ShiHere 08-08-114 

Here Comes Everybody

The Power of Organizing without Organizations


Clay Shirky

The Penguin Press, New York, 2008, 325 pp., ISBN 978-1-59420-153-0



Clay Shirky writes, teaches, and consults on the social and economic effects of the internet, particularly where social and technological networks overlap.  He is on the faculty of NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program and has consulted for several top drawer companies. 


This is a fascinating book, enlivened by real life stories, about how electronic communication tools have made amazing things possible that were impossible or cost prohibitive in the past. 


The book begins with a 13-page story of how an enterprising young man using web tools was able to draw and sustain a crowd with enough people and expertise to pressure the New York City police into arresting a young woman and forcing her to return a cell phone to its owner. 


"We now have communications tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change."  "We are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations." (20-21) 


"By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management (and its attendant overhead), these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort…." (21)


"Most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without those barriers, we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done." (22)


"Group action gives human society its particular character, and anything that changes the way groups get things done will affect society as a whole." (23)


Hundreds of pictures of the Mermaid Parade are hosted and organized on Flickr.  No organization would have done this.  The value is limited and the costs are high. Photos and descriptions of the London subway bombing were made available moments afterward by participants with cell phones.  No media institution could have done this.  But it was done. 


In traditional organizations things get done because people cooperate.  And people cooperate, generally, because they get paid.  Thus there are 'transactional (management) costs' to getting things done.  Many things aren't worth doing because the costs are too high.  "Small decreases in transaction costs make businesses more efficient…  Large decreases in transaction costs create activities that can't be taken on by businesses, or indeed by any institution, because no matter how cheap it becomes…there isn't enough payoff to support the cost incurred by being an institution in the first place."  (46)


"Now that it is possible to achieve large-scale coordination at low cost, a third category has emerged: serious, complex work, taken on without institutional direction.  Loosely coordinated groups can now achieve things that were previously out of reach for any other organizational structure…" (47)


"For the last hundred years the big organizational question has been whether any given task was best taken on by the state, directing the effort in a planned way, or by businesses competing in a market."  Now there is a third alternative.  "The scope of work that can be done by noninstitutional groups is a profound challenge to the status quo." (47-8)


"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 pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact." (81)  It also means that the traditional relationship between the government and the press is breaking down.  Who should receive immunity from revealing their source when everyone is a publisher?


"Email is such a funny thing.  People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble.  But it doesn't take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that's taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips.  But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can't handle that one time thing.  'What 'pile'?  It's just a pebble!" (94-5 quoting Merlin Mann)


"The invention of a tool doesn't create change; it has to have been around long enough that most of society is using it.  It's when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen…." (105)  "We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race.' (106)


"Our social tools are not an improvement to modern society; they are a challenge to it."  "When new technology appears, previously impossible things start occurring.  If enough of those impossible things are important and happen in a bundle, quickly, the change becomes a revolution.  The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society."  (107) 


"All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences--employees and the world." (107)


Wikipedia demonstrates what noninstitutional groups can accomplish.  "Like everything described in this book, a wiki is a hybrid of tool and community.  Wikipedia, and all wikis, grow if enough people care about them, and they die if they don't."  (136)


"Because Wikipedia is a process, not a product, it replaces guarantees offered by institutions with probabilities supported by process: if enough people care enough about an article to read it, then enough people will care enough to improve it, and over time this will lead to a large enough body of good enough work to begin to take both availability and quality of articles for granted, and to integrate Wikipedia into daily use by millions." (140) 


"Philosophers sometimes make a distinction between a difference in degree (more of the same) and a difference in kind (something new).  What we are witnessing today is a difference in the degree of sharing so large it becomes a difference in kind." (149)


"Revolution doesn't happen when society adopts new technologies--it happens when society adopts new behaviors." (160)


In May 1940 it took only six weeks for France to surrender to Germany.  France had much better equipment, but the Germans had radios in their tanks and were thus able to communicate, respond in real time, and act as a coordinated group. (192) 


"The more ubiquitous and familiar a communications method is, the more real-time coordination can come to replace planning, and the less predictable group reactions become."  (175) 


This sort of thing is occurring today with "flash mobs."  By means of electronic communication, dispersed people with a common issue can be mobilized almost instantaneously.  This is true of the Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights that came out of the 2006 American Airlines flight that was held on the ground in Austin for more than eight hours. 


It also happens when political protestors stage an impromptu rally.  It can happen so quickly and quietly that the powers that be cannot predict or prevent it.   


"Any tool that improves shared awareness or group coordination can be pressed into service for political means, because the freedom to act in a group is inherently political.  "We adopt those tools that amplify our capabilities, and we modify our tools to improve that amplification." (187)


Further, it is easier for groups to form without social approval, for example a web site for Pro-Ana girls, those encouraging each other in their anorexic behaviors.  (205)  "Falling transaction costs benefit all groups, not just groups we happen to approve of." (208) 


"Our new freedoms are not without their problems; it's not a revolution if nobody loses.  Improved freedom of assembly is creating three kinds of social loss."  These are the loss of some occupations, the loss of current social bargains, and the loss associated with the increased flexibility and resilience of terrorist or criminal networks.  "When it becomes simple to form groups, we get both the good and bad ones."  (209-11) 


The Linux software, initiated by Linus Torvalds, which runs 40% of the world's servers is a total volunteer group production, continually being improved and updated. 


"Because anyone can try anything, the projects that fail, fail quickly, but the people working on those projects can migrate just as quickly to the things that are visibly working."  "This arrangement allows the successes to become host to a community of sustained interest." (258)


"Every story in this book relies on a successful fusion of a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain for the users.  The promise is the basic 'why' for anyone to join or contribute to a group.  The tool helps with the 'how'--how will the difficulties of coordination be overcome…?  And the bargain sets the rules of the road: if you are interested in the promise and adopt the tools, what can you expect, and what will be expected of you?" (260)


"Any new claim on someone's time must obviously offer some value, but more important, it must offer some value higher than something else she already does, or she won't free up the time." (262)


"There is not such thing as a generically good tool; there are only tools good for particular jobs." (265)  "By understanding the two basic constraints of group action--number of people involved and duration of interaction--any given tool, new or familiar, can be analyzed for goodness of fit." (268-9)


"The most profound effects of social tools lag their invention by years, because it isn't until they have a critical mass of adopters, adopters who take these tools for granted, that their real effects begin to appear." (270)


"Starting with the invention of e-mail, which first functioned to support a conversation in a group, our social tools have been increasingly giving groups the power to coalesce and act in political arenas.  We are seeing these tools progress from coordination into governance, as groups gain enough power and support to be able to demand that they be deferred to." (292) 


Is the explosion of new groups pursuing new promises with new tools a gain for society?  "Societies before and after revolution are too different to be readily compared…." (297)


"The mistakes that novices make come from a lack of experience.  They overestimate mere fads, seeing revolution everywhere, and they make this kind of mistake a thousand times before they learn better.  But in times of revolution, the experienced among us make the opposite mistake.  When a real once-in-a-lifetime change comes along, we are at risk of regarding it as a fad." (303)



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