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May 12, 2009

09NTC Recap: Keynote Address by Clay Shirky


Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody) was the Monday keynote at the NTC conference.

Shirky started off with the concept from his book that "Group action just got easier." Many nonprofits are organizers of group action, and we've been thinking through the impacts of this shift as a sector.

As he continued, I asked myself now that the value of creating knowledge is changing, how is it impacting each nonprofit? What does it mean for the sector that we're all global publishers? He explained that the "absolute value of expertise has not changed, [but the] relative value has." It's still useful to have and to build expertise, but the roles of experts are shifting.

Then, telling the story of the museum whose worst fear was loss of control of it's content, Shirky laid out this zinger: "The loss of control you fear is already in the past." Wild applause erupted from NTC attendees, and the statement was widely repeated on Twitter. Apparently the sentiment resonated. I think NTC attendees were feeling frustration with organizational cultures slow to adapt to the shift we're experiencing.

Shirky walked us gently though a lesson in how to fail informatively. I liked his idea about trying multiple solutions simultaneously, but not too many at a time: "Don't let 100 flowers bloom. Let, like, 7 flowers bloom."

Holly Ross, the Executive Director of NTEN, did a wonderful job of grounding the conversation with questions. She asked why nonprofits are important at all, when group action is easier now. Shirky responded that our convening power is important, as is our staying power. Tools on the Internet are now good at short, sharp shots, but will these platforms exist next year? Will they be around for the next action the group needs to take together?

He advised that nonprofits strive to listen to the conversation about them by doing an Internet search for their organization. Disregard the content your organization created, and you will get to listen in on the real conversation and sentiment about your group.

Finally, Ross asked Shirky "Is Facebook forever?" His surprising response: "My guess is that the high water mark of Facebook's universality has passed." I see the beginnings of fractures to Facebook's dominance forming with Twitter and house social networks, so maybe Shirky is correct.

NTEN chose a great keynote speaker, and Ross made sure that Shirky shared useful and implementable knowledge with nonprofits, which made for a great NTC this year.

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