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August 11, 2009

Opening Keynote with Clay Shirky

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Good morning and welcome to Search Engine Strategies San Jose! Virginia here, coming to you from the San Jose Convention Center and excited to cover this first-class search marketing conference over the next three days.

Kicking off the conference is a keynote from Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody. Check out that impressive bio — I can sense we’re in for a real brain tickler. Let the liveblogging begin!

Mike Grehan - SES San Jose Opening Keynote
Mike Grehan

Mike Grehan, newly announced VP and global content director for Search Engine Watch, ClickZ and Search Engine Strategies, welcomes the crowd.

Mike explains that he has written a lot about the technologies of search engines and the importance of on-page optimization and linking. He’s working on his third book about new signals used by search engines. A senior scientist at Google once said we’re moving away from a Web of content to a Web of applications. That gives you an idea of what’s happening in the future of search.

The people we’ll be hearing from during the conference are the people who wrote the book, the people who supply the tools that automate our businesses, the leaders in the field. And for the first time ever, there are special events happening in conjunction with the show, like the ClickZ/Google/YouTube Social Media and Video forum.

He reports other announcements important for attendees, like where the parties are and where to find lunch today. And with the formalities out of the way, Clay Shirky enters stage right.

The Internet and the applications built on top of them have dramatically changed the way people come together and get things done. In the spring of 2007, the bank HSBC went around the UK looking for new customers. The pitch was there would be penalty free checking. They signed up thousands of customers. Over the summer, a note went in the newspaper. HSBC said something to the effect of, “Did we say penalty free checking? Actually, we’re going to charge 140 pounds when you overdraft. You’ve got 30 days to close your account if you don’t like this.”

HSBC had an advantage. Students were scattered for the summer. People would never even notice. Except! One person made a Facebook group: Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off!!! Thousands joined the group immediately. They started talking to the media. They planned a protest. But the protest never happened because HSBC changed their tune.

They didn’t change their policy because their customers were upset. They changed their policy because their customers were upset and coordinated. The fusing of the delivering information and coordinating the people who come to look at it makes this medium different than the mediums that have come before.

There is additional value in putting the people who come to look at something in contact with one another. We are living in the largest expansion of expressive capability in history. The ability to consume, produce and share media is unprecedented.

Prior to now there were only 4 periods where media changed enough to merit revolution. First was the movable printing press. Then the telegraph and the telephone. Then moving images and sound. Then the television and radio revolution. But there’s a curious asymmetry in the previous revolutions. The stuff that was good at creating groups was no good at creating conversation, and vice versa.

The Internet is the first medium that’s natively good at supporting group conversation. That’s the first big change. What this provides is organization without organizations. It provides groups of people to come together and coordinate themselves without needing a manager. That’s the first of three big changes created by the media environment.

The second big change is symmetry. A television station is expensive to run, but buying a television is relatively inexpensive. In this landscape, every time a new media consumer is added, a new media producer is potentially added as well.

Third, you can move from one type of media to the next without having to change what you’re doing. This means you can put out media for consumption, people can come together around it, and they can respond to it with their own media. There is a multiple feedback loop and the media is all in the same landscape.

But while the technology sets the stage for this change, it doesn’t cause it. It’s not when the tool arrives that behavior changes. It’s when people use it. Shiny and new are wasting assets. Nothing can seem unusual forever. But the significant social changes are permanent. Tools only change society when they’re accompanied by motivations that get people to exhibit these new behaviors.

Josh Groban is up on the screen. He describes him as a poprah singer, with an audience of teenage girls and their grandmothers (sorry, Susan!). [Clay Shirky is officially off my Christmas card list.–Susan] There’s no traditional media channel that target both of these groups. He’s an Internet success story in this way. No big deal, Clay says. Old story. [It’s so obvious he’s not a Josh Groban fan. –Susan]

In 2002, a group of Grobanites try to think of a birthday present for Josh. They ended up raising $12,000 for charity and donated it in his honor. Off of this success they decide to do an auction. As soon as they launched it they raised $16,000. With such success they kept it going and raised $75,000 in the first year.

