I have been a fan of Clay Shirky since I first found his work. Several early posts on this blog were commentary on his articles covering topics such as process, situated software, and the semantic web. As a faculty member of the ITP program at NYU, he writes incisively about the impact of new social technologies on the communications of many to many, the title of the group blog where he posts. So I was thrilled when he mentioned that he had written a book. And after blasting through the book over the weekend, my expectations have been exceeded.
Shirky starts off with the story of a lost phone. The phone was left in a taxi in New York, but eventually ended up in the hands of a teenage girl. When asked politely to return the phone to its owner, the girl responded with taunts; after all, what could the owner do? A friend of the owner started a web page to tell the story of the lost phone. Since the phone’s data was mirrored on the cell phone website, he posted pictures that the girl had taken with the phone as well as the email address she was using from the phone. The story went viral, and thousands of people started emailing with advice, including members of the New York Police Department, and eventually the girl was found and arrested for holding stolen property.
How did this coalition of people come into existence? How could this story of a lost phone reach thousands of people and convince many of them to help find the phone? Shirky provides a guide as to how and why the world has changed in response to evolving social technologies such that the lost phone could be found in a way that would be unthinkable even ten years ago.
Shirky sets the stage by discussing the work of Ronald Coase, who wondered why companies existed. Free markets suffice to connect buyers to sellers, so why were markets unable to connect individual workers together to make products? He suggested that transaction costs explained this inconsistency. Transaction costs are the externalities associated with a market transaction, the time spent finding the appropriate people and “making and enforcing agreements among the participating parties”. If the transaction costs are high to find coworkers (as anybody who has spent time interviewing potential employees will attest), then companies make sense so that the transaction cost is a one-time cost of hiring rather than having to find coworkers for each new project.
Shirky posits that in such a world, there exists a Coasean floor, below which there are types of interactions that are impossible because the transaction costs are too high. Such activities “are valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way, because the basic and unsheddable costs of being an institution in the first place make those activities not worth pursuing”. Shirky uses the example of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Hundreds of people take pictures of the parade each year and share them with friends and family, but had no way to share them with each other. In 2005, Flickr appeared and now it’s trivial to find pictures of the Mermaid Parade taken by dozens of people. A company would never find it profitable to organize this sharing of pictures, but Flickr enabled it by letting people organize themselves, an activity that would previously have been below the Coasean floor.
These newly possible activities are moving us towards the collapse of social structures created by technology limitations. Shirky compares this process to how the invention of the printing press impacted scribes. Suddenly, their expertise in reading and writing went from essential to meaningless. Shirky suggests that those associated with controlling the means to media production are headed for a similar fall. Twenty years ago, achieving an audience of more than a few dozen people required signing a deal with a publishing house, getting on TV, working at a newspaper, etc. With the global audience of the Web, everybody is a publisher, and the concept of a professional publisher or journalist or broadcaster is disappearing.
This collapse of institutions comes at a price, as it has become increasingly difficult to find the “good” stuff. Under the previous regime, quality was implied by publication, as the costs of publication meant that institutions would filter material before publishing it. With publishing costs dropping to zero, anything can be published, so we must find ways to filter for quality after publication. We are quickly developing the tools to handle this filtering, starting with Google, whose PageRank algorithm rewards pages that are linked to by others, and continuing with our communities, where we check out links that our friends email to us or post on their blogs, but we are still learning to live in this paradigm.
These new social tools are enabling new social patterns. Shirky suggests that group activities are being enabled at three levels:
- Sharing, with tools like Flickr and del.icio.us allowing us to share things with others
- Collaboration, with a primary example being Wikipedia or Linux
- Collective action, where a group of people forms to pursue a larger purpose, and uses social tools ranging from web pages to discussion groups to email lists to enable them to stay connected with each other and stay unified.
The rest of the book is filled with wonderful examples of each of these activities, such as Egyptian activists using Twitter to keep each other updated of their activities and confrontations with authority, or Belarussian protestors using LiveJournal to organize flash mobs.
I started to write up all the bits that I liked, but realized that I was just repeating everything in the book, so you should just buy the book and read it yourself. To whet your appetite, I’ll include his practical advice on how to form a sustainable social group:
Every story in this book relies on a successful fusion of a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users. The promise is the basic “why” for anyone to join or contribute to a group. The tool helps with the “how” – how will the difficulties of coordination be overcome, or at least be held to manageable levels? And the bargain sets the rules of the road: if you are interested in the promise and adopt the tools, what can you expect, and what will be expected of you?”
Shirky’s book is a terrific introduction to the world of social technology, with an overview of both the social and the technological and how they are interacting with each other to form new mashups. I highly recommend it to anybody who has the faintest interest in how new tools are giving us more power by multiplying the number of ways in which we can interact with each other.
P.S. Some quotes I particularly liked:
- “Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” (with the example that people my age know that the fax machine predates the Web, but have no idea about the ordering of radio compared to the telephone since both of those technologies preceded us. Similarly, teens today have always lived in a world with always-on Internet access, so the Internet is not technology to them, it’s just the world.)
- “Cities exist because people like to be near other people, and it is this fact, rather than the mere trading of information, that creates social capital. (Anyone who predicts the death of cities has already met their spouse.)”
- “The groups now adopting social tools form the experimental wing of political philosophy, a place where hard questions of group governance are being worked out.”
P.P.S. If you prefer to watch rather than read, check out Clay Shirky’s Long Now talk, where he covers some of the same material. In particular, he discusses the power of tagging to organize the world’s information without anybody actually taking responsibility for the organization.