How Clay Shirky Inspired My Nashville Flood Relief Efforts

In early June I watched the following video in which Clay Shirky, a professor and consultant who writes and speaks on all things Web-related, talks about two broad ways people use new media tools to contribute.

It is 13 minutes long, so if you don’t have the time to watch it, here’s my summary and takeaway.

Shirky uses two examples of participatory media: LOLcats and Ushahidi, to distinguish between two ways people use new media tools to collaborate. The first, of course, are the incredibly adorable kitten photos with captions, such as “i can haz cheezburger?” added on top:


That kind of participation is communal. It adds value (how much value is debatable) to a community of people who find LOLcats funny. And, arguably, no matter how seemingly inane it is, it beats the heck out of sitting on the couch and watching television because, hey, at least you’re doing something.

Ushahidi, on the other hand, is a free, downloadable open source platform that allows people to collaborate by contributing information that is then added to a map. It was created by a few developers in the violent aftermath of 2008 elections in Kenya, but has since been used more generally in crisis management situations all over the world, including the earthquake earlier this year in Haiti. This kind of participation, Shirky argues, is civic. It generates value that can be enjoyed by society as a whole, not just a small community of folks.

The West Nashville Flood Recovery Network

The reason I wanted to make mention of this now is because the above talk was a main drive that inspired me to pitch in help build a website for The West Nashville Flood Recovery Network here in my neighborhood in West Nashville.

I used a day off from work to build the site (and, admittedly, some extra time on nights and weekends), and I have since wrote up some more about it on our company blog here.

I tip my hat off to Shirky, because he poses a great question. How do we as a society collectively decide to spend more of our free time on collaborative efforts such as Ushahidi, or establishing networks for sustained flood recovery, rather than LOLcats?

The Institution Versus the Web

I’ve been a big fan of Clay Shirky since I watched his video on the participatory potential of the Web.

I’ve also become a huge fan of and have been watching entirely too many videos up there as well (including the Johnny Lee talk).

But here’s another, earlier talk given by Shirky back in July 2005. I think he had some prescient things to say about how the Web has evolved over the past couple of years, as well as some of the threats the Web poses to institutions.