Clay Shirky – The Psychological Underpinnings of the Internet and its Implications for Society and Power

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, does an excellent job of describing the psychological underpinnings of the internet and its implications for organising and distribution of power.

He begins by framing our understanding of the evolution of the internet.  From a point where the internet was seen as a separate space altogether (“cyberspace”), we now live in a world where the online and offline lives of people overlap greatly.  The internet slowly starts to compensate for the declining social capital  in the U.S. (a phenomenon described at length by Robert Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone). [An interesting side note: What Shirky or rather Putnam calls “Social Capital” is otherwise known as karma in my world view.]

An interesting insight is highlighted through this narrative: People like to be near people. This insight was fully understood and acted upon by Heifermann, the founder of Meetup.com (“People crave human contact.”) He used the power of the internet to bring people together in real life. This was contrary to earlier beliefs that the process of adoption of “cyberspace” would lead to the “progressive dissociation of social life form real space, leading to the death of cities.”

Our lives are a mix of online and offline, and increasingly these two worlds are not just connected, but helping us expand our online and offline worlds at the same time. I meet people offline, and my relationships with them often get cemented or deepened online (as I chat with them or email with them more often than I meet them in person). At the same time, people I randomly get connected to online (either through networks or email intros) sometimes become great professional or personal contacts – with whom I transact often in the physical world! So while there might be overlap for sure, I believe the online and offline worlds are augmenting my lives in both spheres.

In fact, one of my own startups, Findable.in, bridges this online-offline divide. By bring offline retail store inventory online and making it searchable on the web or through a mobile app, we are providing users an easy way online to find things to buy offline, where they can try it, feel it and touch it! This to me is the power of the two worlds, when brought together.

At the same time, I find it hard to defend the fact that the online world has taken something away from our personal, real life interactions. Now we are busy congratulating friends through Facebook comments and likes, rather than giving them hugs or congratulating them with a huge smile in person. Does it make a difference? Yes. I continue to prefer in person interactions – they to me are much more effective in building social capital.

Meetup.com, incidentally, falls neatly in my theory of both worlds augmenting each other (not just overlapping).  Meetup.com, as Shirky goes on to argue, didn’t simply become an online replacement of our old communities (the ones Putnam argued contributed to the social capital of the U.S.). It went much further, possibly unintentionally. Because it was online, it allowed people and groups to come together who had had the latent desire to meet, but had previously found it very hard to organize and meet up. Either the transaction costs  had earlier just been too high for these groups to meet or social approval was not so forthcoming.

This brings us to our next key insight about the internet: it reduces transaction costs and dis-intermediates the group formation process (in fact it takes the need for social approval away almost altogether!). This has powerful implications: groups can form a lot more easily now, but that means that both good groups and bad groups are formed more easily, can communicate more easily, and are also more resilient. Implications for society and power: the media-state relations will change, some groups will lose (for example, ad agencies) and we will need to figure out how to manage some of the negative impacts of this freedom of association (when for example, terrorist groups, take advantage of this technology).

Of course, a key point to note here is that while bad groups might indeed form more easily using the internet, technology today also stands at a point where the activities of these groups are much more easily tracked if they are carried out online, rather than offline. A group of terrorists planning an attack while sitting in a cave (where intelligence agencies have no tracking devices) is a lot more difficult to find out about than an attack where most of the communication is happening through the digital media (emails, blogs, video messages, etc.).

Shirky further goes on to explain the concept of “Small World Networks” – that is, a larger network is a sparsely connected group of sub-networks that are much more densely interlinked. These networks, he argues, create social capital – underscoring how new technologies have their own way of re-creating social capital in a society deemed to be losing it so quickly. Added on top of this concept are the concepts of Bonding and Bridging Capital – Bonding Capital referring to the increasing depth of connections and trust within homogenous groups and Bridging Capital being the increase in connections among relatively heterogenous groups. Bonding happens within clusters and bridging across clusters or sub-networks.

The insight derived from these insights is also equally powerful: The nature of “Small World Networks” gives most leverage to the most connected people, specifically the ones with the most “bridging capital”. To become powerful or simply build up their social capital then, each network must therefore try to increase the connectedness of their most connected people, or have at least a few really well connected (across heterogenous groups) people in their midst. Joi Ito turns out to be a good example of such a connector.

On the other hand, does this idea of the most connected people having the most social capital in todays world imply that the most connected “bad” people have become more dangerous today than they might have been in the absence of such networks – exacerbating the risk of “bad” groups being formed more easily today? Hopefully, the good groups are forming a lot faster and activating a lot more other people in the small world networks (as I think we have seen happen in Egypt, Syria and other places recently).

An interesting thought: Maybe bridging capital is easier built online (relatively speaking) than bonding capital. At least the effectiveness of bonding capital, built through in person interactions, is likely to be higher. Bridging capital is much more easily facilitated by social networks, and the “Small world networks” that Shirky talks about. (Caveat: the interactions on the internet, for some people, are much better than in-person interactions, so this thought might not hold true for everyone, or all types of people. )

Looking at my own interactions, I believe that I have been much better at developing ‘bridging capital’ as I have worked in organisations as diverse as McKinsey & Company, Goldman Sachs, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Government of India; studied in universities as varied and spread out as Haverford College, Harvard University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, LSE, and Wharton (not to mention high schools in Delhi and Singapore). These opportunities have exposed me to (and made me part of) heterogenous groups, which I imagine have built up my ability to be a connector, a bridger (is that a word?). I have seen it play out a bit as I have friends from China who end up meeting my friends in Singapore, or former colleagues from McKinsey who I end up bumping into on HBS’ campus (yes, that last example was meant to be ironic). But I guess that also means I need to work harder at my ability to build bonding capital within my immediate sub-networks?

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