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Week 3 Summary: Networked Groups and Social Networks

Some of the major themes that tie this week’s readings together include understanding how technology has changed the way groups form and individuals collaborate, the way in which this communication happens in public mediated spaces and understanding what affects these are having on our society.

danah boyd: Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What?

danah boyd (who doesn’t capitalize her name on purpose) is a Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet. In this podcast/article/presentation she discusses mediated publics and the relationship of these publics to teenagers in society. She points to four properties that are part of mediated communication spaces (e.g. publics) which are radically changing how younger generations are negotiating this public world:

  1. Persistence: What you say sticks around a long longer than they used to; things are no longer ephemeral
  2. Searchability: Today’s teens are faced with an environment where they are easily searchable, both to people that they want to be found by (friends) and by those they don’t (marketers, sexual predators, etc)
  3. Replicability: The ability for things to spread very fast online, it’s impossible to distinguish between a copy and an original
  4. Invisible audiences: We’re used to unmediated spaces, where we have a sense of who can hear us, with these mediated spaces, the audiences are invisible, so you don’t know who your audience is

With respect to social network sites (which she believes these sites should be called rather than social networking sites), she talks about three of their key features, including profiles, friends features, and comments. She sites that these features are often more public than adults are used to, but they are means by which young people use these sites according to their needs. boyd concludes by saying that she sees the internet as both a mirror and a magnifier for what goes on offline in the life of teenagers. Although for adults this may appear shockingly public, it is the environment that these kids are growing up in.


  1. boyd talks about the distinctions of public spaces for young people vs. adults. Do you see this distinction as relevant several later? Or do you think that as older generations have begun to adopt these tools something has fundamentally changed? If so, how?
  2. Do you see a valid distinction n between social network sites and social networking sites? Do you think this is valid as these sites have grown in popularity and more and more people have adopted these technologies? Could you think of examples of each?

Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Event Video/Audio)

In this audio presentation from February of 2008, Clay Shirky (a professor in the ITP Program at Tisch) starts by reminding the audience we are living through the largest increase in human expressive capability thanks to the internet. This has led to a move away from a traditional one-way communication medium to a two-way communications system. As a result of this, group action has gotten easier, to the point of “ridiculously easy group forming.” There are several consequences to this world of two-way group communication, including the recognition that groups get complicated faster than they get larger. According to Shirky it’s not necessarily enough to understand the technology itself that allowed this to happen, some of it consists of even the most basic things like e-mail, but instead it’s only when the technology itself becomes boring, that its social effects becomes important. The spread of the capability and the massive adoption of its technology is what have the ability to drive social group interaction forward.

Shirky then discusses the ways in which the action of a group adds up to something more than just aggregated individual action. He points to four key steps. The first is sharing, a sort of “me-first collaboration” in which the social affects are aggregated after the fact; people share links, urls, tags, and eventually come together around a type. This type of sharing is a reverse of the so-called old order of sharing, where you’d congregate first and then share (examples include flickr, delicious, etc.) The second is conversation, that is, the synchronization of people with each other and the coming together to learn more about something and to get better at it. The third is collaboration, in which a group forms under the purpose of some common effort. It requires a division of labor, and teamwork. It can often be characterized by people wanting to fix a market failure, and is motivated by increasing accessibility. The fourth and final step is collective action, which Shirky sights as “mainly still in the future.” The key point about collective action is that the fate of the group as a whole becomes important.


  1. Shirky concludes that moving forward he expects an increase in collective action. Given that this talk was from February of 2008, can you think of some examples in which the kind of collection action he talks about has become more normal and integrated in our society?
  2. Have we seen the mass scale adoption of sharing, conversation, collaboration and collective action? Are we at a point now where we’ve seen the technology become boring? If so, where do you think the future lies?
  3. What do you think the relationship is between collaborative action and creative effective social change in areas such as human rights, the environment etc?

