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Clay Shirky: Social Media And The Communications Revolution

In a wonderful TED Talk recorded last month, Clay Shirky details why the arrival of social media on a massive scale is a true communications revolution. His talk is prescient at a time when Twitter has been seen to be the most immediate way of delivering news from the front line of the Iran election protests.

Much of what he says derives from his fine book ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ that I blogged earlier this year during my sabbatical. If you don’t have time to read the book, watch this video, which is only seventeen minutes long. It introduces you to some of his key thinking, and it is highly relevant. Here are a couple of salient points he makes in this talk.

It isn’t when tools are shiny and new that they are revolutionary; it is when they are familiar and boring – because then they are widely distributed and used.

Furthermore, the contemporary communications revolution works on a number of fronts. First of all, we are no longer passive consumers. We do not simply receive what the professionals and the powerful broadcast to us. The same tools that make us consumers also make us producers: computers are not just for looking at websites and receiving messages, we can send messages and create our own websites and blogs. Mobile phones are not only for telephone conversations, we can send SMS and MMS messages.

And not only can we reply to the powerful and the professionals, we can then network among ourselves. We are way beyond ‘one to one’ and ‘one to many’ conversations; we now have ‘many to many’ conversations, and their significance grows exponentially with each new participant.

When the last Chinese earthquake happened, Twitter was the first service to break the news, because eyewitness accounts could be uploaded immediately. The BBC learned of the quake from Twitter. The so-called ‘Great Firewall of China‘ which existed to censor unsuitable material from the rest of the world was facing the wrong way. It was a long time before the Chinese authorities reverted to their normal clampdown methods.

Ultimately, though, the nature of the new social tools is such that there is no point discussing whether we like them or not, professionalism versus citizen journalism and all that. The horse has bolted, and this is the new world. Not to operate in it is like refusing to have a printing press, a camera, a telephone, a radio and a television.

The Barack Obama presidential campaign understood the new world well when they set up the My Barack Obama site for supporters. When Obama announced his support for something unpopular, they formed a forum on the site to oppose him and lobby him. Obama had to reply, explaining he had considered the issue and come to a conclusion they did not like, and that he would take the hits for that. What the campaign never did was censor the supporters. It realised that in the new world they could only convene them, and that was their task on the website.

Where does this leave Christians? Firstly, ignoring the new world is not an option. Communications (in all directions) are key to our faith. While we shall want to beware any values that might be inimical to our core beliefs (for example, the ‘instant’ or ‘real time’ nature of this stuff cuts both ways, between news spreading fast – good – and stunted reflection – bad), we cannot opt out. Churches that just want to set up static websites and think they are hip are behind the times. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, Flickr (I simply name the ones where I happen to have a presence) are now critical. We need to be active there. They are about more than the popular stereotype of Facebook and Twitter updates of saying what we had for breakfast. It is heartening in my own denomination to see that this year for the first time the Methodist Conference (which happens in a couple of weeks’ time) will have a Twitter feed. It’s already up and running. It will be the primary way in which I stay up to date with debates and decisions. Why wait two weeks for a Methodist Recorder report? Our weekly newspaper has instantly been rendered even more moribund than it already was.

By virtue of where I am publishing this article, I am probably to a considerable extent typing to the converted. But the argument needs to be carried elsewhere. I am not suggesting that every ninety-year-old in our churches buys a laptop and sings up with Twitter (although plenty with lively minds certainly could). However, it is as essential for the church to embrace the life in this new world as it was for the Jewish exiles to embrace life in Babylon. Not everyone will like it, but it is where we are right now, and we need to be involved.

Secondly, we must recognise that these different forms of communication will affect our worldview. Rex Miller argued as much, if not more, in his book ‘The Millennium Matrix‘. He said that Marshall McLuhan‘s famous dictum that the medium is the message wasn’t radical enough: the medium is the worldview, Miller claimed. Social media moves us from one-way proclamation of the type I engage in when I preach on a Sunday to an interactive and conversational approach. This must affect how we do church and especially how we do mission.

Thirdly, while some will be bewildered and confused by the new world, I think it gives us cause for hope. If others can get their message out so quickly and broadly, then we can too. And we should be at the forefront of the revolution, not merely copying a new trend but innovating. We are the children of the Creator God. The Church’s history of arts patronage is something we could recover here, in that we could be leaders, not simply followers in the social media world. Why not?

Anyway, I said this was a conversation, and I’ve rattled on for a thousand words now. Over to you. What do you think?

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