Posts Tagged 'organizations'

Here Comes Everyone and Me

In the past year I have heard or read the name Clay Shirky a number of times, so a few weeks ago while browsing in a bookstore, I purchased his new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2008).  And once I started it, I could not stop.  I found each chapter captivating and informative. His historical overviews and analysis of why and how some social media and other internet tools and entities function (such as weblogs, photo-sharing, social networking sites, wikis, open source software, just to name a few) answered many questions that I had and gave me new insights into what works and how.  Although some who have a strong background in sociology might find his information about human tendencies, groups, and communication too basic, I did not.  For me, they served as a good source of review of some fundamental principles and created a valuable context for thinking about how social media tools intersect with some of those basic human attributes.

Among the topics I found interesting involved discussions of literacy and mass amateurization, broadcast and communication media, revolution and coevolution.  One of the ideas that captured my attention the most was the one dealing with power law distribution and its relation to who participates (and how often) in the social media world.  Amazingly very few.  Although the news would lead us to believe that a huge percentage of people is sharing, collaborating, and coordinating efforts here and there on the internet, only a small percentage do on a regular basis.  As Shirky remarks, most writers have few readers, most photos never receive comments, only a few people actively edit wiki entries, etc. (It is likely, therefore, that no one will respond to this post.)

Another construct I found useful to think about involves what he calls “homophily” and its relationship to social networking.  He claims that what makes networks successful is not the hundreds of connections that individual people in a network have but the thousands of connections that a few highly-connected people have.  He makes the point that the likelihood of my being a highly connected person is low (and he is right about that), but the chance of my knowing one is high (which it true because my friend Cathy is one of those highly-connected people).   When we are trying to make a link with people we don’t know, we are likely to know one of the highly-connected people that they know.  And, it is this relationship that makes social networks work.

Shirky’s discussion of the origin of Linux in 1991 as a leader in open source software initiated by Linus Torvalds highlights an important aspect about organizations and innovations. He maintains that most organizations try to reduce the effect of failures by reducing their likelihood (because failures are costly). But because no one really knows what will be successful and what will fail, organizations tend to select safe choices which in turn inhibits innovation.  Open source like Linux does not have to limit the likelihood of failures; it merely reduces the cost of failures because failures are free.

In reviewing all the successfu ventures that Shirky highlights in his book, he maintains that each has three essential features – promise, tool, and bargain.  They all offer its user a promise that convinces the user to participate.  Since we are all very busy, the promise of something beneficial has to be high or we won’t do it. Second, the tool selected must be appropriate to the task it is intended for (and I would add that it must be easy to use).  Lastly, the users must agree to a set of goals (of sorts) and often the users create these themselves.  He gives the example of wikis and the bargain that users of wikis agree to that they will take care of the site and monitor it so that it will not be sabotaged.

One of the aspects of social media that I connected with because of my teaching of social justice education is the ways in which social media can be used for collective action.  But as Shirky mentions any group can engage in collective action and not all of it is for the common good.  Justice means different things to different people, and there are good groups and bad groups. Thus, the freedom to group quite easily presents us with a social dilemma that we have yet to address.

As the book demonstrates through examples and cases, these social tools do not create the urge to share information or engage in action, they merely provide the means to do it without many of the obstacles of the past.   As such the invention of a tool doesn’t create change.  Change happens after the tool has been around for a long time and enough people are using it so that it seems normal to do so.  So does the fact that billions of people communicating with social tools each day mean that societies are changing?  Clearly communications are changing, but basic human needs and the drive for freedoms from all kinds of systems – political and otherwise – seem to be the same.  Perhaps these new tools can be used more for the good rather than for the bad to improve our societies: I certainly hope so.

So where is the “me” in “here comes everybody”?  Shirky remarks in a concluding chapter that those of us who remember a time when social media did not exist (which includes Shirky and me) are constantly trying to catch up.  And this is what I am trying to do by reading, thinking, participating; I doubt that it will ever end.  Each day there is more technology to learn and more philosophy, sociology, history, psychology, etc. to review and contemplate.  So, I will continue on this journey both individually and collaboratively with others – and have fun along the way!

Thanks Clay for this thought-provoking and timely text.

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