Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations
Clay Shirky opens the book with a long, detailed, and hilariously entertaining anecdote, “It takes a village to find a phone,” about the “StolenSidekick” story of late 2006. In short, a woman loses a phone in a New York City taxicab, finds out who took it after the person used the phone to send emails and pictures, and her friend Evan sets up a website drawing public attention to the situation – and the eventual return of the phone – strictly through the power of his network. This was, of course, a great example of the power of technology to bring people together for a cause with minimal effort on the part of most. But it was really a summation of the points he went on to make through the rest of his book, being:
1. Coasean economic theory
2. The power law distribution
3. The power of aggregation
Yeah, I had to look up Coasean economics too. But Shirky does explain it fairly well in subsequent chapters. It basically states that the cost of creating and keeping an organization afloat revolves around transaction costs. Thus, the reason why hierarchical organizations exist is the ability to control transaction costs in regards to the division of labor. But for an organization formed and executed online, there often is no need (or desire) for a hierarchical system. In the case of the lost mobile phone, hundreds of thousands of people were organized for a common cause, and the outcome of this organization was roundly successful. Very few (and closer to zero) people had to expend any time, money, or effort to contribute to making this successful. Wherein the only person who expended any real time, money, and effort is Evan. Thus, the transaction costs for organizing a group this large were minimal. Which brings me to his next point…
Power law distribution
Have you ever heard a store manager (for example) say that 20% of his inventory drives 80% of his profits? The same is true in organizations, and much more true with the aid of technology. As in the case of the lost mobile phone, the vast majority of this group (those following and commenting on the blog, offering tips and advice) were basically inactive, offering only the support of their eyes and ears. Most likely did not comment, or commented only once. There were the few who offered tips and suggestions and research that ended up being useful. There was Evan, who did the vast majority of the work, but without the rest of the thousands of inactive or partially active users, the experiment would have failed.
Most modern organizations and networks follow the same distribution, be it Myspace or the blogosphere or whatever. The majority of the connections and content are being produced by a very small number of users, whereas there are exponentially more participants who are completely inactive. Thus, there is no way to categorize an “average” user, as the extremes on both ends will render this figure useless.
This we of course all know. Technology enables us to compile large amounts of data quickly. What’s the big deal now? As it relates to organizations, and as Shirky mentions, the sharing and exchange of ideas is central to the new model of organizations. Shirky talks about the support of a programming language like C++ – a hugely successful and powerful bit of technology with a support desk to match, versus a language called “Perl” that relied mainly on crowdsourced information and fixes from the forums with much success. Certainly this will not always be the case, but the aggregation of ideas from many different users (all with different levels of involvement of course) yielded a very successful organization of programmers. In the case of the mobile phone, the individual contributions of one person – even Evan – were meaningless, but the aggregation of many of these ideas led to the success of the organization.
Where I most agreed with Shirky was his assessment of human behavior as it relates to technology. As others have pointed out in book reports, there is a sentiment that technology is destroying the social fabric of which we are made up. I disagree, as does Shirky. Calling to mind Marshall McLuhan’s “extensions”, Shirky explains that “We adopt those tools that amplify our capabilities, and we modify our tools to improve that amplification.” (p. 187)
Another complaint specifically regarding online social networking is that online friendships and life are somehow different or less worthy than “real life”. But Shirky and I agree that there is not a great dichotomy between the online world and the offline world. “In the developed world, the experience of the average twenty-five-year-old is one of substantial overlap between online and offline friends and colleagues. The overlap is so great, in fact, that both the word and the concept of “cyberspace” have fallen into disuse. The internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an alternative to it.” (p. 196) In a prior blog post, I also discussed this topic in detail.
In regards to the web in general as it relates to traditional “one-to-many” communication, Shirky has this to say, by far my favorite quote from the book: “Now we know that the Web is not a perfect antidote to the problems of mass media, because some of those problems are human and are not amenable to technological fixes. This is bad news for that school of media criticism that has assumed that the authorities are keeping the masses down. In the weblog world there are no authorities, only masses, and yet the accumulated weight of attention continues to create the kind of imbalances we associate with traditional media.” (p. 94)
Of course, I can’t end without mentioning the modern free-publishing theme of publish-then-filter. Essentially, this is a way of crowdsourcing content, the only negative of which is a multitude of information. There are no editors to be the gatekeeper – rather, the gatekeeper is society’s general acceptance or rejection of a particular piece of content and how willing they are to pass it on to one another.
Though many parts of Here Comes Everybody delve into the business and economics of organization (and thus can get tedious), this was absolutely an enjoyable read. I wouldn’t consider it entirely useful in the sense of “this is a manual for X kind of managers to capture the future of the internet” or anything like that, but simply a more detailed explanation of how “The Times, They Are A-Changin’.”