Reflections on Here Comes Everybody

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody covers some similar territory to Groundswell from a different perspective. Clay isn’t writing tactical advice for a corporate customer base. He talks on a broader scale about the relations between social software and society. Unlike the Forrester book, which has a lot of helpful explanation for skeptics, Shirky assumes that the trends are fundamental and builds from there. The Forrester book is helpful and necessary; Shirky’s bigger picture take is refreshing. The future isn’t evenly distributed; he’s just looking for glimpses of it.
The book provides a concise and catchy summary of some key internet trends observed over the last 10 years. The net frees a “cognitive surplus” – time that had been spent consuming television is being displaced by time spent taking pictures, making movies, playing games. The internet helps people find kindred spirits, for good or ill, whether fellow wiccans or fellow terrorists. The net provides more venues for large scale distributed collaboration, bringing wikipedia and Linux to the world. The net provides new opportunities for powerful organizing – flash mobs can take down governments. Internet organizing is not just about “cyberspace” as a new polity, but new ways of increasing and strengthening in-person ties with tools like Facebook and Meetup.
The big weakness in Shirky’s book is his understanding of organizing. His model of organizations is binary — hierarchies like the 19th century railroad and the Catholic Church on the one hand, and self-organized, evanescent entities like flash mobs on the other. The chapter on the Catholic church is a major red herring. Shirky tells story of VOTF, a group of of Catholic lay people who used the internet to advocate for accountability for clergy who committed sexual abuse, and members of the hierarchy who protected abusers and covered up the scandal. A similar scandal a decade earlier, was swept under the rug, but with better tools to organize, the VOTF had more impact.
This story is a red herring because the Catholic Church is exceptionally hierarchical. There are many other denominations that have congregational models and influential lay leadership for hundreds of years. Catholics adhere to the Church in part because they believe that submitting to God and the church has spiritual value. If they wanted a congregational or informal or individual-centered model for spirituality, they have many other paces to go. The influence of parishioners on the hierarchy is notable — but it’s dramatic because of the unusual nature of Catholicism, not because of the internet.
Shirky overestimates traditional hierarchies, and underestimates movement organizing. Shirky looks at the loosest forms of net organizing — flash mobs and other sorts of ad hoc protest, and wonders what on earth can be coming next. Long before the internet, there were international, organized movements. Anti-slavery, women’s rights, labor; these movements changed society incorporated local organizing and coordination at a distance. They did depend on technology — reliable postal service, printing, and national / international travel that was within the reach of of upper middle class people and funded working class people. People could organize locally, and share ideas; transmit methodology; and organize support globally.
Shirky speculates about what might happen when people organize using the new tools, providing an extended case study of the norms and processes of the wikipedia community. Shirky is right that we don’t know what all of these forms will look like, but there are a number of models to observe by now; this is early sociology not science fiction. Books by Fogel and Weber observe the organizational structures of large, successful open source projects. There are emerging practices for political organizing, in an earlier stage than opensource software.
A flash mob needs very little organization. Unconferences need a tiny bit more. But structure isn’t a thing of the past. When people do net organizing over longer periods of time than an evening or a few weeks, they start to create structures. Longterm goals always require group memory, and may require money and legal protection. Wikis, mailing lists, and conferences transmit knowledge and culture from experienced folk to newbies. Established projects develop processes and often roles for decision-making. Established open source projects create or join foundation umbrellas. Political organizers create PAC arms. Organization itself is not going to fade away, as long as humans need to take action over time; the need to organize over time is fundamental to human culture. Flash mobs alone aren’t going to be able to address global warming or California’s water supply.
My hypothesis is that the biggest discontinuity will turn out to have been mass media. Popular culture is at least as old as civilization. Mass organizing is at least as old as modernity. The energy freed by the net is freed from watching television, and will free up some time to go back to organizing and folk culture (doesn’t mean broadcast is dead; when people remix a tv show it’s alive again). Where shirky is deeply right, I think, is the scale effect. The net enables organizing and folk culture at speed and scale unavailable in the past, and that will add up to differences we can’t predict.

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