Clay Shirky Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Shirky argues that the critical technology for the 20th century that served as a vast civic surplus was the sitcom; for decades Americans spent their free time watching television. He goes so far as to describe it as a “collective bender” akin to the actual gin bender experienced in the early phases of the industrial revolution. He says that we are at a point now where we are starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. The key point here is that while media has traditionally been based primarily on the notion of consumption (you produce, I sit around watching endlessly for hours), we are now actually moving towards an era where people like to produce and share just as much, if not more than they like to consume. Since technology has made the producing and sharing possible, he argues that we will see a new era of participation that will lead to big change. He concludes by asking “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?” He bets the answer is yes.


  1. What do you think? Do you agree with Shirky concluding statement? Can you think of examples either from your own life or those around you that illustrate his ideas?

Clay Shirky: “Sharing Anchors Community” from Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

Shirky discusses how as groups grow, they become more and more complex. As groups form, coordination, organization and even communication becomes harder. His cites this complexity with the words of physicist Philip Anderson, saying that “more is different.” As these groups grow, it becomes impossible for everyone to interact directly with everyone else. Traditionally this has been solved by established hierarchies, in which institutions and organizations have established in order to run them efficiently. However, now groups are forming without the set boundaries and parameters that have traditionally shaped many kind of groups. New social tools relieve some of those burdens, allowing for a new kind of group-forming. He gives several examples that vary with respect to their contents: photos from the Mermaid Day Parade in Coney Island, the London Transport Bombings in 2005, and the 2006 military coup in Thailand. These are all techniques that use simple sharing to anchor the creation of new groups. The kind of tools that allow this kind of group forming to happen (Flickr for example) succeed not by increasing any sort of managerial oversight, but “by abandoning any hope of such oversight in the first place, instead putting in place tools for the self-synchronization of otherwise latent groups.”

Shirky cites these kinds of group as post-managerial organizations, and discusses just how new tools provide ways for self-assemble. Our new electronic networks are “enabling novel forms of collective action, enabling the creation of collaborative groups that are larger and more distributed than at any other time in history.” Shirky describes how these new communication tools and social patterns end up being a better fit for our desires and talents for group efforts. He then describes the concepts of sharing, cooperation, collaborative production and collective action, which I detail above.

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  1. mushon 09:52, Feb 6th, 10

    Very good summary and great work posting this early. Looking forward to discussing this in class.

  2. ryanverost@yahoo.com 16:11, Feb 6th, 10

    I’ll start with Dana Boyd’s article about mediated and unmediated publics regarding social network sites.
    I believe that social network sites were initially a way for young people to find new ways of expressing and communicating with one another in this digital age. However, as these phenomena continued to expand, adults realized the power and potential to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ and participate themselves. Nowadays, facebook is not just for high school or college kids, adults are joining by the masses. Tell me why my mother has requested to be my friend on facebook? Ask me why I have been so cruel to deny friendship to my own mother? Maybe the reason lies in the fact that I don’t want her invaded my “publicly private” place. It’s like your parent hanging out with you and your friends… Not that that’s wrong, but sometimes it can be weird or uncomfortable. So, yes, adults have definitely tried to adopt these new practices to keep up with the youth, technology, and media. Your second question is a little confusing, but I think I understand what your asking. I think Boyd refers more to the comparison between mediated and unmediated publics in her article and how educators can respond. But I think that Facebook/Myspace/Orkut/etc. are definitely different than things like Youtube/Twitter/etc. Facebook, and the like, are probably the most unique because its a profile, pictures, and a wall of posts and youtube is a cornucopia of videos. They are in essence, different modalities to expressing one self. One interesting thing is that you can post youtube videos within Facebook, thus adding to its uniqueness. This is a nice little comparison on social networking vs. social networking:


    Shirky’s points are not profoundly mind-blowing, but more so in my opinion, just articulated realizations of the changing climate of social networks, organizations, and groups. His article on Gin, Televsion, and Social Surplus does elicit such a response to think – Yes, we produce and share a lot more information than what we used to. Of course I agree with his concluding remark that we will see new participation and change. Communication is constantly evolving and changing. Technology is aiding that. Hierarchal structures are being loosened to where people are being empowered, largely by the internet and other digital media, to communicate and voice their hearts and minds. We are living in a time where we are seeing media undergoing changes and having to adapt to the growing number of individual participants that threaten traditional forms of media and communication. Youtube, blogging, podcasts, etc. are changing the way we interact and communicate… and more so organize into collective groups or i.e. online communities > facebook, twitter, myspace, etc.

