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If Internet users fail to transfer their online energy to the real world, they will see only a partial revolution from their efforts. But already groups are demonstrating real-world power generated by their online networks, according to New York University professor and author Clay Shirky.
Shirky was one of several speakers who addressed technology's growing role in democracy at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City on Monday.
Flash mobs, which started out as a recreational activity for bored hipsters in New York, has become a political tool for youth across the world, Shirky said. Young people in Belarus showed the world what it is like to live under a dictatorship by using Flash mobs to assemble a group of people eating ice cream in October Square. People also descended on the square to smile at each other.
In Belarus, smiling and eating ice cream aren't illegal, but gathering in groups in the largest city's public square is against the law. Flash mobs allowed the groups to form spontaneously and avoid authorities until their "demonstrations" were under way. By that time, cameras were rolling and clicking to document the situation and relay it around the world.
"Nothing says dictatorship like arresting people for eating ice cream," Shirky said.
Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations, said his group explains how "political action just got easier."
He pointed to a recent decision by HSBC to honor an agreement college students pushed for by blasting the bank and organizing on Facebook, and the walkout of 40,000 students in Los Angeles to protest immigration reform.
Shirky said that most protest is designed to stop action, and he argued that grassroots groups could push beyond lobbying to actually get things done if people spent 1% of the time they spent on television exchanging ideas and trying to create democratic tools like Wikipedia.
He compared the phenomenon of people organizing on the Internet to barn raising and said it relies on people owing each other favors or wanting others to owe them favors. And it relies on people having enough stability so their neighbors believe they'll be around in a year to return favors.
He said that's happening as Meetup groups expand from the regional level to the national level and gain the ability to tap into other groups, including those on Yahoo and Google. Meetup gained attention as an online organizer for the Howard Dean campaign. It has grown to include groups for what seems like every type of gathering, activity, and interest imaginable. Meetup's representatives at the conference said that today only 5% of the groups organizing on the site are political. Meetup is one of several forum sponsors.