Clay Shirky’s book is fun to read. A media studies professor at NYU, his book Here’s Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, provides concrete examples of how self assembly and group organization has changed with the evolution of the Internet. Using case study examples like Flickr and Linux, the book is relevant and captivating but doesn’t shy away from providing hard facts. Simple and precisely written, readers do not need to have a PhD to understand the concepts and ideas; rather Shirky’s book is a fun read for the average media fan. I agree with his main concept that declining costs in technology allow people to self assemble in ways not imagined before; he argues this trend is changing the way we communicate and in turn the way we look at the world and society.
Group activity is like a chain of volcanoes. By this Shirky means they are all linked by one invisible central driving force, although they appear separate. He begins his book with a witty story warning people what might happen should you upset a social media lover. He then talks about the influences of community, and the rise of people as content creators in comparison to traditional media outlets. Mass amateurization allows people to publish everything, and develops niche groups of people that would not have been reached through newspapers or magazines. This, according to Shirky is the future of the Internet. He uses the second half of the book to talk about some of the implications of these groups. For example the Small Group Paradox which is an ironic concept that makes us feel the Internet is truly connecting us all. The Internet is becoming ubiquitous and he concludes by talking about how our idealized views of the future are not just an improvement from what we already have, but something completely new.
This future starts with the Internet as a new ecosystem. It did not create competition for newspapers and the journalism trade, it is something new altogether. Shirky argues there is nothing inherently connecting different newspaper stories besides the physical ink, paper, and hierarchical management. He cites the emergence of mass amateurization as the key for society being able to loosen their grip on traditional media and embrace amateur news, which is often relatively better. Different than traditional media, and the politics influencing coverage, often blogs can go beyond the first swing at a story; they can continue to cover a story with minimal or no cost. As fascinating as this dynamic is, he doesn’t mention how personal obsession drives amateur coverage, and the system of checks and balances that should in place. While mass amateurization magnifies our freedom of speech with limitless coverage on almost any topic, only those who choose to make their content stand out are the ones who receive the most recognition. Unfortunately without a system of checks and balances, it is not the good content that is popular, rather the controversial or flashy content.
Not only has the role of the journalist changed, the social tools at our fingertips have changed the role of the consumer. Consumers are seizing opportunities and talking back to businesses. Some are using the power of group action, like in Shirky’s example of the 1999 grounded Northwest Airlines flights. Businesses can no longer deny the voice of the customer if it is echoing loud on Twitter or corporate blogs. With social media consumers are now able to create a groundswell to convince a company to change their policies. Within just a few short years of this capability, author Christopher Elliot’s predictions in a 1997 article titled Everything Wired Must Convergence demonstrates that while you can predict that networks and the Internet will change business, you can’t predict how. I am sure businesses tried hard to ignore the echoes of groups of customers, but had to start embracing it as it grew louder. Elliot imagines a world where networks talk amongst each other, and the race for instantaneous communication is never ending. I argue that we have crept upon the boundaries of instantaneous communication, and proof of that is written in Shirky’s book.
Instantaneous communication has arrived because everyone has the ability to be their own content creator. Also, through Shirky’s mention of the Prisoner’s Dilemma that uncovers “the shadow of the future” concept, it is certain to think that a cycle of social interaction online will continue to flourish and reach new heights. Especially with the lowering costs of technology, the gravity to have an online presence and the human need to be a part of something bigger will continue to birth wonderful things from groups.
Consumers, amateur content creators and spectators are continually growing into their full potential as we keep testing the boundaries of the Internet. We are social creatures, and it is not by accident that we find ways to connect when given the tools. According to Shirky “sociability is one of the core capabilities, and it shows up in almost every aspect of our lives.” Communication does change society as you will find out when you read this book. We can make predictions about how group organization will affect society in the future, but like Elliot mentions, we have no proof of how it will turn out, just that organizations will have a key role. If you are skeptical or intrigued by how group organization has changed with the evolution of the Internet, read this book. If you are unsure about the role of the Internet today, and if we are better as a society because we can self assemble, absolutely read this book.
Elliott, C. (1997, December). Everything Wired Must Converge. The Journal of Business Strategy, 30.
Li, C., & Bernoff, J. (2008). Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies (pp. 41-44). Boston: Forrester Research.
Shirky, C. (2008). Here’s Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York: Penguin Group.