    Shirky’s four points of sharing, conversation, collaboration, and collective action form a great model of this new phenomenon. We are getting to see how old is becoming boring and we are constantly searching for new. While in the midst of change, new things that could become boring and old adapt and change with the social and cultural environments. Collaborative action and collective social change is changing e.g. Iran elections via Twitter, Ushahidi, Facebook donations for Haiti, and more represent new ways of organizing in Shirky’s words. We are still able to protest, riot, and fight back against injustices, BUT are able to do it in a much more efficient way using new media platforms. The future holds unimaginable possibilities and degrees of communication. I guess we will see with time…

  3. Alexandra Cale 13:11, Feb 7th, 10

    Great summary! I’m wondering what the class thought about danah boyd’s piece (why doesn’t she capitalize her name, by the way?) Although she is talking mainly about teenagers’ use of social network sites, I felt like most of her talk was old news. Although most of us probably didn’t use Facebook as teenagers, but rather when we got to college, everything she said about breaking up online, etc is stuff that, frankly, I (we?) have all lived through and do ourselves. So for me, a lot of the energy she spent explaining that a social network sites consists of a profile, friends and comments and other basics was not exactly a revelation.

    I really enjoyed the Clay Shirky video. He is a good presenter and definitely kept me engaged. I noticed that his presentation was from early 2008, so I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on the election that took place later that year. I think Obama for America used collective action to great effect, and I’d bet that every presidential campaign from here on out will be executed differently because of it.

  4. nadine 14:19, Feb 8th, 10

    Here are some thoughts about the ability to organize without organizations:
    I agree with Shirky that there is an enormous amount of human creativity and commitment out there, that just waits to be discovered and activated. New technologies and online social networks have found fantastic ways for channeling and stimulating this energy. Rather than relating this to the “social surplus” (=more “intelligent” forms of spending free time), I would focus on the sense of empowerment that these technologies create. They simply “speak the language” of our time. Just think about Obama’s campaign slogan: yes, we can- participate in our network!
    Crowdsourcing and self-synchronization aren’t that obvious. Shirky’s distinction between sharing, cooperation, and collective action is very important. Sharing projects seems to be quite effective, so I won’t go into that. On the other, successful collaboration is very difficult, and I ask how you could reach collective action. In my work in Colombia, I was moderating/coordinating a network of about 40 Latin and Caribbean organizations (mostly NGOs), that work in the media development and press freedom sector. The goal was to create a community of shared practice. In addition, with the help of a software called Basecamp, we wanted to produce a common policy paper to present the region’s priorities at a global media development conference in December 2008. To make the story short: you can’t imagine what a headache this was! We had so much trouble getting the initial information, and then of course, everybody disagreed with something…Of course, several other factors can explain the difficulties to organize this paper. But in relation to what Shirky says: it is really critical that a lot of people are involved in a collaborative production, a real MASS! As nobody can participate on a full-time basis (busy with jobs..), therefore, a great crowd is necessary to get all the pieces together. This also guarantees that certain misinformation, or political/ideological bias gets neutralized. Examples are Wikipedia or the NASA-Microsoft Mars project (http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/Features/2009/nov09/11-17BeAMartian.mspx).
    Now about collective action: I don’t believe that action can arise from a decentralized system, or loosely structured groups. It always needs a central actor or body that takes some key decisions. Which brings us to the tragedy of the commons. Isn’t the lack of governance the key problem of the tragedy of the commons in the first place? Or how would you imagine a collaborative action mechanism?

  5. Juliette 15:49, Feb 8th, 10

    Great summary and actually lot of questions to address!

    What stroke me reading Shirky’s work is actually his faith in human beings that would participate in creating more knowledge almost unwillingly. The great hopes he puts on collaboration through new media reminds me of the invisible hand of Adam Smith (which curtis mentions several times in the Trap). Thanks to new media people would be able to contribute to something positive for humanity.

