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Annotated captions of Clay Shirky: How social media can make history in English

Last Modified By Time Content
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I want to talk about the transformed media landscape,

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and what it means for anybody who has a message that they want to get out

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to anywhere in the world.

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And I want to illustrate that by telling a couple of stories

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about that transformation.

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I'll start here. Last November there was a presidential election.

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You probably read something about it in the papers.

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And there was some concern that in some parts of the country

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there might be voter suppression.

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And so a plan came up to video the vote.

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And the idea was that individual citizens

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with phones capable of taking photos or making video

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would document their polling places,

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on the lookout for any kind of voter suppression techniques,

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and would upload this to a central place.

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And that this would operate as a kind of citizen observation --

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that citizens would not be there just to cast individual votes,

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but also to help ensure the sanctity of the vote overall.

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So this is a pattern that assumes we're all in this together.

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What matters here

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isn't technical capital,

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it's social capital.

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These tools don't get socially interesting

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until they get technologically boring.

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It isn't when the shiny new tools show up

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that their uses start permeating society.

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It's when everybody is able to take them for granted.

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Because now that media is increasingly social,

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innovation can happen anywhere

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that people can take for granted the idea that we're all in this together.

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And so we're starting to see a media landscape

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in which innovation is happening everywhere,

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and moving from one spot to another.

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That is a huge transformation.

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Not to put too fine a point on it, the moment we're living through --

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the moment our historical generation is living through --

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is the largest increase in expressive capability

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in human history.

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Now that's a big claim. I'm going to try to back it up.

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There are only four periods in the last 500 years

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where media has changed enough to qualify for the label "revolution."

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The first one is the famous one, the printing press:

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movable type, oil-based inks, that whole complex of innovations

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that made printing possible

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and turned Europe upside-down, starting in the middle of the 1400s.

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Then, a couple of hundred years ago,

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there was innovation in two-way communication,

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conversational media: first the telegraph, then the telephone.

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Slow, text-based conversations,

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then real-time voice based conversations.

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Then, about 150 years ago,

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there was a revolution in recorded media other than print:

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first photos, then recorded sound,

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then movies, all encoded onto physical objects.

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And finally, about 100 years ago, the harnessing of electromagnetic spectrum

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to send sound and images through the air -- radio and television.

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This is the media landscape as we knew it in the 20th century.

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This is what those of us of a certain age

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grew up with, and are used to.

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But there is a curious asymmetry here.

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The media that is good at creating conversations

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is no good at creating groups.

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And the media that's good at creating groups

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is no good at creating conversations.

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If you want to have a conversation

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in this world, you have it with one other person.

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If you want to address a group, you get the same message

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and you give it to everybody in the group,

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whether you're doing that with a broadcasting tower or a printing press.

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That was the media landscape

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as we had it in the twentieth century.

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And this is what changed.

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This thing that looks like a peacock hit a windscreen

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is Bill Cheswick's map of the Internet.

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He traces the edges of the individual networks

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and then color codes them.

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The Internet is the first medium in history

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that has native support for groups

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and conversation at the same time.

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Whereas the phone gave us the one-to-one pattern,

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and television, radio, magazines, books,

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gave us the one-to-many pattern,

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the Internet gives us the many-to-many pattern.

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For the first time,

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media is natively good at supporting these kinds of conversations.

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That's one of the big changes.

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The second big change

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is that, as all media gets digitized,

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the Internet also becomes the mode of carriage

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for all other media,

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meaning that phone calls migrate to the Internet,

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magazines migrate to the Internet, movies migrate to the Internet.

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And that means that every medium

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is right next door to every other medium.

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Put another way,

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media is increasingly less just a source of information,

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and it is increasingly more a site of coordination,

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because groups that see or hear or watch or listen to something

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can now gather around and talk to each other as well.

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And the third big change

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is that members of the former audience, as Dan Gilmore calls them,

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can now also be producers and not consumers.

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Every time a new consumer

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joins this media landscape

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a new producer joins as well,

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because the same equipment --

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phones, computers --

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let you consume and produce.

