Clay Shirky’s Social Media View of the World

One complaint about the idea of new media as a political force is that most people simply use these tools for commerce, social life, or self-distraction, but this is common to all forms of media. Far more people in the 1500s were reading erotic novels than Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses,” and far more people before the American Revolution were reading Poor Richard’s Almanack than the work of the Committees of Correspondence. But those political works still had an enormous political effect. (Shirky, Foreign Affairs, 2011)

Clay Shirky has finally made it.  Often championed as one of the modern thinkers of technology and society, but also maligned as a mere naval-gazing pop intellectual who talks the talk, Shirky’s recent article The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change in the long-renowned journal, Foreign Affairs, has penned some thought provoking gems about the changing political order thanks the effects of ordinary citizens’ use of social media technologies.

Social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements, just as most of the world’s authoritarian governments (and, alarmingly, an increasing number of democratic ones) are trying to limit access to it.In response,the U.S. State Department has committed itself to “Internet freedom” as a specific policy aim. Arguing for the right of people to use the Internet freely is an appropriate policy for the United States, both because it aligns with the strategic goal of strengthening civil society worldwide and because it resonates with American beliefs about freedom of expression. But attempts to yoke the idea of Internet freedom to short-term goals-particularly ones that are country-specific or are intended to help particular dissident groups or encourage regime change-are likely to be ineffective on average. And when they fail, the consequences can be serious.

1.  A New Political Science? – What social media has done is essentially re-write the rules of political science and even the social sciences.  It would be impossible to describe the recent political crises in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Moldova, or Thailand (among the many) without discussing the use of mobile media and online tools by those resisting against authoritarian governments.  Such social technologies have mobilized grassroots citizenry and civic grassroots journalism to not only effecting change in the political landscapes in countries, but ultimately bringing down regimes.

2.   What Is Civil Society? – What social media has down is ultimately breaking down the state’s ability to use violence and oppression, truly allowing for a degree of civil society unheard of before the age of the internet.   Shirky views this as a shift in the balance of power between the state and civil society that has ultimately led to a largely peaceful collapse of communist control.  As such, when civil society triumphs, many of the people who had articulated opposition to the communist regimes-such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki in Poland and Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia- became the new political leaders of those countries.  Communications tools during the Cold War did not cause governments to collapse, but they helped the people take power from the state when it was weak. The same should be seen from the power of social media — perhaps even in a more intensified process.  And we’re witnessing that as we speak.

3.  The “New” Public Sphere – The famed social philosopher Jurgen Haberman’s concept of the public sphere is being challenged and perhaps will soon be thrown right out the window in this age of intensive social media.   Developed during the Renaissance in Western Europe and the United States, Habermas viewed a vibrant public sphere acting as a positive force keeping authorities within bounds lest their rulings be ridiculed.  As such, the public sphere is a place between private individuals and government authorities in which people could meet and have debates about public matters.  With such critical discussions taking place, they anchor as a counterweight to political authority.  The “public spheres” more importantly, happened physically in face-to-face meetings in coffee houses and cafes and public squares as well as in the media in letters, books, drama, and art.  Forward three hundred years, and we’re seeing the physical public sphere turn digital: in the blogosphere, twittersphere, Facebook, and viral video sharing sites.

4.  Communications – Although mass media alone do not change people’s minds, the process does.  As Opinions and ideas are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. Eventually, it is the social network that influences and forms political opinions.  This is the step in which the internet in general, and social media in particular, effects change. As with the printing press, the internet spreads not only media aconsumption, but also media production.  As Shirky argues, “It ultimately allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.”  How’s that for social change?

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