The Web’s Value: From #HailState to Social Policy Change

This post takes a closer look at two readings from a course I’m taking at HKS – Media, Politics, and Power in the Digital Age. The first reading is “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” by Clay Shirky and the second (and shorter) piece is the article “What is Web 2.0” by Tim O’Reilly. The vast majority of the concepts and ideas in this piece are theirs and not my own.

During Mississippi State football games, I often open up Twitter and search the #HailState hashtag. Fans pile in tweets like “Maroon and White, fight, fight, fight #HailState.”


What compels so many fans watching both in the stadium and at home to participate through Twitter? What has made Twitter so successful at bringing people together, and what does it have in common with other thriving web applications used by thousands of people across the globe?

The HailState hashtag – or any hashtag for that matter – is a wonderful example of how the internet can reduce barriers to forming communities that might not otherwise have existed.[1] In the words of Tim O’Reilly, successful applications in today’s “Web 2.0” era often capitalize on “users pursuing their own ‘selfish’ interests to build collective value as an automated byproduct.” O’Reilly posits that online applications that flourish today are geared toward collective participation and collective intelligence. Shirky adds by pointing out that these successful applications are always evolving and “a process, not a product.”

Hashtags are also simple to use, another key principal that O’Reilly says is instrumental for survival in the Web 2.0 era. RSS feeds, Amazon’s ‘1-click’ buying, apps that customize your weather: he uses each of these to highlight that applications should be simple and provide a service.  However, O’Reilly and Shirky both emphasize that applications also need to reach to ‘The Long Tail’ of the internet by allowing all consumers to benefit from the products sites are offering – not just those that are interested in the best-selling products.

Let’s step away from hashtags, but still stick in the realm of successful applications that are collaborative, simple and provide a service. Wikipedia is regularly sited by O’Reilly and Shirky as an example of an application that harnesses the collective power of the internet. Shirky notes, however, that Wikipedia – and many other sites – are subject to the ‘Power Law Distribution,’ the idea that a small percentage of users contribute the vast majority of a site’s content. This is not noted as a problem, but instead more as a principle of how the sites and their content are driven.

What do all these seemingly distinct websites – Amazon, Wikipedia, Twitter – also have in common? On the most basic level, they are applications that rely on the web to operate and connect with a wide audience rather than relying on your computer’s operating system as a platform. This idea – web as a platform – is the critical difference between using Windows (on your computer) and using the web to operate applications, and it has reshaped the world in which applications are created and successful.

O’Reilly’s and Shirky’s ideas combine to create a model of how to succeed as an application generator. Applications must use the web as a platform, be collaborative, be simple to use, provide a service, and be constantly updated.

For me, the most compelling pieces of both readings were the discussions about how the internet – and our mobile use of it – has reshaped how news spreads and the value of individuals to elevate critical events and issues that traditional media does not highlight. O’Reilly notes that:

        “The world of Web 2.0 is also the world of… we the media, a world in which the former audience, not a few people in a back room, decides what’s important.”

Both authors discuss how the evolution of group communication has changed the news business significantly. My favorite example – again a Mississippi connection – comes from Shirky’s book. In 2002, Senator Trent Lott’s remarks that the nation would have been better off if Strom Thurmond – a segregationist – had been elected President were not picked up by mainstream media. Only after a wave of individual protest through social media was Senator Lott forced to apologize for his comments and eventually step down as Speaker of the House.

Whether it’s criticizing a senator’s words or supporting an education bill, the internet and its applications change how people come together and elevate critical public issues. My hope for this class is to better understand how 1) to use these online tools to inform people of state-level social policy that affects their communities and their families and 2) to give people paths for sharing their views on those issues.

More to come!


[1] It should be noted that the vast majority of ideas in this blog, including this one, are not mine but taken from the readings mentioned in the introduction of this blog.

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