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It's as if, when you bought a book, they threw in the printing press for free;

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it's like you had a phone that could turn into a radio

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if you pressed the right buttons.

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That is a huge change

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in the media landscape we're used to.

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And it's not just Internet or no Internet.

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We've had the Internet in its public form

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for almost 20 years now,

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and it's still changing

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as the media becomes more social.

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It's still changing patterns

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even among groups who know how to deal with the Internet well.

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Second story.

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Last May, China in the Sichuan province

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had a terrible earthquake, 7.9 magnitude,

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massive destruction in a wide area, as the Richter Scale has it.

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And the earthquake was reported as it was happening.

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People were texting from their phones. They were taking photos of buildings.

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They were taking videos of buildings shaking.

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They were uploading it to QQ, China's largest Internet service.

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They were Twittering it.

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And so as the quake was happening

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the news was reported.

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And because of the social connections,

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Chinese students coming elsewhere, and going to school,

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or businesses in the rest of the world opening offices in China --

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there were people listening all over the world, hearing this news.

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The BBC got their first wind of the Chinese quake from Twitter.

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Twitter announced the existence of the quake

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several minutes before the US Geological Survey

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had anything up online for anybody to read.

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The last time China had a quake of that magnitude

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it took them three months to admit that it had happened.

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(Laughter)

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Now they might have liked to have done that here,

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rather than seeing these pictures go up online.

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But they weren't given that choice,

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because their own citizens beat them to the punch.

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Even the government learned of the earthquake from their own citizens,

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rather than from the Xinhua News Agency.

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And this stuff rippled like wildfire.

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For a while there

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the top 10 most clicked links on Twitter,

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the global short messaging service --

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nine of the top 10 links were about the quake.

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People collating information,

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pointing people to news sources,

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pointing people to the US geological survey.

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The 10th one was kittens on a treadmill, but that's the Internet for you.

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(Laughter)

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But nine of the 10 in those first hours.

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And within half a day donation sites were up,

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and donations were pouring in from all around the world.

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This was an incredible, coordinated global response.

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And the Chinese then, in one of their periods of media openness,

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decided that they were going to let it go,

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that they were going to let this citizen reporting fly.

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And then this happened.

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People began to figure out, in the Sichuan Provence,

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that the reason so many school buildings had collapsed --

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because tragically the earthquake happened during a school day --

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the reason so many school buildings collapsed

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is that corrupt officials had taken bribes

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to allow those building to be built to less than code.

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And so they started, the citizen journalists started

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reporting that as well. And there was an incredible picture.

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You may have seen in on the front page of the New York Times.

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A local official literally prostrated himself in the street,

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in front of these protesters,

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in order to get them to go away.

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Essentially to say, "We will do anything to placate you,

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just please stop protesting in public."

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But these are people who have been radicalized,

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because, thanks to the one child policy,

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they have lost everyone in their next generation.

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Someone who has seen the death of a single child

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now has nothing to lose.

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And so the protest kept going.

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And finally the Chinese cracked down.

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That was enough of citizen media.

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And so they began to arrest the protesters.

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They began to shut down the media that the protests were happening on.

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China is probably the most successful

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manager of Internet censorship in the world,

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using something that is widely described as the Great Firewall of China.

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And the Great Firewall of China

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is a set of observation points

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that assume that media is produced by professionals,

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it mostly comes in from the outside world,

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it comes in relatively sparse chunks,

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and it comes in relatively slowly.

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And because of those four characteristics

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they are able to filter it as it comes into the country.

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But like the Maginot Line,

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the great firewall of China was facing in the wrong direction

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for this challenge,

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because not one of those four things was true in this environment.

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The media was produced locally. It was produced by amateurs.

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It was produced quickly. And it was produced at such an incredible abundance

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that there was no way to filter it as it appeared.

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And so now the Chinese government, who for a dozen years,

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has quite successfully filtered the web,

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is now in the position of having to decide

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whether to allow or shut down entire services,

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because the transformation to amateur media

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is so enormous that they can't deal with it any other way.

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And in fact that is happening this week.

