Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Here Comes Everybody

Cover of Here Comes EverybodyNow that I've finished Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, I'm recommending it to anyone who has an interest in the ways things have been changing lately -- the death of the newspaper, the rise of social media, the shift in how politics operates, and more.

There were a lot of ah-ha moments as I read the book. Shirky does a good job of explaining how structured organizations have operated up until now, a necessary base for understanding how things have changed. I have to admit, this is not something I've thought a lot about, having had a lifelong resistance to joining structured organizations. That type of structure has a minimum cost to it, and because of that cost, companies have not been able to provide some services or products because the cost is too high compared to the price people would be willing to pay for them.

Examples where social media, which allow for organizing without organizations, have provided a service that no traditional corporation could afford to provide:

  • Flickr photo sharing from events
  • Flash mobs organized via LiveJournal or groups organized with Meetup
  • A far-ranging encyclopedia created by users via the Wikipedia.
Key concepts in the book

Publish, then filter. Up until now, the standard has been filter, then publish -- which was the job of the editor, paid by some type of corporation. With social media, the cost of publishing has decreased so drastically that there is no need to limit what gets published. This turns everything on its head:
Though the filtering of the good from the mediocre starts as an economic imperative, the public enjoys the value of that filtering as well, because we have historically relied on the publisher's judgment to help ensure minimum standards of quality. Where publishing is hard and expensive, every instance of the written word comes with an implicit promise: someone besides the writer thought this was worth reading. (pages 97-98).
Mass amateurization, which results from the loss of preemptive filtering. The Wikipedia is an example of this, and while one might expect it means all those amateurs would contribute equally, that is typically not the case. In fact, there is a fairly standard curve that shows the amount of participation in different collaborative media, and that curve is very high at the left end (a small number of users) and very low for a long time at the right end (the vast majority of users).

Graph starting with a high point at left, followed by a steep drop and long tail off to the right
Power law distribution is the name for that curve. Shirky writes, "This pattern is general to social media: on mailing lists with more than a couple dozen participants, the most active writer is generally much more active than the person in the number-two slot, and far more active than the average." (page 124) And this imbalance is not a bad thing:
...the imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them. Fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute, yet it is enough to create profound value for millions of users....

Though the word "ecosystem" is overused as a way to make simple situations seem more complex, it is merited here, because large social systems cannot be understood as a simple aggregation of the behavior of some nonexistent "average" user. (page 125)
This power law distribution is key to how social media work, because a few people who care a lot about something can suddenly have an effect because they can more easily hook up with a lot of people who care a little:
Having a handful of highly motivated people and a mass of barely motivated ones used to be a recipe for frustration. The people who were on fire wondered why the general population didn't care more, and the general population wondered why those obsessed people didn't just shut up. Now the highly motivated people can create a context more easily in which the barely motivated people can be effective without having to become activists themselves. (page 182)
Open source works because it makes failure free. Well, not free to the person who fails, but free to the larger group. Here, the classic example is the development of the Linux operating system. It's publish then filter yet again -- or, as in the old saying, throw a bunch of ideas against the wall and see which ones stick. It almost sounds like natural selection.

The takeaway

The book concludes with a set of parameters that any successful social medium or movement must meet. Of course, these are easy to assess post hoc, and hard to create on purpose. They are:
  • A plausible promise (why join?)
  • An effective tool (how will coordination happen?)
  • An acceptable bargain with the users/members (what can they expect, and what is expected of them?)
The promise is essential because, as Shirky writes, "Any new claim on someone's time must obviously offer some value, but more important, it must offer some value higher than something else she already does, or she won't free up the time." (page 262)

For instance, why have I started visiting Facebook every day? (And why did I just go reflexively check it when I wrote that sentence?) It's because it's giving me something -- mundane, day-to-day connection with people from all different parts of my life history. What have I given up to have time for it? Probably some television watching. Not much of a loss.

Getting a social media group going is hard, Shirky points out. Most people don't want to put energy into something that doesn't have critical mass, but a group can't attain critical mass without people putting energy into it. It's like stone soup for the soul, and the solution, he says, is for the organizers to be active hosts, circulating constantly to make people feel welcome. He quotes one of the founders of Flickr: "you have to greet the first 10,000 users personally." (page 264)

Finding the right tool is next. Two criteria to use in assessing tools are the number of people involved and the duration of the involvement. Shirky emphasizes that we not poo-poo existing tools like blogs or wikis, or even long-standing ones like email lists and discussion groups. He writes, "The most profound effects of social tools lag their invention by years, because it isn't until they have a critical mass of adopters, adopters who take these tools for granted, that their real effects begin to appear." (page 270)

Finally, the bargain. "The essential aspect of the bargain is that the users have to agree to it... the bargain has to be part of the lived experience of interaction." (page 273) A wiki's bargain is that anyone can write, and anyone can edit anyone else's copy. Wikis that work do so because adherents take ownership, and prevent pranksters from destroying the content (at least, from destroying it for any great length of time). Some Flickr groups work by having rules about commenting on others' photos two times for every photo you upload, which leads to everyone getting feedback, thus fulfilling the group's bargain.

As an aside, Shirky points out that the way those Flickr groups work is called "equality matching," in the words of a UCLA anthropologist named Alan Page Fiske, who has written about four modes of participation: equality matching, communal sharing, authority ranking and market pricing. Traditional publishing with an editor's vetting is an example of authority ranking; market pricing is all too familiar in our capitalist economy. Which left me wondering how communal sharing would play out. Guess I'll have to go look up some of Fiske's work.

It's information like that, sprinkled throughout Here Comes Everybody, that makes reading Clay Shirky so fun and invigorating. There's always something more to think about.


elena said...
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elena said...

Whew: how do you do it?! Great review. Did you know that "Here Comes Everybody" is from Finnegans Wake? (HCE)...Shirky probably mentions that.Anyway, you've convinced me that I should read this book.

Daughter Number Three said...

Having never read Finnegan's Wake, I didn't know the title was a reference, and I don't remember Shirky mentioning it, but I may have missed it. Or he may assume we're all in on it already. Not me, though!