Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Review: Putting the social back into society

Here Comes Everybody: The power of organizing without organizations
Clay Shirky
Allen Lane, £20

What do a lost mobile phone, pictures of a suburban parade and an online encyclopaedia have in common? On the face of it, not that much. But in Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky’s new survey of the landscape and potential impacts of ‘social media’, these and many other examples are cast as the first flowerings of a revolution whose importance we have barely begun to recognize.

The book is an investigation into what can happen – indeed, what is happening – when technology does away with institutional and organizational limits. His argument is simple. New forms of sharing, collaborative production and collective action are emerging, which means that activities that would have been uneconomic or impossible to try and organize through traditional institutions are now suddenly possible.

What does that mean? In the old days, large organizations – corporations, the state – were the best at trying to coordinate solutions to large-scale problems. But this meant that many activities, especially small-scale ones, were not undertaken because it cost too much to try and organize a solution, or it was too difficult to find people willing to participate.

But now, as the cost and ease of collecting, aggregating and sharing information has fallen, through the use of web-based tools like Flickr or Meetup, so has the ability to create 'groups', however widely defined these might be, ready to undertake tasks that otherwise might not get done. Planning becomes less necessary as real-time coordination becomes more possible.

As Shirky says, “As long as there us someone who cares enough to get something started, enough people who only care a little or about one specific issue will gather together, thereby creating an distinctive aggregate effect.” And the tools used to hold these groups together – blogs, discussion lists, even email – in their turn make it possible for everyone to be a publisher too.

Consider the way that Wikipedia has come into the world. A new, generally reliable, source of knowledge has been created not in a hierarchial top-down fashion, but instead in a de-centralised way, by a mass of amateurs, and with little investment on its creators’ part, over and above that of time. But this is not old-fashioned collectivism, but instead “unending argumentation”. And if an encyclopaedia can be produced in this way, then theoretically so can any other form of intellectual property, in what Yochai Benkler calls “commons-based peer production”.

Shirky also begins to explain why it is this mass of amateurs wants to participate in these sorts of activities: using their otherwise redundant knowledge; vanity; and the need and desire to make a meaningful contribution.

That said, the fact that everyone can be a publisher now does not mean that every content creator will now become famous, nor indeed that everyone makes the same level of contribution. Shirky demonstrates how the ‘power law’ applies across most social media endeavours: that they rely disproportionately on the efforts of a few users.

The price of much of this activity is both banality of content, and its near instantaneous redundancy. But then, the same accusation can be made of much mass media, pop cultural product. The important thing to grasp is that, now we can all be publishers, not everything we publish will be meant for everyone.

There is necessarily a political dimension to all this, and in an understated way Shirky suggests that we haven’t yet recognised that we are in the middle of a revolution. "Social tools provide a positive supply-side shock to the amount of freedom in the world,” he argues. They allow weak groups to practice a form of jujitsu against strong ones, as well as being able to – potentially – halt the decline of, or even increase, the stock of social capital available within a community.

If these promises are true, then there is also the tantalizing possibility that the limitations on what the state can provide and deliver can be overcome, through new forms of social and collaborative production. It is this sort of thinking and approach that is underlying some of the current thinking by the UK Conservative party on how the state might look in a post-bureaucratic age.

There are limitations to all the talk of social this and collective that. There is an assumption that the tools of social media are, or are about to become mainstream, and that might not necessarily be the case. It's also unclear whether the ‘value’ that Shirky makes frequent reference to being created can actually be quantified. At least the rapid adoption of social media tools is arguably being driven by the fact that their effective cost of use is zero. But how and where the value that is necessarily being destroyed will be replaced is as yet undefined.

And beware the air of Californian utopianism that bubbles away under the surface and emerges from time to time. "We can do big things for love," he claims, and “turn love into a renewable building material.” Must remember that next Valentine’s day.

But these are minor quibbles about what is likely to be seen as the best book currently available about social media. Shirky is one of the foremost thinkers on how the internet and its related technologies are re-shaping the way we live, and as such is a wise and sure-footed guide through the this emerging world.

Remember: The revolution won't be televised. It will be decentralized, online. And chances are, we'll all be taking part.

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