Clay Shirky, How Technology transforms Communities into Audiences

Clay Shirky’s article “Communities, Audiences, and Scale,” introduces the complications of community interaction in the digital world. Our species’ history in the small, old-world community now must find its footing in a dimension of thousands of users in cyberspace. When does the group of like-minded community members end, and the diverse audience begin? The main takeaway from his piece is that communities “have a strong upper limit on size, while audiences can grow arbitrarily large.” Shirky argues that once an internet community grows past a certain point, it can no longer be referenced as a “community,” for its participants lack the ability to truly communicate with one another. What’s described as a “many-to-many” connection between humanity’s traditional understanding of “community” now becomes a “one-to-many” consumption of information. A larger audience reads and responds to the announcement of a singular entity (often a single website, podcast, or other social media platform). Gone are the days of people discussing ideas with other groups of people. Now, one group of people siphons all their ideas into one singular, compact message. After this message has been carefully crafted and released, the masses can do with it what they will. This change is a direct result of internet expansion “providing a single medium that could be used to address either communities or audiences.” Shirky notes that “growth in group size alone is enough to turn a community into an audience” and the results of such changes impose a new challenge on social software. It is his conviction that “social software, no matter what its design, will never be able to create a group that is both large and densely interconnected.” Well, it certainly has no chance if that is the thought process behind its engineering.

Why does all this matter in the larger conversation about online communities? Shirky extrapolates in another article, titled “Social Software and the Politics of Groups.” In this article Shirky highlights the historical transformation of social software, from “when the internet was strange and new” with users that “were mostly young, male, and technologically savvy,” to its current 2016 state of reaching far and wide demographics never before achieved (“a global metropolis, vast and heterogeneous”). These “out-groups” of new technology users (opposing the typical white, educated, male “in-group”) have only had information access for about two decades. Even so, the abundant amount of information readily available to these out-groups has been enough to set fire to the political, social, and cultural climate of the world at-large. It is this climate that, according to Shirky, requires groups to “need protection from too-rapid growth.” Noting that variety of group interaction is a variable social software developers must consider, Shirky focuses more on forum’s “lack [of] any mechanism for ejecting a controlling hostile user.” He goes on to mention how many websites and forums “have broken down under the weight of user[s] hostile to the conversation.” Without any proper regulation, online forums of audiences attempting to retain a community component will inevitably crumble under the disabling and disempowering presence of the “trolls” of the forums. A hole in Shirky’s argument is seen with his decision to not include proper definition or articulation of what would deem a user to be labeled as “hostile” in the first place.

Shirky could have imposed more information about groupthink and other social factors when making his argument. He mentioned “the degree to which participants feel themselves to be members of a group with formal goals” contributes to the overall success of the social software, but he fails to address a solution. His article focuses on the questions, the problems now faced by social software designers who attempt to create new and functional systems of user-interaction with high efficacy ratings. It is the rapid growth of the number of users that demands “designers of social software” to “have more in common with economists or political scientists.” The one, almost-solution Shirky presents for developers is the importance of individual user-feedback (which is more easily acquired than group-feedback of this magnitude). “The individual’s reaction to the software is the critical factor.” While Shirky makes no attempt to provide a potential platform for such feedback loops to be seen and recognized by software designers, he does make clear his position of curiosity. Shirky leaves us with this question: “Can we do anything to improve the online environment for brainstorming?” This question falls into the hands of Shirky’s own audience of readers. Perhaps he, himself, should create a forum of sorts to construct a feedback-related answer.

© 2017 Shawna Marie Rodgers
All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.