Clay Shirky: Encouraging generosity and participation

Clay Shirky: Here comes everybody!


Internet guru Clay Shirky has a unique ability to present the chaos of the Web in stunningly clear terms, as he does here, documenting what a "spontaneously, self-assembling, online philanthropic venture" tells us about the nature of human motivation. Listen as he explains the concept of "designing for generosity," and what we can learn about it from the Josh Groban Foundation, Napster and a top online mobile phone forum. See video

From Geeta Dayal at the Pop!Tech Blog:

What do Napster, a Josh Groban charity fansite, and online tech support forums have in common? A lot, according to Clay Shirky. At Pop!Tech this year, he spoke of how people get motivated to give large amounts of their time and expertise for free on the Web. Shirky is the author of the recent book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, part of a growing class of books — from Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks to James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds — that examine the power of groups.

Clay Shirky leads a presentation examining the nature of generosity, and how to "design" for it. photography by kris krüg

In Shirky’s talk, he illustrated some examples of online generosity, such as cell phone users who donate their time to troubleshoot others’ phone problems on an obscure discussion board. He then offered some pointers for designing for generosity on the Web. There’s no exact recipe, Shirky says, but there are some basic guidelines that he has observed over the years.

The first rule is to design for intrinsic motivation. “Design an environment where people can feel good at what they’re doing,” he says. If you design an environment where they can be appreciated, they will flock to your venture. He is quick to distinguish between the dual motivators of love and fame. “Being appreciated by a small number of people who know you well is a different kind of emotion than being appreciated by a large group of people who don’t know you well,” Shirky says. “Everyone who says ‘Come here and participate and you’ll get famous’ may think they’re appealing to intrinsic motivations, but they actually aren’t.”

The second guideline he offers is to make a system that encourages autonomy. The third is to build a system that encourages openness. “Everyone understands that closing down a system, locking it down…will kill this kind of generosity,” he says. But what’s less well-understood, he argues, is the importance of making a system that has some basic constraints, too. There need to be some guidelines in place to ensure that a website doesn’t get taken over by trolls, for example. “Designing systems that have the right mix of freedom and constraints — very often constraints enforced on the users by one another — is really the art.” Wikipedia is one sterling example of this; it’s an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, but still has basic guidelines to abide by.

Finally, Shirky says that we should not treat users as simply idle generators of content, arguing that it’s important to view an online audience “not just as an aggregated bag of individual motivations, but thinking of us as participants in social systems,” emphasizing that these systems have their own unique and important logic that’s greater than the sum of its users. “Once you switch to that view of the world,” he says, “I think really incredible things can start happening.”