Friday, January 1, 2010

A decade of grassroots

The end of 2009 means not only the start of a new year, but a new decade. Looking back to the 2000s (or the Aughts, the Noughties, the Naughty Aughties, whatever you wanna call it), we witnessed a significant social transformation. There was a power emerging from the bottom, triggered by the information revolution. Opportunities were created equally for everybody, no matter who you are or where you are from, as long as you have the insight and skills. Anyone could be visible without going through traditional hierarchical organizations or institutions. It is a tremendous shift that reshaped the flow of cultural creativity, business management, and political mobilization. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome an ethic of hyper-self-reliant grassroots and the annihilation of authority!

After launching in August 2003, MySpace soon became the most popular social-networking site. Although its #1 social network status was overtaken by Facebook in 2008, this virtual display platform forever altered how music was marketed - by musicians themselves. Artists and bands, famous or not, can upload their songs onto their homepage and have exposure to millions of people on a daily basis. Over the years, millions of artists have been discovered by MySpace users, among which are Lily Allen, Sean Kingston, and Arctic Monkeys.

In February 2005, YouTube was founded. A wide variety of user-generated video contents are viewed a billion times a day worldwide. You remember "Bus Uncle" in Hong Kong? A 23-year-old Korean playing Pachelbel's Canon on an electric guitar in his bedroom? I think it's fair to say SNL was more successfully marketed on YouTube (Andy Samberg videos) than the show itself on TV. Traditional media corporations such as CBS, NBC, and BBC felt the pressure to create their own accounts on the website. Businesses also felt the need to upload their TV commercials online. One recent personal experience: I have received links to the Droid commercial on YouTube from many different friends, but I've never seen it on TV.

Talking about media, traditional news felt intimidated by the grassroots as well. As of 2003, there were fewer than one million blogs, but now there are over 110 million worldwide. Bloggers report events before the New York Times knows about them, publish commentaries before the White House calls for a press conference, and release gossips with photos before People Magazine gets a hold on the stories. You may dismiss the credibility of Perez Hilton, but the success of Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG has earned him opportunities to lectures and (paper) publication, a teaching position at Pratt, and most importantly, respect in the architectural world.

In July 2006, Jack Dorsey created Twitter. The era of micro-blogging began. With a monthly growth of 1,382%, there are almost 60 million people in Twitterville now. Unlike Facebook's "What's on your mind?" Twitter asks users to post "What's happening?" with no more than 140 characters. This is a powerful tool for news and information exchange. With the popularity of camera phones, users can upload tweets and twitpics right on the spot. "Trending topics" reflect from the bottom the pulse of our world. During the 2008 Mumbai attacks, eyewitnesses sent an estimated 80 tweets every 5 seconds. Twitter users also sent out vital information such as emergency phone numbers and the location of hospitals needing blood donations. CNN called this "the day that social media appeared to come of age." Ironically, the number of CNN followers on Twitter was later out-beaten by Ashton Kutcher (not quite a grassroot but at least an individual), whose followers reached 1 million on April 16, 2009.

The first show of American Idol debuted on June 11, 2002 on the Fox network. All of a sudden the girl next door can be the idol of the nation. But the more significant part of the program was viewer voting. The "judges" were there just to comment, and the true power of deciding who would win is in the hands of the general audience. No matter how much Simon hates her, you can still vote for her. In Season 8 (2009), more than 100 million votes were cast in the Finale and a record-setting 624 million votes over the season. On the other side of the globe, a singing contest with similar format called "Super Girl" gained enormous popularity in China. On August 26, 2005, 8 million SMS votes flooded into the finale and made Li Yuchun an instant national icon. Time Magazine Asia featured her on the cover and named her one of the Asia's Heroes 2005.

In April 2009, Susan Boyle amazed the world with her "I Dreamed a Dream" performance on the Britain’s Got Talent show. But what truly made her famous was not the show but the web. Within 9 days, videos of her song were watched over 100 million times online. The most popular YouTube clip was viewed nearly 2.5 million times in the first 72 hours. She released her debut album in November. Almost 3 million copies have been sold and it is currently No.1 on the Billboard album chart for a fifth week.

Authoring an article in the encyclopedia was regarded as an honorable recognition of "expert" status. But now anybody with internet access can edit Wikipedia - no academic credentials required. Since the first wiki went online on January 10, 2001, there have been nearly 19 million pages (more than three million articles in English) that went through more than 356 million edits. The crowds collaborate as editors, and at the same time the police to keep the entries (mostly) accurate. Wikipedia provides an open and flat platform for knowledge, and the source is the entire society.

Wikipedia changed the way research is done. Then what about the occasions when you need an image to illustrate your argument? Yes, Flickr. Since its launch in February 2004, this image hosting website has drawn more than 4 billion images, uploaded by more than 7 million users. Even White House photographer Pete Souza started to officially release White House photos on Flickr in May 2009. To make searching easier, Flickr encourages users to assign tags - keywords that describe and identify images. As a result, the cloud of non-textual data is categorized in particular textual topics, with the help of everybody. This new approach of "folksonomy" (folk-taxonomy) rapidly spread throughout the web.

The wisdom of the crowd also changed how businesses ran their tasks. Netflix launched the Netflix Prize on October 2, 2006. It was an open competition for the best collaborative filtering algorithm to predict user ratings for films, based on previous ratings. By October 8, a team called WXYZ Consulting had already beaten Netflix's own results. On September 18, 2009, the team "BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos" received the grand prize of $1,000,000 as the first to beat Netflix's own algorithm by 10%. This is just one of the many examples of so-called "crowdsourcing," a business model that relies on the general public other than employees to fulfill the tasks. Just as the Chinese would say, "Three stinky cobblers combined equal Zhuge Liang the mastermind."

Maybe the climactic moment of grassroots power in the last decade was the 2008 Obama campaign. It was the ultimate example of bottom-up political mobilization. On, features like "create your own event" and "create your own Obama group" created a voters self-organizing system. Obama HQ provided the tools for these people to meet, organize, fund-raise and canvass voters, and the crowds mobilized themselves spontaneously from within. You won't be surprised to see groups like "Anime Fans for Obama" and "Barack the Kitchen Club." Throughout the campaign, 2 million people created profiles on Obama's social-networking site, more than 1.2 million volunteered, and 3 million gave him money. The Obama campaign also launched an official iPhone app with details of the candidate's views on various issues, and features to locate fund-raising events near you. When you search Obama on YouTube, you see campaign ads posted by the official Obama account, while under John McCain there were only negative videos edited by web users. If the choice was between someone who will bring a Wii to the White House and someone who doesn't really know how to use a computer, the pick seemed obvious for the 00s.

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