On love, hate and the internet’s capacity to amplify both

by | Feb 18, 2008


Here’s an excellent video with which to while away the next nine minutes and thirteen seconds.  The speaker is Clay Shirky, an American writer on the social effects of internet technologies.  He says:

What is happening in our generation is that we have a set of tools for aggregating things that people care about, in ways that increase both the scope and the longevity [of their efforts] – in ways that were unpredictable even a decade ago.  The coordinating tools we now have – and I’m not talking about anything fancy, I’m talking about mailing lists, usenet, weblogs and wikis  – those tools turn love into a renewable building material.

As an example, Shirky cites the case of Linux – which “gets rebuilt every night by people whose principal goal is that it continue to exist the following morning”.  Now, he continues, we’re just starting to explore the social application of these tools, and “it [means] that the ability to aggregtate non-financial motivations – to get people together outside of managerial culture and for reasons other than the profit motive – has received a huge comparative advantage.”  So what started with small, techie undertakings like Linux is now exploding:

That pattern – of aggregating caring into something stable and long-lasting – is going everywhere.  Wikipedia.  The anti-anti-immigration protests in Californian schools, that were co-ordinated through MySpace.  The monitoring of Nigerian elections by a loose collection of people using SMS and camera phones to watch their own elected officials. The use of Flickr to co-ordinate information and disaster relief after the Indian ocean tsunami, after the London transit bombings, after the Madrid bombings.  And the number of places where that pattern will go in the future is much greater than the number of places that pattern has already gone.

We have always loved one another; we’re human, it’s something we’re good at.  But up until recently, the radius and half-life of that affection has been quite limited.  With love alone, you can get a birthday party together. Add the co-ordinating tools – and you can write an operating system.  In the past we would do little things for love, but big things- big things required money.  Now, we can do big things for love.

Of course, the catch is that the very same tools also mean that you can do big things for hate or fear, as Shirky himself says elsewhere.  Shirky has a new book about to come out in a few weeks’ time, under the title Here Comes Everybody: a book that’s “about what happens when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structures”.  He continues:

Here Comes Everybody is about why new social tools matter for society. It is a non-techie book for the general reader (the letters TCP IP appear nowhere in that order). It is also post-utopian (I assume that the coming changes are both good and bad) and written from the point of view I have adopted from my students, namely that the internet is now boring, and the key question is what we are going to do with it.

Important stuff, this – c.f. the extraordinary protests in Colombia if you haven’t already.  As the IHT put it:

A young Colombian engineer used the social networking site last week to organize a massive protest against the Revolutionary Armed Forces, known as FARC. On Feb. 4, millions of Colombians marched simultaneously in 27 cities throughout the country and 104 major cities around the world shouting “No more kidnappings! No more lies! No more deaths! No more FARC!”

The idea of the protest was born a month ago, Oscar Morales, the organizer, said. “I thought it was going to be something unimportant, but little by little it became a big mobilization,” said Morales, 33. “Thanks to Facebook, we have created an exponential effect.” Morales started a Facebook group called “A million voices against the FARC” as a virtual protest with his friends. He got an enormous response from other Facebook users, so Morales decided to call for a national march. Colombians living abroad also learned about the protest through Facebook. Expatriates wanting to participate in the event contacted Morales by e-mail. After receiving hundreds of expressions of interest, Morales decided to turn the national march into an international event.

Update: just discovered a terrific article by the New Yorker’s George Packer on ‘Iraq the place versus Iraq the abstraction’, which shows how participatory communication technologies can also contribute to the opposite of what Shirky’s talking about above, i.e. disorder rather than coherence.  See Global Dashboard post on that here.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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