“The networked population is gaining greater access to informationmore opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action.”

– Clay Shirky, Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2011

I recently read Clay Shirky‘s piece* about social media as a way to influence governments and bring communities together for a political cause. In his essay Shirky explains that to encourage freedom of speech and promote democracy, societies need to take an approach that tackles the whole environment in which we live rather than focussing on certain web tools and promoting those who broadcast (rather than engaging in a many-way conversation).

“Washington should adopt a more general approach, promoting freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly everywhere. […] It makes sense to invest in social media as general, rather than specifically political, tools to promote self-governance.”

I would highly recommend reading the essay but here I’ve commented on 3 of the points Shirky raised that interested me:

“the printing press helped democratize Europe by providing space for discussion and agreement among politically engaged citizens,”

The printing press was invented by Gutenburg in the 15th century, it facilitated the learning of millions who were unable to afford hand-written copies bibles and other documents. It also allowed poets, scientists, politicians and churches to communicate their thoughts to others world-wide. Like Twitter is the platform on which many of us choose to discuss trending matters as they arise, print provided a platform on which our ancestors were able to record their thoughts.

However, until the creation of the world wide web and social networks, only a few were able to exercise the right to publish. Usually those with certain educational criteria and in the early days that meant those individuals of a certain class/race/gender.

“Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then they get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed.”

These days we can all publish. But it’s this process of ‘echoing’ opinions that puts power behind our opinions. Sharing ideas (political or otherwise) creates an opportunity for others to join you, and in democratic society where everyone gets their say, if the majority support you then you’re more likely to achieve your goal.

Social media in itself is democratising. You no longer have to be alone in your opinions you can connect with other like minds.

News/Event/Brand > sharing icons + personal comment/review > seen by others > action

Equally we are being bombarded by information on a daily basis so we have to become quite attuned to filtering out the unimportant bits. Nowadays it seems a cause needs to touch us personally to get our attention.

This is the main problem brands have for attracting a customer-base through social media, they need to connect with us in a way that supports our personal values and makes us want to share positive opinions about them (thus increasing their customer base).

Brands can intervene in this moment by monitoring the conversation around the web and looking for opportunities to peddle their wares.

“The use of social media tools–text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and the like–does not have a single preordained outcome.”

Working in social media marketing is unpredictable, on the one hand we have to sell but on the other the medium is all wrong for pitching to democratic societies. We’d all love to be the one to write a book saying, follow these instructions and this is exactly what will happen. If it was all based on statistics that would be fine but unfortunately there’s an unpredictable factor involved. People. This means we can’t write a manual, but it also means that there are endless possibilities as people find new ways to address their needs and create new platforms. The great publishing power of the web means that as the status quo changes we can bounce with it and find new ways to connect. But for the companies we work for it’s important to know that however much you strategise there are no guarantees of a return on your investment.

I took the events mentioned in Shirky’s essay and added a few to make this infographic, hope you enjoy:


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The Political Power of Social Media
Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change
by Clay Shirky

Other commentaries on the piece:

What did you think of Shirky’s essay?

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