Reflections on Readings Part IV

This week for my Social Media Theory & Practice class, we continued reading in Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. This week’s chapters focused on collective action, institutional challenges and the speed of group action. Shirky notes in Chapter 6 that collection action erodes institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination. He uses the Catholic Church and its recent priest/molestation scandal as an example of an institution under siege from its own members via the increased ability to organize and connect groups. He points out that the old limits on sharing on gone and the ease of becoming a member of a group online. One comparison I appreciated in Chapter 6 was when Shirky compared the ability of groups to form and act to that of the spread of disease — that as the likelihood of infection or contact between any 2 people go up, as well as the overall size of the population, then the spread of disease goes up. Hence the term viral marketing. One point he made that I think is relevant in my higher education work setting is that geography used to be a core organizing principle, but no longer such an important factor. I think as a university we still struggle to overcome that way of thinking. Where I work, Tennessee Tech, we currently have limited options in online programs, which I would like to see grow, especially at the graduate level. We also find it challenging being in a rural setting, approximately 1 hour away from Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga. We have a commitment to serving our rural region, while at the same time, most of our recruited students come from these major cities. We also have a goal of claiming the state and becoming more known in West Tennessee.

In Chapter 7, Shirky addresses the fact that as more people adopt social tools and those tools allow for an increase in rapid communication, then the speed of group action will also increase. And that groups exert a different force versus just an individual and that the difference is a threat to existing institutions. I thought this concept fit in nicely with the article by Alfred Hermida, Seth Lewis and Rodrigo Zamith on “Sourcing the Arab Spring.” Shirky’s concept here of “shared awareness,” which is the ability of any different people and groups to understand a situation and to understand who else has the same understanding, allows otherwise uncoordinated groups to begin working together more quickly and effectively. In reading the Arab Spring article detailing Andy Carvin’s use of informal sources on Twitter to report coverage of the events, I wonder why the same thing has not taken off in Syria? We get a trickle of news stories about the plight of Syrians, but not widespread on social media like the Arab Spring. I believe this may be a technology gap where Syrians do not have the cellphone/Internet access that Egyptians had to get their stories out. I think the connection that Skirky and the Arab Spring article are making here is that many political bloggers and journalists see technology and these new communication methods as tools for positive social change, and that using tools like Twitter can avoid the delays and censorship of official news channels. On the flip side, terrorists are using them to coordinate their efforts. Shirky also notes here that the more familiar and ubiquitous a communication method is (such as mobile phones), the more real-time coordination and less predictable group reactions exist.

Another good example that Shirky uses toward the end of this chapter is the airlines and the difference that 7 years can make. He gives 2 examples one from 1999 and one from 2006 of passengers being stranded on the runway for 6+ hours waiting to exit the plane. The difference in the events is that in 2006, thanks to the comments section on an online newspaper article, one angry passenger was able to connect with others, forming a group and taking action by proposing the Passenger Bill of Rights. Newspapers that had once been a one-way platform became a shared platform and then a cooperative platform with the comments sections and discussion boards. These new social tools, especially social media, lower hurdles so that people who cared a little could participate a little while being effective as a group. At a university, we often see this when someone makes a comment on Facebook about the lack of parking spaces or the unreliability of our wireless network, or any controversial issue — when someone starts to complain, and the barrier is so low that you can participate by just commenting, that post can gain traction quickly and grow. We have seen in these situation and others that it is often best if the university allow its “fans” to talk amongst themselves without interjecting an official voice. We have often seen that sometimes fans rally support for the university and counter the complainers.

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