    In Gin, Television and Social Surplus, Shirky clearly stands for action. Even if I mostly agree with hime I am wondering if individuals are not feeling overwhelmed by the new Public Sphere (extended by the Internet). If everybody can do what I do, what is my personnal input?
    It seems to me that despite the conversations created, there is a lack of human contact.

    Indeed what kind of work will I produce if anybody can do what I do? How am my suppose to feel committed to this task?
    I do agree with Nadine saying that to be really efficient people need a leader or something to gather and motivate people…

  6. HoniehLayla 18:26, Feb 8th, 10

    danah boyd makes a very good point that the shock value of teenagers of having an “online” life is no different than what many of us were engaging in when we were teens. The online space is now seen as a reference to “hang out” and congregate just as many of may have done at the local coffee shop, library or school yard. The idea of information being public to online predators is what is of concern to adults who have teenagers that engage in this type of activity. We tend to doubt the younger generation for safe guarding their online travels, but more than most adults they are well versed in safe guarding their privacy settings. I have a cousin who is a teenager and their online activities, twitter, facebook, MMSing, is now the place to “be.”

    As you stated in your summary Elizabeth,
    “we are now actually moving towards an era where people like to produce and share just as much, if not more than they like to consume. Since technology has made the producing and sharing possible, he argues that we will see a new era of participation that will lead to big change.

    As a society we are not able to give our “2 cents” to things that effect us day to day and such a phenomenon can create massive change. I believe the tools the web has provided us can create great reform and change in government, activism and social change. An example that comes to mind is how President Obama used social networking tools to get to his voters and preach his message. He was engaging in what society was already creatively engaging in on the web, by have a twitter/facebook account. He was able to reach the masses without having to be censored by news organizations.

    The era of creativity by the mass public is upon on~ :)

  7. HoniehLayla 18:30, Feb 8th, 10

    Obama and his Social Networking Strategy – (for those of you who are interested)


  8. Leslie 22:42, Feb 8th, 10

    Elizabeth, your mention that danah boyd purposefully chooses to lowercase her name intrigued me to immediately Wikipedia the reason. Here’s the article in case you didn’t get to look, Alex: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danah_Boyd

    I thought danah’s concept of calling social networks another form of “public space” was particularly interesting. It’s funny how much we do in fact use social networks as such, but yet, I’ve never really thought about it in that context before. At the same time, though, I feel like social network sites almost make an even more open public space than that experienced in traditional physical public space. For instance, I’d never talk to the amount of strangers that I do in Twitter when out in a physical public setting. Social sites create an environment where it’s okay to talk to complete strangers. It’s a little weird when you think about it…

    As Ryan mentioned, the fact that parents are beginning to join social networking sites and trying to friend their children is another interesting point when it comes to using these sites as “public space.” While I did not have the heart to not accept my mom’s friend request, I immediately proceeded to hide all of my pictures from her after accepting. Just like in “real” life, while I partially let her into my “public” virtual life, I was quick to keep certain information hidden from her. On the other end, I know my brother has chosen not to accept her friend request.

    I enjoyed Shirky’s point about collective action in the video “The Power of Organizing without Organization.” The ability for the Internet to aid in social change is such a wonderful aspect of its power. Where certain people might not have the organization or power to stand up for what they believe in and make a difference, the Internet can suddenly give them that power. As people mentioned, Obama’s campaign is a great example of this. I think the Mormon’s “Truth Restored” online campaign that debuted during the same presidential race is also a great example of a kind of under the radar collective action (even though Mitt Romney wasn’t elected president). Although never explicitly stated, I believe that the campaign (which can still be seen at http://www.mormon.org) was partially to help foster a sense of collective action amongst Mormons to vote for Mitt Romney.

    I was also thinking of the Google vs. China “fight” in relation to this. What if the people of China formed a sort of collective action online showing their support of Google’s position? Could this potentially make a difference (granted China doesn’t censor the postings)?

