2009-01-10: Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody

The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008)

by Clay Shirky (1964-)

This book is about the impact of the Internet on reducing the cost of communications, and the resultant effect on reducing barriers to people organizing for ad hoc and impromptu reasons. The ideas are more interesting than the prose, so I’ve taken advantage of the summary of ideas at the beginning of most chapters. I’m merely quoting them, rather than expressing them in my own words.

Chapter 1 is largely an extended anecdote to illustrate the power of an ad hoc single-purpose organization in recovering a cell phone lost in a New York City cab. The protagonist used his website and other services to rally a large number of people to support and enlist in the effort to recover a phone whose “finder” resisted returning even after she knew it’s rightful owner. Here’s a passage:

But mere tools aren’t enough. The tools are simply a way of channeling existing information. Evan was driven, resourceful, and unfortunately for Sasha, very angry. Had he presented his mission in completely self-interested terms (“Help my frame save $300!”) or in unattainably general ones (“Let’s fight theft everywhere!”), the tools he chose wouldn’t have mattered. What he did was to work out a message framed in big enough terms to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence. (This sweet spot is what Eric Raymond, the theorist of open source software, calls “a plausible promise.”) Without a plausible promise, all the technology in the world would be nothing more than all the teleology in the world.

I like the term “plausible promise”.

Chapter 2, Sharing Anchors Community: Groups of people are complex, in ways that make those groups hard to form and hard to sustain; much of the shape of traditional institutions is a response to those difficulties. New social tools relive some of those burdens, allowing for new kinds of group-forming, like using simple sharing to anchor the creation of new groups.

Chapter 3, Everyone Is a Media Outlet: Our social tools remove older obstacles to public expression, and thus remove the bottlenecks that characterized mass media. The result is the mass amateurization of efforts previously reserved for media professionals.

Chapter 4, Publish, Then Filter: The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older patten of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact.

Chapter 5, Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production: Collaborative production, where people have to coordinate with one another to get anything done, is considerably harder than simple sharing, but the results can be more profound. New tools allow large groups to collaborate, by taking advantage of nonfinancial motivations and by allowing for wildly differing levels of contribution.

Chapter 6, Collective Action and Institutional Challenges: Collective action, where a group acts as a whole, is even more complex than collaborative production, but here again new tools give life to new forms of action. This in turn challenges existing institutions, by eroding the institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination.

Chapter 7, Faster and Faster: As more people adopt simple social tools, and as those tools allow increasingly rapid communication, the speed of group action also increases, and just as more is different, faster is different.

Chapter 8, Solving Social Dilemmas: There are real and permanent social dilemmas, which can only be optimized for, never completely solved. The human social repertoire includes many such optimizations, which social tools can amplify.

Chapter 9, Fitting Our Tools to a Small World: Large social groups are different from small ones, but we are still understanding all the ways in which that is true. Recent innovations in social tools provide more explicit support for a pattern of social networking called te Small World pattern, which underlies the idea of Six Degrees of Separation.

Chapter 10, Failure for Free: The logic of publish-then-filter means that new social systems have to tolerate enormous amounts of failure. The only way to uncover and promote the rare successes is to rely, yet again, on social structure supported by social tools.

Chapter 11, Promise, Tool, Bargain:  There is no recipe for the successful use of social tools. Instead, every working system is a mix of social and technological factors.


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