In a recent interview with The Guardian, Cognitive Surplus author, professor and thinker Clay Shirky talked about the transformative power of social media to put the power to produce content in the hands of every individual. While he acknowledged that sometimes this power produced what is essentially trash, that didn't matter because for every bit of trash was a group of people coming together to help solve a problem, whether that's simply answering a query on Facebook or Twitter or producing a program to help automatically sort and categorize blog comments.

This got me thinking that this social largesse was not unlike the open source movement. When left to their own devices people will help for free for the sake of helping and the social web helps drive this desire.

LOLcats and Social Change

Two years ago in this TED video (well worth taking the time to watch) in which he explained the notion of "cognitive surplus," Shirky talked about the two ends of the social internet spectrum. On one hand, you had LOLcats, the collection of cute cat photos. On the other you had a couple of programmers coming together to help a blogger in Kenya automate the process of gathering information from a variety of sources, aggregating it and displaying it on a map. Shirky tells how in 72 hours they stood up this site, Ushahidi (which according to Shirky means "witness" or "testimony" in Swahili) and helped a blogger in the middle of a political crisis solve a very real information management problem. Shirky goes on to tell how the programmers went on to create a platform and made it open source (sound familiar?).

The Changing Web

Lest you think that Shirky is a lone voice in this, a recent Pew Study found that a vast majority of people believe in the power of the social web to forge relationships. In fact 85 percent believed the following statement:

“In 2020, when I look at the big picture and consider my personal friendships, marriage and other relationships, I see that the internet has mostly been a positive force on my social world. And this will only grow more true in the future.”

That's not to say that people don't see the negative side of this including loss of privacy, but most people see the ability to socialize in the way that the social web allows as a mostly positive experience.

The Link To Open Source

I remember having a conversation with Cheryl McKinnon, CMO at open source content management vendor Nuxeo last year at the ARMA conference in which this idea of a link between social media and open source came to me, but I wasn't able to fullly articulate it or understand it at the time. Today, through Shirky's work I see it clearly.

Both the social web and the open source movement were born of a desire to democratize and to remove barriers (such as funding) to develop, to publish, to produce, to create in a digital format and create something for the common good (or even just something silly as the case may be).

It's a not a new idea, but the power of the social web and what we have been calling Web 2.0 tools, provides a digital platform that puts it within reach of a much wider audience than open source (which remains mostly confined to the highly technical). As Shirky has shown when provided the tools and left to their own devices people can produce amazing things, and they can produce cute cat pictures. In his view (and mine), they both have value on the developing social web.

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