Falling in Love with the Internet All Over Again
Sometimes relationships get a little tired.
Maybe you’ve been taking that faithful old World Wide Web for granted? Reading Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations will help you fall in love with the Internet all over again.
Clay Shirky clearly and compellingly describes the many ways that people are taking advantage of web 2.0 and the new social networking technologies.
But, I found Here Comes Everybody to be far more than simply a book about the Internet. Subtitled The Power of Organizing without Organizations, the book is committed to alerting the reader to the possibility of a distinctly new kind of society that the Internet has made possible. Shirky convincingly argues that the Internet is creating not just a networked and interconnected world, but is catalysing the emergence of a post-organizational society.
Check out the video of Clay Shirky’s keynote address at this years Web 2.0 conference (he also posted it here on Worldchanging). To hear him talking personally in more detail about the ideas in Here Comes Everybody, then check out the Authors@Google video presentation.
Having Vocabulary Helps
If you’re a sociologist you may be familiar with ideas like ‘social capital’ and the ‘transaction costs’ associated with various kinds of social and group interactions. However if you’re like me, and trained as a designer or some such, then you probably won’t have any vocabulary to even begin to think about how groups of people organize themselves, let alone talk with other people about it.
Here Comes Everybody provides page after page of useful terminology, and simple but revealing mental models. Most importantly these are bought to life with examples (mainly from the web) that are interesting, funny and thought provoking.
In particular the book distinguishes between the social process of ‘organizing’ (something I do) and the formal entity called ‘organization’ (something I belong to). Shirky does this by describing the origins of the hierarchical model of management, and what that innovation made possible. But most of Here Comes Everybody is spent thoroughly exploring the inherent limits in the management model of organizing human activity, and how the Internet is making interesting new alternatives possible.
In other words, there are many things that no conventional organization (be it a private corporation, a non-profit, or a government agency) is ever going to undertake because they are simply cost too much and offer no clear or reliable benefit. An obvious example of this from Here Comes Everybody is the photo sharing website Flickr. What business could afford to spend endless person-hours taking, tagging, and distributing photographs for free? But add the Internet, digital cameras, broadband, Flickr, and just add humans. All of a sudden the equation looks quite different.
The Flickr example is typical of the way Shirky writes in Here Comes Everybody. Each story operates at a number of levels. First there are the facts, the narrative, and the recognisably human desire to express our selves. Second is the technology, both the cleaver innovations but also the accidental and the law of unintended consequence. And thirdly there is the systems view, the meta-model, and the sociological theory so that we get to see what connects all these stories together.
A Big Heart
I could go on about the big ideas of the book, but what I really want to notice is that Here Comes Everbody is a big-hearted book.
What moved me about the book was not so much the great content, but the humility and humanity of the writing. Clay Shirky’s deep curiosity and engagement with the reality of people doing what people do is compassionate and non-pathologizing, whether its kittens with speech bubbles, or ‘Buffy’ fans, or ice cream activists. Here Comes Everybody remains intensely interested in how people are using new technologies to do what people have always done: share, have conversations, collaborate, and act collectively (or at lease try to).
As someone who struggles with what I perceive as the banality of a lot of the content that is posted on the web, I appreciate Shirky’s ability to suspend judgement and notice and appreciate deeper patterns.
Take the story of the “Pro-Ana” girls for example. A group of mostly teenage girls who use the web to exchange tips about how to not eat. Yes, that’s right, “Pro-Ana” means pro-anorexia. The web-site that unwittingly facilitated the emergence of the group understandably shut them down, but of course once they had found each other, setting up their on their own was easy. More than just easy it was now ‘free’.
While the ‘appropriate’ response is to condemn the “Pro-Ana” girls, Here Comes Everybody goes with them on their journey. They are just one example of what is now possible for people who find themselves in a minority, who live in geographically or otherwise distributed groups, who want to share information that is useful to them, and who live in social settings that are unhelpful or actively antagonistic to their aspirations. These people can now have access to the most basic of human needs: community.
No Cost Group Formation
Imagine the ‘transaction costs’ if you wanted to connect with other like-minded people around a specific interest without the Internet and social networking sites. You’d have to place advertisements in every newspaper in the country just to get enough people in the room, and then you’d have the cost of getting them in the same room, not mention the time involved in making it all happen and coordinating the follow up. Add to that the possibility of unwanted attention from authorities, neighbours and the media, and you start to see how many of today’s groups simply could not ‘afford’ to exist.
The anorexia example is problematic (and distressing). But substitute “Pro-Ana” for “Pro-Democracy”, or “Bright Green” and you are confronted with exactly the same underlying pattern. Here Comes Everybody signals the arrival of a time where it may no longer possible to deal with groups of people whose values we don’t like by just making the ‘transaction cost’ of their relationships unaffordable. Whether we, or our governments, or corporations, or non-profits want people not to be anorexic, or democratic, or create sustainable futures is not so much the point. Globally we are now all increasingly ‘in relationship’ with each other, and each other’s various aspirations.
It is a going to be a real challenge to live in an environment where power is this ‘flat’ precisely because we can no longer simply shut the “Pro-Ana” girls down. They now have a place to stand. Virtual sovereignty is still sovereignty.
For the first time people can (assuming you are on-line) enjoy not just the right to free-association, but the activity of free association. Free not just in terms of choice, but free in terms of both cost and consequence.
Inhabiting a New Ecosystem
I have a hunch that the Internet is really a metaphor, a useful way for us to model (or invoke) something as complex and transparent as consciousness. It is like we needed a way to externalise something that we have found ourselves immersed in that we slowly learning (and needing) to “make object”.
Human relationships are complex enough at the one to one level. If we are to learn the craft of creating positive ‘collective action’ in very large systems, having a practice field in which we can learn the rules and develop new ways of being may prove invaluable.
The challenge of bringing these new behaviours ‘out of the lab’ and enacting them in the spheres of our personal lives feels like the necessary next step. The collapse in the ‘transaction costs’ of creating groups may well help realise a qualitatively new and improved kind of human experience. If this were true then it would be the responsibility of those of us with access to these new social tools to exercise them in the most constructive ways we can imagine.
To do this we may need some kind of meta-model to guide us. For me it is incredibly useful just to be able to think about the difference between ‘bonding capital’ and ‘bridging capital’ in a network, and Clay Shirky’s book is full of such distinctions. Here Comes Everybody provides a much-needed map for people who want to operate in this new social space, where the rules are both subtly and radically different.
Great article Billy! I'm already looking at the book on Amazon. One general theme that stood out at me while reading your post is that the internet is essentially making a once opaque social world more transparent. Our concept of "normal" is entirely dictated by the evidence we see in our daily lives - we edit our definition of normal as new experiences and interactions change our views. Just as Kinsey revolutionized the way we perceive what "normal" sex lives are, the internet is revolutionizing what we think "normal" everything is. We now have access to the experiences and opinions of the entire world and this makes notions of "average" and "normal" incredibly more flexible than they once were. Once "abnormal" people are empowered by the fact that the internet has made it nearly impossible for anyone to be considered "normal". It's really hopeful to think that for the first time we have more freedom to be ourselves than ever before.