Here Comes Everybody

Internet activism

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations’ is a 2008 book by Clay Shirky, which evaluates the effect of the Internet on modern group dynamics. The author considers examples such as ‘Wikipedia’ and ‘MySpace’ in his analysis, and says his book is about ‘what happens when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structure.’

The title of the work alludes to ‘HCE,’ a recurring and central figure in James Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake.’ In the book, Shirky recounts how social tools such as blogging software like WordPress and Twitter, file sharing platforms like Flickr, and online collaboration platforms like Wikipedia support group conversation and group action in a way that previously could only be achieved through institutions.

In the same way the printing press increased individual expression, and the telephone increased communications between individuals, Shirky argues that with the advent of online social tools, groups can form without the previous restrictions of time and cost. Shirky observes that: ‘[Every] institution lives in a kind of contradiction: it exists to take advantage of group effort, but some of its resources are drained away by directing that effort. Call this the institutional dilemma–because an institution expends resources to manage resources, there is a gap between what those institutions are capable of in theory and in practice, and the larger the institution, the greater those costs.’

Online social tools, Shirky argues, allow groups to form around activities ‘whose costs are higher than the potential value,’ for institutions. Shirky further argues that the successful creation of online groups relies on successful fusion of a, ‘plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain for the user.’ However, Shirky warns that this system should not be interpreted as a recipe for the successful use of social tools as the interaction between the components is too complex. Shirky also discusses the possibility of ‘mass amateurization’ that the internet allows. With blogging and photo-sharing websites, anyone can publish an article or photo that they have created. This creates a mass amateurization of journalism and photography, requiring a new definition of what credentials make someone a journalist, photographer, or news reporter. The phenomenon threatens to change the way news is spread throughout different media outlets.

In Chapter Two, ‘Sharing Anchors Community,’ the author uses theories from the 1937 paper ‘The Nature of the Firm’ by Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase to access the various challenges that transaction costs pose to institutions. From these theories, Shirky derives two terms that represent the constraints under which institutions operate: Coasean Ceiling (the point above which the transaction costs of managing a standard institutional form prevent it from working well) and Coasean Floor (the point below which the transaction costs of a particular type of activity, no matter how valuable to someone, are too high for a standard institutional form to pursue). The author argues that social tools drastically reduce transaction costs, allowing loosely structured groups with limited managerial oversight to operate under the Coasean Floor. As an example, he cites Flickr, which allows groups to organically form around themes of images without the transaction costs of managerial oversight.

In Chapter Eleven, ‘Promise, Tool, Bargain,’ Shirky states that each success story of using social tools to form groups contained within the book is an example of the complex fusion of ‘a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users.’ The first challenge to creating an effective promise is that the claim on the users’ time for a particular activity must be greater than the activity the users are already doing. A second challenge is that social tools be satisfying to the individual user. Shirky says that ‘in systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.’ This explains, among other things, the dynamics (and ultimately the success) of tools like wikis where there is a disproportionate amount of participation by an extremely small percentage of the overall users, while the vast majority contribute little or nothing.

In an interview with Journalism.co.uk, Clay Shirky recants some of his own work that ‘democratic legitimization is itself enough to regard aggregate public opinion as being clearly binding on the government.’ Shirky uses the example of the prioritization of a campaign to legalize medical marijuana on Change.gov, stating that while it was a ‘net positive,’ for democracy, it was not an absolute positive. He concedes that public pressure via the Internet could be another implementation method for special interest groups.

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