clay shirky

Silly rabbit, memes are for kids.

Or are they? If anything has evolved (or regressed) with our sense of humor, it’s the tolerance for online silliness.

Mischievous catsHillary Clinton. And…the Harlem Shake? That viral YouTube clip garnered more than a billion views and enticed thousands of spinoffs that included NBA teams, colleges, and even NASA.

What’s so appealing? A combo of amateurs, parodies, and laughter. That’s what Olga Goriunova discussed in her article, “New Media Idiocy.” Goriunova said that it’s the “homemade feel” that keeps a piece, or video, authentic, and that is captivating. Today’s digital culture encompasses many tools, academic theories, and business models, yet we shouldn’t overlook the power of the idiotic. Or the “sincerely comic,” according to Goriunova.

So how did YouTube convince people that it was acceptable (and possibly profitable) for parents to showcase their children biting one another? Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody boils it down to three factors: a promise, the tool, and a bargain.

YouTube promises uploaders that others will not only watch a video, they’ll react to it. Each reaction is positively correlated to the number of visible views. When the views increase, the video is then promoted exponentially across several platforms. Thus, YouTube the medium also serves as a tool that encourages and tracks engagement. Does this site deliver on its promise? I’d wager that by having more than one billion unique viewers each month, YouTube lives up to its bargain.

People are clearly satisfied with YouTube’s structure, and it continues to reign as the most-visited video-sharing site. (If people didn’t like it or liked it less than a competitor, they’d quit using it.)

As silly as it sounds to post personal stream-of-consciousness tirades, they too are YouTube-worthy because others can relate to the message. When I first watched Krissychula‘s profanity-laced rant about trying to survive the “91,000 damn degrees” of summer…I buckled over with laughter. Why? Because I was staying in a sweltering Harlem apartment during the Fourth of July with no air conditioning. My misery found solace in Krissy’s company.

And for Krissy’s bargain? Well, I can assume she’s being financially rewarded as her videos have garnered more than two million views, and she’s now hawking an app for users to download.

While it’s still hard to explain why silly stuff spreads so easily, I think a good place to start is with relatable emotion. (People are absurd!)

Texts from Hillary Tumblr

Texts from Hillary Tumblr


Goriunova, O. (2013). New media idiocy. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, (19)2, 223-235. Retrieved from

Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Press.


Take that, Mary Poppins!

Social media has found its niche by being able to create bonds over pretty much…anything. (Hence, the super duper headline above.) Mundane tasks such as making lists have been re-envisioned as communal activities. Pinterest has attracted brides-to-be and established a daydream-like forum to ogle mason jar glasses and barnyard backdrops. Even Steve Buttry has found that pros use it to spice up the newsroom.

What’s more fascinating is how social media has fervently sorted and introduced people like Yente the matchmaker. LinkedIn visually maps how people know or could know one another through three degrees of separation. (If they upped it to six, I could finally meet Kevin Bacon!)

In Here Comes EverybodyClay Shirky describes how many applications and sites are social tools. People naturally congregate with one another, and our favorite people-finding apps facilitate this action. The geo-tracking features within apps and mobile devices have supercharged real-life connections. By checking in on Foursquare, one can more confidently search for the 5-foot roommate who’s hidden in a mosh pit. And these features are getting more precise.

The new neighbors on the block are Bluetooth-style transmitters and beacons that more accurately track one’s physical location by applying it to the surrounding environment or venue. The NFL has tested this by sending alerts to stadium attendees so they can fast-pass their way to shorter hot dog queues. And that’s just a sliver of the capabilities being developed.

Well, isn’t that special?

But what if companies, the NSA, or (even worse) helicopter moms start tracking us like blood hounds? For all the convenience that social media has granted us, privacy issues may dominate the next century.

Orwellian? Definitely. But as a super-social Leo, I can dig it.

SNL's "The Church Lady"

SNL’s “The Church Lady”

Social Media Schools TN Legislators

This week, Tennessee state senators considered a “religious freedom” bill similar to the one that passed Kansas’ House of Representatives: legislation that empowers business owners to refuse services to potential clients, especially gay ones.

Soon after news of the legislation sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey, a Republican that represents parts of Memphis and Shelby County, was made public, a local restauranteur and chef, Kelly English, got political. Once English learned about the bill, he posted his dissent to Facebook:

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 12.21.13 AM

And what happened next can best be explained by Clay Shirky in Here Comes EverybodyHe described how barriers to collective action have been removed because of technology. In 2007, American Airlines passengers and many other fed-up frequent flyers successfully lobbied for the Passenger Bill of Rights after eight hours on the tarmac broke the camel’s back. Dissatisfaction and organizing via social media sparked Congressional change. (Today, passengers have the right to deplane if they’ve been sitting on a tarmac for more than three hours.)

