Friday, March 5, 2010

Book Review: Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. Penguin Press, 2008

[UPDATE:  I just read that Clay Shirky gave the keynote speech at the National Federation of Advanced Information Services, NFAIS, Conference.  He summarized his book in five words: Group Action Just Got Easier.  You can read an interesting post on his speech (which augments what I have written here) at the blog, What I Learned Today.]

Ready or not, here comes the 21st Century!
   - From Lyrics of Virtual Party, by Noel Paul Stookey (Paul, of Peter, Paul, and Mary)

Paul Stookey's little comic song, Virtual Party, tells the story of a married man who decides to visit an internet chat room party late at night only to meet up with a mysterious woman who wants to get to know him better.  He loses his nerve and goes to bed only to discover that his wife, whom he thought was sleeping, had insomnia and is signed on to her computer and is that mysterious woman he met online.  As the title implies, we live in a world where the virtual is becoming the norm.

The song struck me as being particularly relevant having just finished reading Clay Shirky's book, Here Comes Everybody.  I don't know where I was in 2008 when it was first published but I recently found it on a table in Barnes and Noble and it looked interesting.  It was.  Mr. Shirky is a well-known contributor to many newspapers and periodicals. He mainly focuses on the impact of the internet as an agent of change.  This book is an extended exploration of the topic and he turns over some very interesting rocks for us to peer under. 

Mr. Shirky's basic premise is that the almost costless nature of connecting with each other on the internet has re-written our most fundamental assumptions about what is possible for people to accomplish by working together.  His examples, which range from the effort to recover a stolen cellphone to writing the largest encyclopedia in history (Wikipedia), bring his points to life.  The "costs" of bringing groups together has collapsed to the point where goals can be easily pursued that no corporation could ever afford to take on.  

Mr Shirky (pictured right) gives us the background we need to understand the titanic shifts that are underway.  One of the leading theorists of 20th Century business was Ronald Coase, who promulgated his The Nature of the Firm in 1937.  His theory explains the seeming conflict between free markets, in which everyone is better off pursuing their own goals, and corporations where more can be done by having people work on just a few goals within the company.  Coase explained that the reason firms exist is that they lower the transaction costs of doing business inside the company.  Instead of having to contract every single activity (and pay the attendant costs of making each connection anew), companies can reduce their costs by having people who are employees of the firm rather than free market contractors.  Efficiency trumps free market competition. 

But no matter how efficient the firm, every organization has a certain point beyond which some things are simply too expensive to pursue.  These might be new product ideas or covering a news story in a remote location or lobbying a government on a particular issue.  The very hierarchy that allows the organization to function takes energy to support - and that energy comes at a cost.  The internet changes everything.  Now, people can organize outside of formal hierarchies.  They can join together to do something as simple as socialize, deepen their efforts to collaborate, or reach for the ultimate goal, collective action towards a common goal.  Because of the way the web is organized and because people do this for reasons other than getting a monetary payment, the social costs are lower than any formal organization can achieve.

Newspapers and media outlets are seeing the results of mass amateurization of journalism.  Anyone with a cellphone can capture images or post short micro-blogs on Twitter.  In fact, in most rapidly breaking news stories like the recent earthquakes, this is the primary source of information.  No single news outlet can respond faster and cheaper than the amateurs.  Usually within hours of a major event, a new entry page is posted on Wikipedia to keep track of breaking updates and to allow people a place to cross-reference their information.  Wikipedia is free.  It is run in the public domain with no costs to users (who are also its authors).  

Wikipedia is one of Mr. Shirky's major examples of collaboration using web tools.  There are now well over three million articles on almost twenty million pages that explore virtually every domain of human knowledge.  Wikipedia has caused Microsoft to pull the plug on its own commercial effort, Encarta, and is seriously challenging even Britannica for leadership.  Some would say that Britannica is already dead, it just hasn't yet gotten the word.  

But collaboration is not limited to encyclopedias.  Because the cost of forming groups is so low, they can form around nearly anything.  Two examples Mr. Shirky explores consist of groups of unhappy people.  The first were some very disgruntled airline passengers who were stranded for hours on the tarmac. The second was a group of incensed Catholics who organized to try to change their church in light of continuing revelations about pedophilia in the priesthood.  In both cases, earlier examples can easily be found of the same abuses but no groups formed to address their grievances.  The social costs were too high.  The web has made connecting by e-mail and other tools so simple and easy that a small group can become a large one in a hurry.  For the most part, the organizations that these groups target never see it coming.  Large hierarchies have not had to deal with rapid grassroots attacks such as the two highlighted in the book.  

Collaboration can give way to collective action, most often political collective action.  Mr, Shirky details how "Flash Mobs" have been used in many countries around the world to make a political statement.  Basically, people who are sympathetic to a particular point of view are on a text message and e-mail list that tells them when and where to meet and what to do when they get there...on only an hour's notice.  The Flash Mob materializes, does its thing (usually peacefully), and then vanishes as quickly as it formed.  But it unnerves the authorities - big time.  

Mr. Shirky explores the history and impact of some of the new collaboration tools like MeetupMySpace, and Facebook.  Each allows us to find new ways to connect, either in the virtual world or the real one.  As Mr. Shirky notes, "any radical change in our ability to communicate with one another changes society" (p. 106).  When this is coupled to the way in which we normally associate (i.e., we have tight networks with a small group of people - Small Worlds - and loose networks that connect these tight networks), the probability that our world will change is very high.

Another interesting area that Mr. Shirky explores is the effects of internet collaboration on innovation, particularly software innovation.   The Open Source software movement (think Linux as an example) has changed the competitive landscape.  Projects like Linux (or Open Office or GIMP) can be done simply because the cost of failure is so low.  Most of the Open Source projects fail.  Seventy-five percent of the Open Source projects on SourceForge, the software site that hosts this type of software, have zero downloads!  That is, nobody is working on them at all.  But the cost of those efforts was "free", at least as far as wages were concerned.  The few, like Linux, that succeed more than make up for the failures.  Companies cannot take these kinds of risk.  Failure is simply too expensive.  

In his Epilogue, Mr. Shirky writes about what it is like to be a forty-something-year old man in today's world.  His observations gain relevance for every year you have lived:

[Y]oung people are taking better advantage of social tools, extending their capabilities in ways that violate old models, not because they know more useful things than we do, but because they know fewer useless things than we do.  I'm old enough to know a lot of things, just from life experience.  I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job.  I know that music comes from stores.  I know that if you want to have a conversation with someone, you call them on the phone.  I know that complicated things like software and encyclopedias have to be created by professionals.  In the last fifteen years, I've had to unlearn every one of those things and a million others, because they stopped being true.  When I spend time thinking about technology, I now spend more energy on weeding than planting, which is to say more energy trying to forget the irrelevant learning about the new. (p.321).

At several points in the book, Mr. Shirky revisits the observation that "more is different."  What is only curious on a small scale becomes a revolution on a larger scale.  The Web is a perfect of example of "more is different."  We ignore the powers of these changes at our own risk.

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