Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Here Comes Everybody—Book Synopsis (Part 1)

One of the main reasons we communicate with each other is to organize ourselves.  Whether you're calling family to make plans for the holidays, distributing business documents to coworkers, or creating a private or public event on Facebook, you communicate in order to organize people for some reason or purpose.  It goes without saying that we almost always use technology or media to organize.

But then that raises a question: do different kinds of technology or media entail different ways of organizing groups?


(Image from Amazon)

Clay Shirky wrote a clever book that tries to explain the ways we use different kinds of media to organize different sorts of groups.  The title is Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.  If there's a running theme in the book, it's old media (book, newspapers, etc.) versus new media (Twitter, blogs, etc.) and how they affect the ways we organize one another.  The book’s main idea is that new (digital) media, which he calls “social tools,” have lowered the “transaction costs” of organizing groups.

Let’s break this main idea down.  What does Shirky mean by the “transaction costs” of organizing groups?
Organizing people into groups requires time and effort, as Shirky illustrates with common examples:

“Building and airplane or a cathedral, performing a symphony or heart surgery, raising a barn or razing a fortress, all require the distribution, specialization, and coordination of many tasks among many individuals, sometimes unfolding over years or decades and sometimes spanning continents” (p 16).

Transaction costs are the time and effort it takes to organize people into a group to accomplish some goal:

“Running an organization is difficult in and of itself, no matter what its goals.  Every transaction it undertakes—every contract, every agreement, every meeting—requires it to expend some limited resource: time, attention, or money.  Because of these transaction costs, some sources of value are too costly to take advantage of" (p 29).

So what do digital technology and social media have to do with transaction costs?  People use tools to organize groups, and newer “social tools” expend relatively less time and effort than older tools—email takes less time and effort than postal mail; Facebook signs people up for events much more quickly and easily than door-to-door sign-ups.  Overall, social tools have lowered transaction costs.

In fact, they’ve lowered transaction costs so much that people can now self-organize without any top-down management.  New media, Shirky argues in the first chapter, have made self-organized groups an alternative to formal management:

"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.  These communications tools have been given many names, all variation on a theme: 'social software,' 'social media,' 'social computing,' and so on.  Though there are some distinctions between these labels, the core idea is the same: 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" (p 20-21) [My emphasis].

Here we get an outline for the rest of the book, where Shirky presents a spectrum for different types of self-organizing:
  • Sharing: Discussed in Chapters 2, 3, & 4, sharing refers to platforms such as Flickr, which allow participants to distribute online content like photos.  “Knowingly sharing your work with others is the simplest way to take advantage of the new social tools” (p 49).
  • Cooperation & Collaborative Production: Discussed in Chapter 5, cooperation is more sophisticated than sharing, because it involves ongoing conversation between participants—e.g., Internet forums and discussion groups.  A more in-depth form of cooperation is collaborative production, “where people have to coordinate with one another to get anything done” (p 109), which is basically teamwork—e.g., writing/editing for Wikipedia
  • Collective Action: Discussed in Chapter 6, collective action entails “many-to-many communications” (p 157), in which all participants (not just a select few) communicate with each other and act upon consensual goals and responsibilities—e.g., creating websites for online support groups.  “Rather than limiting our communications to one-to-one and one-to-many tools, which have always been a bad fit to social life, we now have many-to-many tools that support and accelerate cooperation and action” (p 158).

Shirky presents a spectrum to make sense of how new media help people communicate with social tools and self-organize into groups … without traditional top-down management.  Since traditional management isn’t needed here, this spectrum implies some major game changes in how we organize and communicate.  What are these game changes?   The title of the book may give us a clue

James Joyce
1922 drawing by Djuna Barnes
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The main title, Here Comes Everybody, alludes to a recurring line in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.  Its meaning refers to what it feels like to be bombarded by viewpoints from all directions, by information from many media—i.e., from TV, radio, email, Facebook, Twitter, pagers, cell phones, etc.  This feeling of being bombarded by a lot of information is one way to characterize new media.

But does that feeling give us a clue as to the specific game changes that new media have brought about when it comes to organizing groups?

Take a moment to speculateyou've likely had your own observations about organizing groups with old vs. new media—and then we’ll conclude this synopsis of Shirky's book in the next post.