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On the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen

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they just, two days ago, announced

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that they were simply shutting down access to Twitter,

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because there was no way to filter it other than that.

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They had to turn the spigot entirely off.

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Now these changes don't just affect people who want to censor messages.

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They also affect people who want to send messages,

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because this is really a transformation of the ecosystem as a whole,

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not just a particular strategy.

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The classic media problem, from the 20th century

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is, how does an organization have a message

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that they want to get out

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to a group of people distributed at the edges of a network.

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And here is the twentieth century answer.

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Bundle up the message. Send the same message to everybody.

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National message. Targeted individuals.

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Relatively sparse number of producers.

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Very expensive to do,

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so there is not a lot of competition.

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This is how you reach people.

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All of that is over.

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We are increasingly in a landscape where media is global,

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social, ubiquitous and cheap.

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Now most organizations that are trying to send messages

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to the outside world, to the distributed collection of the audience,

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are now used to this change.

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The audience can talk back.

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And that's a little freaky. But you can get used to it after a while, as people do.

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But that's not the really crazy change that we're living in the middle of.

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The really crazy change is here:

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it's the fact that they are no longer disconnected from each other,

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the fact that former consumers are now producers,

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the fact that the audience can talk directly to one another;

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because there is a lot more amateurs than professionals,

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and because the size of the network,

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the complexity of the network is actually the square

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of the number of participants,

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meaning that the network, when it grows large,

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grows very, very large.

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As recently at last decade,

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most of the media that was available for public consumption

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was produced by professionals.

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Those days are over, never to return.

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It is the green lines now, that are the source of the free content,

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which brings me to my last story.

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We saw some of the most imaginative use

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of social media during the Obama campaign.

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And I don't mean most imaginative use in politics --

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I mean most imaginative use ever.

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And one of the things Obama did, was they famously,

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the Obama campaign did, was they famously put up

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MyBarackObama.com, myBO.com

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And millions of citizens rushed in to participate,

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and to try and figure out how to help.

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An incredible conversation sprung up there.

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And then, this time last year,

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Obama announced that he was going to change his vote on FISA,

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The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

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He had said, in January, that he would not sign a bill

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that granted telecom immunity for possibly warrantless spying

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on American persons.

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By the summer, in the middle of the general campaign,

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He said, "I've thought about the issue more. I've changed my mind.

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I'm going to vote for this bill."

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And many of his own supporters

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on his own site went very publicly berserk.

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It was Senator Obama when they created it. They changed the name later.

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"Please get FISA right."

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Within days of this group being created

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it was the fastest growing group on myBO.com;

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within weeks of its being created it was the largest group.

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Obama had to issue a press release.

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He had to issue a reply.

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And he said essentially, "I have considered the issue.

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I understand where you are coming from.

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But having considered it all, I'm still going to vote the way I'm going to vote.

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But I wanted to reach out to you and say, I understand that you disagree with me,

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and I'm going to take my lumps on this one."

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This didn't please anybody. But then a funny thing happened in the conversation.

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People in that group realized

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that Obama had never shut them down.

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Nobody in the Obama campaign had ever tried to hide the group

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or make it harder to join,

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to deny its existence, to delete it,

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to take to off the site.

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They had understood that their role

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with myBO.com was to convene their supporters

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but not to control their supporters.

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And that is the kind of discipline

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that it takes to make really mature use

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of this media.

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Media, the media landscape that we knew,

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as familiar as it was, as easy conceptually as it was

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to deal with the idea that professionals broadcast

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messages to amateurs,

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is increasingly slipping away.

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In a world where media is global, social, ubiquitous and cheap,

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in a world of media where the former audience

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are now increasingly full participants,

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in that world, media is less and less often

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about crafting a single message

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to be consumed by individuals.

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It is more and more often

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a way of creating an environment for convening

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and supporting groups.

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And the choice we face,

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I mean anybody who has a message they want to have heard

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anywhere in the world,

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isn't whether or not that is the media environment we want to operate in.

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That's the media environment we've got.

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The question we all face now is,

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"How can we make best use of this media?

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Even though it means changing the way we've always done it."

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Thank you very much.

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(Applause)