Sunday, March 13, 2016

Here Comes Everybody—Book Synopsis (Part 2)

How has our society been affected by moving from old media (books and newspapers) to new media (Twitter and blogs)?

In his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, Clay Shirky discusses how new (digital) media like Wikipedia and Facebook, which he calls “social tools,” have lowered the “transaction costs” of organizing groups.  (Check out Part I of this book synopsis if you haven’t yet.)  In other words, new media have made it easier to organize people with less time and effort—it’s easier to organize friends via a Facebook invite rather than call them all individually (and possibly call back and forth several times).  The result has been some major game changes in how we organize and communicate with one another.  Here are a few examples from Shirky’s book.


(Image from Amazon)

From Slow, Long-Term Planning to Fast, Real-Time Coordination: Ever hear of flash mobs?  These are groups of people who suddenly appear in a public place, often for a political cause (e.g., the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement).  Flash mobs were almost impossible before Facebook and Twitter, which now have made it very easy to send quick messages telling people to gather somewhere.  The result is what Shirky likes to call real-time coordination as opposed to long-term planning: “The more ubiquitous and familiar a communications method is, the more real-time coordination can come to replace planning” (p 175).

From Few Professionals to Many Amateurs: Professionals publish using newspapers or books, while amateurs can self-publish with blogs or ebooks.  This difference between publishing vs. self-publishing is the difference between “filter-then-publish” vs. “publish-then-filter” (p 98).  In other words, newspapers will screen and edit their writings before readers see them, whereas bloggers just publish their writings and then readers filter through blogs to find what they want.

From Extrinsic Rewards to Intrinsic Rewards: While professionals usually work for an external reward (i.e., money), amateurs work for non-monetary reasons (e.g., for the love of it—in fact, the word ‘amateur’ means a person who does something out of love).  Professional editors work on articles to sell magazines, while amateur editors volunteer on Wikipedia for non-economic reasons.  Interestingly, amateur work on social media typically follows a “Power Law Distribution”: only a few amateurs contribute a lot of work (writing and editing), while a lot of users do little work (just reading).  As Shirky observes, “Fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute, yet that is enough to create profound value for millions of users” (p 125).

To sum it all up, information has become fast, amateurish, and non-monetary.

As a result of these changes, there's now a ton of information coming from all sorts of media.

So are these changes good or bad?  Shirky is optimistic (perhaps too optimistic, as he himself seems to admit).  He makes two optimistic arguments.

First, he gives the “net value argument”: “Increased flexibility and power for group action will have more good effects than bad ones, making the current changes, on balance, positive” (p 296).  Second, he makes an argument that focuses on “political value”: “the current changes are good because they increase the freedom of people to say and do as they like” (p 298).  However, he admits, these arguments are very subjective.  After all, terrorists can self-organize with new media as easily as peaceful flash mobs can, so how can you objectively measure the net value of terrorist groups vs. the net value of Wikipedia editors?  Freedom is great too, but sometimes the free reign of new technologies (e.g., nuclear power) leads to unintended, destructive consequences (e.g., nuclear war).

Then again, technological innovation will happen whether we want it or not, so the ultimate question, Shirky concludes, is this:

Our principal challenge is not to decide where we want to go but rather to stay upright as we go there.  The invention of tools that facilitate group formation is less like ordinary technological change and more like an event, something that has already happened.  As a result, the important questions aren’t about whether these tools will spread or reshape society but rather how they do so” (p 300).