    Lastly, I thought Clay’s mention of flash mobs and Hipsters was pretty amusing. I have to admit, I participated in my first NYC pillow fight down in the Financial District not too long ago & was never aware of how it all started. I feel kind of used :-/ haha

    In the article Gin, TV, & Social Surplus, Shirky’s argument that TV has helped to create “free time” for Americans is also a valid point- I remember reading about this in other media related books too (I believe “Life: The Movie” by Neal Gabler might have been one of them?). But, he takes it a step further & makes a good point that the Internet “frees” us even more, in the sense that we are no longer just consumers. Rather, we can even create videos for others to spend their free time enjoying. Furthermore, we can even use our free time to help spark collective action & create social change, rather than just being sucked in by the TV.

  9. Harris 06:30, Feb 9th, 10

    Re: danah boyd

    The arrival of adults, especially parents, on social network sites fundamentally changes how Persistence and Searchability will affect young people, and a rethinking of privacy options is therefore necessary.
    Whether social network sites are also social networking sites depends on what you mean by networking. If it means connecting with new people, who in turn connect you to new people, then Facebook can be a network site as well as a networking site depending on how we use it.

    Re: Clay Shirky

    A humorous example of the possibilities of collective action is the No Pants Subway Ride in New York.

    However, considering Dan’s research topic on Facebook’s moneymaking, one way of looking at the production and sharing by ‘the people formerly known as the audience’ is that we are creating free content for social network/media websites. Their job is to only show us ads based on what we share, produce or read. Hence we do free labor for them but primarily continue to be consumers.

    Also, even in these post-managerial organizations he talks about, in my opinion certain hierarchies develop, often based on who is better at using these tools. And some people automatically assume leadership roles. Yes, there is no central control however, and in that sense these organizations are not vertebrate, like multinational corporations, but cellular, like terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda.

  10. DanJee 10:11, Feb 9th, 10

    With regards to the Boyd article, again she has proven to present her argument in logical and methodical fashion that has been effective in influencing my opinion. Her main points on Persistence, Searchability, Replicability, and Invisible Audiences are quite insightful. However, by differentiating adults from teens, I think she undermines her own argument a bit. What about 30 years from now? Teens will become adults and this will no longer be a subject of debate.

    With regards to Shirky, I cannot but be amazed at how much this is aligned with the traditional urban sociological theories of “Community Saved” by Claude Fisher and “Community Liberated” by Barry Wellman. Fisher had pointed out that as the societies become more urbanized more vibrant sub-culture will begin to form to accommodate for people’s more specific and individualized needs. Wellman had argued that with advances in technology (in his case telephone), such subcultures will no longer be bound by geographical limitations. What Shirky says about on-line community and organizations are perfect comprise of these two traditional theories.

  11. Jimena 11:36, Feb 9th, 10

    I totally agree with Shirky in that the free time/cognitive energy that TV has hogged for the past 50 years is an invaluable surplus (even though TV was not “the only option” for entertainment– we had (and still have) books, friends, art, sports…remember?) Still, as the generation that “looks for the mouse” grows up being used to the possibility of collaboration, we have yet to see if, as the technology gets boring, the drive for action doesn’t dilute in the universe of useless content that does exist in the Web.

    Any new media can be empowering– the press and the phone certainly were, and TV could be, too. But are young people really learning to engage in collective action by becoming media savvy? Can a reverse effect possibly happen, as the Web becomes a substitute for TV and entertainment? Is the sole possibility of collaboration and collective action motivating enough to engage the new generation in truly passionate convictions that result into actually doing something?

    Even though the ‘adult’ group is adopting social network sites, I believe that the site is not equally shared by both ‘groups’ (adults/teenagers): rather that they form two large universes that are much more related within their own members, but do have nodes that join them (older and younger)– such as when a parent ‘befriends’ his daughter, or a teacher is linked with her junior high students. But the role that Facebook or MySpace play within each age group is very different: boyd addresses educators precisely because teenagers are experiencing these sites while still in the process of structuring their identity and learning to socialize, while adults have (hopefully) mastered those tasks earlier in life.

    As Dan says, 30 years from now the ‘adult’ generation will be one that forged their identities within these new social conditions (persistence, searchability, replicability, etc) and it’ll be super interesting to compare to what we know now and see the consequences and results.