Empowerment or Chains

Ahhh, the weeks that were. As the school year begins at the Kennedy School, there are so many new experiences. After a bucolic summer in which the Mid Careers (all 212 of us) had the campus all to ourselves we arrived to meet our 700 classmates! At a campus that was likely designed for no more than 600 people, this has made for a few interesting effects.

Perhaps the most interesting effect is the dynamic around shopping for classes and bidding for them. All 900+ of us are given 2 days to “test drive” classes and then select the ones we want. Not surprisingly, many of us want the same five classes. This is where the bidding process comes in. Lets say that there are 200 students who wish to take a class with 100 seats. Each student must reflect their interest by bidding all or some of their allotted points. In the past, there was typically an information deficit as it was difficult if not impossible to know how a representative sample of your classmates would bid. This made estimating the correct bid to get into the class difficult. Not any more! Thanks to the empowering technology of social media and Facebook in particular, we have much more complete information around what to bid. On the surface, this may appear to be beneficial to students but in this case, it seems that the only winners are the Kennedy School which won’t have to worry about overcrowded classes in the spring (as half of the students have used all of their bidding points and will have to take what they can get) and a certain professor who can now “lead” his fully committed students knowing that they were highly incented to be in his class. This is, IMHO in large part due to the sharing of information on Facebook. While many students attempted to collaborate in order to create a relatively low bid for entry to the class by communicating on Facebook, this only lasted as long as everyone played nice. Of course, one of our classmates posted, “I’m in for 1000 points, down with big government”, which immediately changed the dynamic. If you play along with the game theory behavior, you will not be surprised to know that the clearing bid for the class was 998 points (maximum 1000).  The use of technology, in this case, clearly changed behavior! This is but one example of how technology changes behavior.

Clay Shirky provides many examples of technologically driven changes in behavior in his book, “Here Comes Everybody“. Mr. Shirky does an excellent job of describing disruptions to our world using relatively simple examples. Everyone gets disrupted in some way from the publishers of Encyclopedia Britannica to a sixteen-year-old girl who “finds” a phone.

Ultimately the disruptions that occur are NOT the result of the technology, but how we use it. If you lost your phone 10 years ago, it was gone. Now you can trace it, and if someone refuses to return it you cannot only make their life difficult, you can use tools to change the behavior of large institutions to your advantage.

This disruptive behavior takes place in many forms. Sharing on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, or other social sights not only allows us to share our joys, pains, and photos, but allows individuals to become the primary source of news when things happen quickly or institutions restrict traditional media.

Collaborative Action such as what we see in the group posting and editing in Wikipedia, allows anyone with knowledge to increase the publicly available knowledge at anytime. The beauty of this is that there is no commitment to act. People can participate as frequently or infrequently as they like.

Collective Action, which is the most complicated and coordinated activity that we undertake, is completely changed by social media tools. As we see in the action against the Catholic Church in Boston (and elsewhere) by VOTF (Voice of the Faithful), the Church was no longer able to escape scrutiny as it became very easy to educate and mobilize ever-increasing numbers of people to take action against the church in 2002. Just a decade earlier, old technology failed to motivate people long enough to have an effect on the Church.

Shirky’s point is that for centuries many of the barriers to the above were physical in the sense that you needed a printing press to print a book, you needed a newspaper to gather and disseminate news, there was no easy way to share photos, and a lost phone, was just that. These physical barriers created the need for large amounts of capital and large organizations. Web 2.0 has removed those barriers and now people are following their natural curiosity and interests to interact in many different ways.

Hopefully, individuals will learn that with these capabilities, come responsibilities, not just those of decency, but also of thought because as the tools change the way humans interact will change.

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