March 7, 2013 by karamcaulay
Here Comes Everybody
by Clay Shirky
“Group action gives human society its particular character, and anything that changes the way groups get things done will affect society as a whole.”
Clay Shirky, in his book Here Comes Everybody, says that the future presented by the internet is the mass amateurization of publishing and a switch from “Why publish this?” to “Why not?” We’ve become dramatically connected through social tools, which will bring much change in the way we collaborate and create. A revolution ensues, of which Shirky says, “Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies, it happens when society adopts new behaviors.” These new behaviors are creating new ways of collaborating – crowds can get a job done better than a single mind. Social tools reduce the cost of forming groups and therefore make it easier to participate in collective action. However, the dramatic improvement in our social tools means that our control over those tools is much like steering a kayak. Shirky says that we are being pushed rapidly down a route largely determined by the technological environment.
Shirky likens our new way of mass communication and collaboration to that of a bee hive. He says, “The hive is a social device, a piece of bee information technology that provides a platform, literally, for the communication and coordination that keeps the colony viable. Bees make hives, we make mobile phones.” Tools like mobile phones allow people to easily coordinate group efforts in the palm of their hand, but just because we have the tools doesn’t mean people will engage in collective action. What people need is a reason to do something. Shirky explains this in the beginning of his book, “One of the few uncontentious tenets of economics is that people respond to incentives. If you give them more of a reason to do something, they will do more of it, and if you make it easier, they will also do more of it.”
He uses Wikipedia as an example: help gather human knowledge in a group effort with no pay back other than helping a community. Shirky says that the more simple the incentive, or promise as he calls it, is what drives people to collaborate – help make this better. That’s all. Nothing more.
Winds of change
“It is easier to understand that you face competition than obsolescence.”
Shirky talks of embracing technological change and accepting a new direction or face the inevitable outcome of becoming obsolete. He goes on to say that it’s not the invention of the tool itself that creates change; it’s how society uses it. He underscores his opinion by highlighting the fact that, “we are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past. Any radical change in our ability to communicate with one another changes society.”
He speaks of the fact that more and more groups will form and pursue new possibilities that were not available before. He provides examples of the Linux open source operating system, Wikipedia and Meetup.com. They are all groups that are self-directed and have much success at the hands of the group. They are successful mainly because they can continuously fail. The cost of trying a new idea in a collaborative community is almost free compared to an incorporated business trying to pursue too many strategies – in which case the cost is high.
With change comes both new opportunities and the loss of existing ones. Shirky says, “Our new freedoms are not without their problems; it’s not a revolution if nobody loses. The loss from this kind of change is real but limited and is accompanied by generally beneficial social change.” He says some professions will be lost, but new ones will present themselves. He believes that organizations can thrive if they realize that they cannot completely control and shape their future. Outside forces such as social tools used by groups in ways not possible before, will shape the future, and to conclude Shirky says, “Our principal challenge is not deciding where we want to go, but rather in staying upright as we go there.”
“I study the effects of the internet on society.”
Clay Shirky is a teacher, writer and consultant on the social and cultural effects of the internet and mobile phones, particularly where they allow for amateur access to the public sphere and easy coordination for group action. He holds a joint appointment at NYU as Arts Professor at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program in the Tisch School of the Arts.