Clay Shirky at LSE

On tuesday night I heard Clay Shirky talk at LSE, courtesy of the lovely Amy from Netsquared. I've been busy writing a handbook for NESTA with Amy on using new technologies for social projects (on which more later), and I've been using Clay's ideas a lot. He's a great speaker and had some fascinating points to make, but I did find some of it a bit frustrating. Here are a few of my personal highlights, and questions. Clay's main thesis in his book Here Comes Everybody is that collective action just got easier. His first example was the student campaign against HSBC's overdraft changes last year, which used Facebook to force HSBC to reverse their decision. The bit that stuck out for me was that the students posted instructions on how to transfer your overdraft to Barclays, giving everyone a way to take action rather than just talk. The model Clay described was basically that "once one person gets something right", if they take the trouble to document it, then everyone can get it right too. It's very close to this idea of behavioural publishing that I was peddling last year. The difference between old media and new though is that whist the old forms simply offer information ("I thought you might like to know"), the new way adds an invitation to act: "Here's something you can do about it. Now join us."

He also made lots of good points about structures and agility, parallel development, the reputational risks of rallying a crowd to support you ("The US public understand that just because your name is on it, doesn't mean you're responsible for it."). And he had a great word of warning for organisations who aren't adapting quickly enough: "If you go too slow, the smart people split and go where they can get more done."

But I was most interested in what he said about My.BarackObama. He argued that the site was deliberately developed to give people "an unsatisfying online experience", so that they would still be motivated to take action in the real world. Some campaign sites, Facebook Groups and petitions give people the feeling of satisfaction at having taken action on a cause, when in fact all they have done is joined a group or talked about doing something. The notion of designing online tools that deliberately leave people wanting more was really fascinating, and gave me a lot to think about in relation to School of Everything.

The point where I got a bit frustrated though was that he seemed to be distancing himself from the idea of citizen self-organisation as the future of democratic government. His main argument centred around the poll after Obama's election. The US public were invited to propose and vote on the top issues they wanted the Obama-Biden administration to tackle - and promptly voted legalising medical marijuana the number one issue. It's clearly not the most pressing issue facing the US right now, and doesn't do the crowd any credit, but I was disappointed that Clay then drew the conclusion from this that if we allow the people to make decisions "you get that," and consquently we need "checks and balances" to protect us against mob rule.

Doubtless there's more to it in Clay's mind than he presented here, but there seemed to be a crucial flaw in this argument. 'The people' weren't being asked to make any decisions themselves: they were simply being offered a way to get attention. It is unfair to claim that people weren't taking responsibility for the power given them, because fundamentally, they hadn't been given any power, just a channel to talk those in power. And they knew that those in power were free to ignore everything they said. If there had been an absolute guarantee from the administration that they would enact whatever the crowd voted number one by the end of the project, the debate - and the people in the debate - would have been different.

Clay presented a clear and compelling case that our media has become more democratic, but I heard very little evidence that governance has actually changed. It is easier than ever for the public to mobilise and get attention for a cause they believe is important, and so hold the government to account; but the government is still in charge, making and implementing the decisions. The media has been bringing the government to account for decades, from Watergate to Sarah's Law; our media may be social now, but the relationship between the media and those who govern has remained relatively unchanged. And that's not necessarily a problem. Democracy in its worst forms can easily become the dictatorship of the interested. Isn't it appropriate to elect representatives to take decisions for us, provided we have the power to call them to account on the issues we consider truly important?

I'm also increasingly frustrated by the strange tendency for the web 2.0 debate to swing between the naive utopianism of trusting the people to run their own world perfectly, and the reactionary sense that people are dumb and need to be protected from their own stupidity. The truth is far more pragmatic: people screw up 90% of everything - and we need to trust them anyway. Sure, we may vote for the wrong things, get distracted by shiny objects and even do dumb, evil things from time to time. But unless we are trusted to make mistakes we will never learn. And you can't make judgements about the capacity of the people to rule themselves based on unrelated experiments in self-expression and 'lobbying 2.0'.

If you want to know how people behave in power, look at how we run our organisations, our communities, our families, our relationships. If I wanted to conduct experiments in web 2.0 and popular self-governance, I wouldn't start with a nation: I'd look at the democratic organisational models developed by Ricardo Semler and others, add the technology to systems that already work offline, and work up from small structures to larger decisions. It's very tempting to start marching into Whitehall and Washington - but we need to learn how to crawl first.