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Publius: Clay Shirky and Online Organization

The newly launched Publius Project at Berkman has a number of excellent essays on ‘constitutional moments’ on the Internet (the project is drawing its inspiration and name from Hamilton, Madison and Jay’s Federalist Papers, which were written under the moniker Publius). Clay Shirky’s essay, and I know a number of future pieces, deserves reading by those interested in the Internet and its impact on democracy. Shirky hits on a number of themes that have also been discussed on this blog, including the use of Facebook by activist overseas to organize protests.

Shirky tells the story of 40,000 students that organized themselves on MySpace and walked out of schools to protest HR4437–a bill that would have made illegal immigration a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Shirky writes:

There were several remarkable things about the protest. The size of the walkout alone made it unusual — getting tens of thousands people to take any coordinated political action is hard. Getting high school students to do so, when most of them are too young to vote, is even harder. Being able to do so without the school administration knowing was hardest of all — keeping a secret among 40,000 people has never been trivial. And doing it all in 48 hours should have been impossible — would have been impossible, in fact, even a year before.

The thing that made an instant, secret, and huge protest possible was the spread of new communication tools, especially MySpace and text messages on the phone. Armed with these tools, students were able to coordinate with one another, not just person to person but in groups. Using these tools, the messages they exchanged went to the people who mattered — the other students — without reaching the school administrators.

Shirky points out that the tool did not lead to the protests (political motivation did), but tools did make it easier to organize incredibly quickly and without the knowledge of the “authorities.” Shirky details a number of other cases in his book where citizens organize online for both substantive and inane objectives–from passing a passengers’ bill of rights to protesting the cancellation of a TV show. He shared a number of thoughts about the book with a group here at Berkman not long ago that you can view here.

We look forward to future essays from the Publius project on the Internet and democracy–as well as future work by Clay Shirky.

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