Chez English instantly became a social media influencer by encouraging others to follow suit and vehemently rebuke the bill. And rebuke they did! Online protests, trending hashtags, and calls to action flooded posts and networks. (See Mashable’s engagement tips for help.) This resulted in two key developments: Senator Kelsey dropped his sponsorship of the bill, and the legislation was indefinitely sent to a subcommittee for the remainder of 2014.

While traditional news organizations delivered the information, the scene was filled with “alternative voices.” Not media outlets or the powers that be. We’re talking about the hoi polloi of the Internet who got offended and spoke up. While legislators and the bill’s supporters could chalk this up to public griping, English’s camp could liken it to an Egyptian revolution.

Score for this round? 1-0 with “No Bluff” English in the lead.

I love you like a Shinto shrine.

Now there’s a new Valentine.

As I forged ahead in Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody, I learned that the Japanese Ise Shrine is old. Like 1,300 years old. Plus, the shrine gets reconstructed every 20 years or so because it’s wooden. While the original edifice has been replaced dozens of times, the indigenous forest still provides the timber, and Shinto priests ensure its preservation on the same grounds. It’s symbolic of renewal, collaboration, and as Shirky puts it, love.

Not many social media gurus can relate to the dedication required for the upkeep of a primitive shrine, but they can relate to the passion that that it takes to keep a community going. Mommy bloggers spend hours to produce fresh content for their fans each week. Wikiheads comb thousands of posts for accuracy and apply references. Utility companies respond to myriad tweets during a power outage. Why keep at? Because they care. 

The term social media has been used so flippantly and incessantly that its meaning has become lackluster. A generation ago, being social just implied that someone enjoyed the company of others. Today, it’s a broad yet powerful word. At 2011’s South by Southwest, Jay Rosen juxtaposed the traditional perspectives of journalists and media with insights behind modern self-publishers. He noted that the Internet’s disruption of the news industry has caused angst for journo veterans and businesses. Yet, they can adapt!

Discovering different narratives that resonate with readers could be a start. Tinkering with every available platform to reach an untapped 1% could be worth it. Whatever the method, I’m convinced that being responsive to other people is the best approach; because that’s the social thing to do. An app developer can try to guess what teenagers would like to play next, but letting them test a few versions could make the answer surface sooner. (Stanford’s and other innovation evangelists teach this methodology; it’s quite relevant!) Get to the heart of the user, and you’ll be set for the fast lane.

In sum, people love collaborating because bigger triumphs are possible. Whether it’s rebuilding a temple over and over again or assembling an online community, it’s the verve behind the interactions that make everything worthwhile.


galvanizing your peeps…and tweeps

As social media dominates the next century, it continually undermines something that happened 300 million years ago. Pangaea, our planet’s former super-continent, broke apart and created divides that separated people until travel finally intervened. Today, physical barriers no longer obstruct communication, ideation, or galvanization. While people may still be far from one another physically, the influence that social media continues to garner worldwide is nearly Pangaea-like.

In Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, the notion of connecting people behind a cause is not portrayed as novel but powerful. His account of Evan Guttman’s attempt to retrieve his friend’s stolen cell phone by publicly blogging the ordeal conveyed that human emotion and mass participation had a direct influence on government bureaucracy. Readers of Guttman’s blog rallied behind a cause that they connected with and lent their voice (and outrage) to solving a problem.

Because social media is fueled by technology, there are Orwellian fears that it will increase distance between people. While Nicholas Carr makes a strong argument that social media causes more distracted people, the opportunities for game-changing collaboration and open source projects outweigh having harried attention spans (in my opinion).

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (my employer) open sources its side projects and research related to its Pediatric Cancer Genome Project. St. Jude believes that the more access scientists have to information related to anomalies in the genetic code (that lead to cancer), the better. It allows researchers across the globe that have a vested interest to request access and explore the data. Why? Because children could be ultimately be helped by others with a fresh set of eyes, other resources, and different ways of thinking.

That harkens to Shirky’s point, and others. People have already converged. Now, we’re in the next phase of witnessing results, actions, and progress.

Pictorial reaction to class readings by Burton Bridges.

Pictorial reaction to class readings by Burton Bridges.

Other articles of interest from this week: