One side-effect of falling ill is the need to slow down and the opportunity this gives to catch up with reading. Clay Shirky’s new book Here comes everybody is a delight from first page to last, so that’s some compensation.
But where does this book belong? Is it about economics; social science; or technology? Yes, and a bit more too as it’s also about politics and publishing.
Why publish a book? Because books are slower and more reflective than online publishing, and Shirky gives us a wide-angled view of the effects of social software on society. It hardly matters that Twitter took off after he started writing, as he’d adequately covered the convergence of the internet and mobile technologies in forming groups and supporting conversation and collective action.
The book, subtitled ‘the power of organizing without organizations’ tells some familiar and some unfamiliar stories in lively language. There’s Linux and the open source software movement; Wikipedia, the reader-edited encyclopedia; and many ordinary people gathering for a variety of social purposes. Shirky’s central argument is that humans are intensely social animals. While technology doesn’t determine our behaviour, we will adapt technology tools to our purposes. So he charts the transformation of the social web from (mainly male) geeks discussing programming languages on bulletin boards to (mainly) young women using Facebook to facilitate their real-world social lives. In doing so, he proclaims the death of cyberspace (since the social web is now so well adapted to our social lives and is no longer another place).
The economic insights are arresting. Open source software has become the greatest threat to a well-organised company like Microsoft not because it’s a better way to produce software for the market, but because open source removes the costs of failure and so encourages inventiveness. Companies have to manage for consistency and so will aim to reduce failures; open source projects will most likely fail. But the ease of coming together and collaborating can occasionally produce something of lasting value (think of Linux and Wikipedia again.)
And the economics of publishing have changed. The model used to be filter, then publish (so only a few books made it into print through layers of agents and publishers and shelf space in bookshops and review pages in newspapers). Now the model is publish, then filter. The barriers to publication are negligible, but most web pages and blogs have very few readers, with a few gaining a disproportionate amount of attention (Shirky’s famous power law distribution).
His perspective on the convergence of digital technologies is memorable. Phone calls (private, personal) used to be completely distinct from broadcasting (one to many, public). The internet supports both forms of communication simultaneously, so a few blogs have become recognisable as newspapers (a broadcast model), but most are closer to private conversations among a tight circle of friends (the phone model). He dismisses the supposed benefits of interactivity since the most famous bloggers don’t have time to maintain conversations with their many readers.
At heart, the book is about mass amateurisation and the effects this is likely to have on recognisably professional areas (such as journalism, marketing, public relations, management.) The message is likely to appeal to two hitherto distinct groups: champions of free speech and free markets on the one hand, and anarchists and anti-corporate activists on the other. I suspect there’s a ‘middle majority’ who won’t read this book, or who will reject its arguments (just as they’ve always said that Wikipedia won’t work).
They will miss the optimistic message of this book. That humans are inventive and sociable, and that technology serves the needs of individuals and groups. While scarcity remains a factor in many aspects of life (time, space, food, water, fuel), the removal of scarcity in our communications tools is unleashing a new era of creativity.