Shirky: Here Comes Everybody

Thanks to Ken Carroll’s recommendation, I’ve been enjoying Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.  The subtitle shows you where he’s going: “the power of organizing without organizations.”

What's good for the goose...

I like the way he illustrates points.  Yes, it’s obvious that groups are different from individuals; Shirky underscores the difficulty of maintaining connections as a group grows larger.  “In a small group [making a toast], everyone can clink with everyone else; in a larger group, people touch glasses only with those near them.”

We’re near people in different ways, thanks to all kinds of new tools, but we’re all going to hit a limit with our virtual glass-clinking.  One person I follow on Twitter has over 7,000 followers.  To spend 30 seconds a month on each follower would cost that person 58 hours.  (Shirky: fame is an imbalance between inbound and outboudn attention.)

Shirky outlines three levels to group undertaking:

  • Sharing (which places the fewest demands on participants)
  • Cooperation (synchronizing your behavior with that of others)
  • Collective action

Each level requires individuals to release some of their own freedom of action in other to work more productively with others toward some end.  You don’t have to do much to share photos on Flickr; you need to do more to be part of the Photos of Fire Trucks group; and you have to do a lot more to, say, create a Wikipedia page about Flickr.

Chapter 3 is especially interesting for people who think of themselves as professionals.  A profession, Shirky holds, exists to solve a hard problem requiring some sort of specialization.  Modern example: journalism.  Older example: scribes.

What seems like a fixed and abiding category like ‘journalist’ turns out to be tied to an accidental scarcity created by the expense of publishing apparatus…. when that scarcity gets undone, the seemingly stable categories turn out to be unsupportable…

I talk often with people who aren’t on Facebook, who don’t read blogs (let alone write them), who’ve never edited a Wikipedia article, who don’t text, and who have no idea what Twitter does.  Shirky speaks directly to them:

…Dozens of weblogs have an audience of a million or more, and millions have an audience of a dozen or less.

It’s easy to see this as a kind of failure.  Who would want to be a publisher with only a dozen readers?… It’s easy to deride this sort of thing as self-absorbed publishing–why would anyone put such drivel out in public.

It’s simple.  They’re not talking to you.

Most “user-generated content,” he says, isn’t content, “any more than a phone call between you and a relative is ‘family-generated content.'”  The former sharp break between broadcasting and communicating (one-to-many vs. one-to-one) is fading.  We (especially people who became adults before there were cell phones) tend to think of any communication we encounter as a broadcast–because that’s what used to be the case.

“Flying geese” quilt photo by cascade_lilly.

2 thoughts on “Shirky: Here Comes Everybody

  1. Hi Dave, cute use of the photo of my quilt – I hadn’t previously considered it to be a metaphor of disconnect between levels within an organisation (formal or informal). But now that you place it in that context…perhaps it was subconscious on my part!

  2. Lily,

    I’m always surprised by the quality and the originality of images I find when I search for CC-licensed photos. The little I know about quilts meant that I recognized the flying-geese motif. That got me thinking about individual geese, and flocks, and (as you can see if you hover the cursor over the image) a certain proverbial phrase.

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