The Grobanites in charge of the efforts went to Josh and asked if he would want to become more involved in helping give this donations. His lawyers were a little worried because this was a new undertaking. They created a foundation to essentially launder the money that people were donating. But the volunteers didn’t want to be the “volunteer wing” of the foundation. They started their own site, Grobanites for Charity.

There was once an experiment. A cube can be disassembled and assembled in different shapes. The participants were given the cube and asked how many of the shapes they could make. One group did it with no pay. Another group was paid for every shape they could make. The group who did it without pay kept trying to make shapes even when the researcher left the room. The group who were paid stopped trying when the researcher left. The finding was that the extrinsic motivation of paying someone to do something killed the intrinsic motivation of doing something for enjoyment.

Now, back to Grobanites for Charity. The group would thank every person who volunteered, donated or supported the organization. The group knew that doing it by themselves created a pleasure and engagement that the professionalization not only didn’t provide, but also would have killed.

The amateurization of undertakings is exploding. Amateurs aren’t just sloppy professionals. They do things in different ways, for different reasons. Technologies are giving people a way to do this, but that’s not what’s important here. The sociology behind it was what makes the tools important. Understanding the user psychology and not just the tools is the key. Instead of asking why is this new, ask why is this a surprise. The reason it’s so surprising is that we’ve been operating with such lousy definitions of user behavior and motivators.

We misunderstood motivation. We all understand that there are parts of life that aren’t part of a market for organization. What’s going on now is increasing the visibility of the market for organization.

Another bad assumption we had was that people liked to be couch potatoes. But in truth, we didn’t have media that allowed people to produce and share. Media consumption is now two-way. But the biggest part of this is that users can talk directly to one another.

Clay puts a blog called Gnarlykitty on the screen. It’s a typical personal blog, and he highlights a post the author wrote about a game on the iPhone. Why would we want to read that? We’re not the audience. We’re not used to seeing things that are in the public but not for the public. In traditional media, where every choice cost money, there was a filter then publish mentality. But now it’s publish, then filter. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. But why not publish it? The cost is so low.

One day the author woke up and there was a military coup in her home of Thailand. The media was not allowed to cover it. She started covering it. But at the same time she was still writing about a Hello Kitty phone she photoshopped. Readers said get back to the coup! She wrote that it was her blog about her life. She essentially said that those that don’t want to read about some of what she writes shouldn’t read. We can’t try to analyze why a blogger is writing what they are.

Now he puts a corporate blog on the screen, this time from Johnson & Johnson. The comment policy was basically that any comments that aren’t about their products and any comments about their products won’t be published. It may be that they’re constrained by legal or FCC regulations. But if they can’t use a blog for what it’s used for, then don’t create it.

Clay Shirky - SES San Jose Opening Keynote
Clay Shirky

Clay starts taking off his button-up shirt. And underneath is a three-wolves-howling-at-the-moon shirt. A comedic Amazon review started a cult following. It’s an example of digital folk art, of which there are many examples. But what we see is that people rushed in to take advantage of the opportunity to write a review. People were egging each other on, trying to get attention from each other. There were themes developed and it snowballed into a phenomenon. We were surprised because we never saw this behavior before. The key head shift is not to think of behavior, but think instead of motivations and modes.

Consider: Where do these new options provide an output for motivations?

Clay teaches graduate students. They grew up always knowing how important search engines were as the glue of current technology. It’s a challenge to explain to them how massive the change was.

Linux: “I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby) […] I’d like to know what features most people would want.”

Wikipedia: “Humor me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes.”

Notice how modest these messages are. At the time there was no way you’d be able to pick those messages out as being as important as they were in shaping the system. The surprises that come from the trivial attempts happens because if you get user motivation right, you’ll find the people that will take up your tool/service/product and are willing to surprise you using stuff you launched.

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