[CMS.861] Here Comes Everybody…And It’s Gonna Be Awesome

Note: this post appeared as part of my coursework for CMS.861 Networked Social Movements at the Center for Civic Media at MIT.

Here Comes Everybody from Gabi Schaffzin on Vimeo.

Clay Shirky introduces us to the issues we’ll be dealing with in Here Comes Everybody with an anecdote—a mechanism that he will use throughout the rest of the book. In chapter one, he tells the story of Ivanna’s phone, left in a New York City cab in May 2006, and the epic battle to retrieve it and shame the individual in whose possession the phone ended up. After Ivanna’s friend Evan posted her story to the Internet, he passed the link among his friends and family who spread the link further through their respective networks. Eventually, after a huge spike in traffic to Evan’s site, the broadcasting of email addresses, threats of physical violence against Evan, the arrest of the perpetrator, the return of the phone, and Evan’s decidedly smart choice to go into the public relations industry, some serious questions were still left unanswered. “Do we want a world in which a well-off grown-up can use this kind of leverage to get a teenager arrested?…a world where, whenever someone with this kind of leverage gets riled up, they can unilaterally reset all the priorities of the local police departments?” (13-14)

These questions, Shirky notes, are rhetorical. “The real question is, What happens next?” (14).

In the case of Here Comes Everybody, what follows is ten more chapters, each presented with another story from popular culture—be it how a website like Meetup.com came to be, how activists shined light on the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals, how Linux was created by both one developer and a community of developers, and so on—combined with a framework or tenet of our new organizing tools. Throughout, he points out that the tools we have today (or, at least, the ones that were available up to and at the point of the book’s 2008 publishing) are responsible for significantly lowering the barriers to entry on accessing the energy, skills, and attention of groups of disparate individuals. By making it easier to organize, he offers, more people will do so: “One of the 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 to do more of something they are already inclined to do, they will also do more of it” (18).

Chapter two uses The Birthday Paradox (though Shirky correctly points out it is no paradox, “just a surprise”) to illustrate the complexities in organizing even relatively small groups. When comparing your birthday with one other person, there is only one connection to compare. When comparing your birthday to two other people, you now have three connections to compare: you to Bob, you to Alice, Alice to Bob. By the time the group grows to five, you have ten comparisons. Thus, as a group grows—even at a slow pace—the organizational structure required to manage it becomes increasingly more complicated.

Thus, if someone were to try to organize the collection of photographs taken at the annual Mermaid Parade in Coney Island in New York City, even as the number of photographers grew one or two per year, the task would be nearly impossible. Fortunately for the event organizers, in 2005, hundreds of photographers from the event used a relatively young photo organizing site called Flickr to pool thousands of photos taken during that year’s parade. The event had existed before Flickr. And the photographers had, too. So had the photographers’ desire to share the photographs. But until Flickr provided a simple to use and free space for photo collection, there had never been as strong a central repository.

Throughout the chapter, Shirky uses both the “Coasean Ceiling” and “Coasean Floor” to make his points—references to Ronald Coase’s essay, “The Nature of The Firm.” The former refers to the point at which the high transaction costs of managing an organization no longer make the existence of the organization worth it. The latter is the point at which the transaction costs become so low, that there is no payoff for the organization to exist to perform its function. Our new social tools, Shirky argues, enable us to break through the Coasean floor by creating loosely organized groups (photographers who happened to be at the Mermaid Parade) whose transaction costs are so low, there’s very little incentive not to perform them (pooling photos from an event).

In chapter three, Shirky introduces us to the struggles of media outlets as they have been forced to contend with self-published individuals from non-traditional outlets. He recalls similar struggles as professional scribes—individuals paid to write manuscripts out by hand—were put out of business by the printing press in the 1400’s. The larger issues associated with this struggle, however, are not only experienced by journalists—they are also experienced by consumers and analysts of media as they try to resolve who a journalist is to begin with. “Now that there is no limit to those who can commit acts of journalism, how should we alter journalistic privilege to fit that new reality?” Shirky also gives a shout-out to CMS’s own Ethan Zuckerman during this chapter, pointing out Global Voices’ unique spot in the media industry.

Having established that we are dealing with a media landscape in serious flux, Shirky uses chapter four to consider the roles of media producer and media consumer when it comes to the interaction between the two. He calls out LiveJournal and other blog services that enable the production of completely unfiltered content and goes through some of the changes that a move from “filter-then-publish” to “publish-then-filter” means to the media landscape. “Filter-then-publish,” he writes, “whatever its advantages, rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means that the only working system is publish-then-filter” (98). Shirky goes on to explain that the job of filtering now belongs to the communities consuming the content, rather than the content creators. These communities are tended to by individuals driven to participate out of emotional connection (what Shirky calls “love”), not money—the latter not being as important now that transaction costs to participate are so low.

These changes, he offers, should not be considered “an improvement to modern society, they are a challenge to it” (107). The printing press was not simply an improvement. It allowed for a completely different culture. A change like this leads to revolution, Shirky posits. “The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society” (107). This certainly brings to mind the discussion we had in class a few weeks ago about defining revolution. It also begins to give us reason to consider Arab Spring and Occupy. Whether the technology has “enabled” them or not is a focus of debate. Perhaps the correct approach is to discuss whether or not they are part of a larger cultural revolution, of which technological changes are also a significant part.

Now that the concept of revolution has been introduced, it’s appropriate that Wikipedia be the focus of chapter five. Shirky uses the history of the online encyclopedia community, as well as his experience modifying entries, to illustrate the considerations surrounding collaborative production. One of the primary considerations here is what Shirky calls “a predictable imbalance”—another way of framing the long tail effect or power law distribution associated with the participation in communities like Wikipedia’s. In a predictable imbalance, there are very few members who contribute a great deal to a community, and a large number of users who contribute very little. This also works across blog audiences, for example, with very many blogs having a handful of readers, and only a few with high readership.

So what motivates participation on any level? Shirky breaks his experience down into three main categories. When I worked for a company that built an interactive digital out of home network, we would explain that users would text their messages to public screens for three reasons: fun, fame, and fortune. In Shirky’s case, he was happy to “flex some unused mental capacity” (which someone like him would probably consider to be “fun”), he felt a sense of vanity (fame), and he felt like it was a good thing to do (and since we’ve already established that “love” is more powerful than money in communities such as this one, this covers “fortune”).

Still, communities like Wikipedia are chaotic—and no wonder, considering the predictable imbalance. That’s alright, says Shirky. Keeping institutional process just encourages institutional requirements—like money, hierarchy, and efficiency. “A chaotic process, with unpredictable and wildly uneven contributions, made by nonexpert contributors acting out of variable motivations, is creating a global resource of tremendous daily value.” (Is this when we finally get to talk about Occupy? I suppose it depends on what you define as “tremendous daily value”…or, even “nonexpert contributors.”)

By chapter six, we’re ready to consider collective action in this world of new tools. We learn of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), an organization started by a group of concerned followers of the Catholic Church after a 2002 Boston Globe exposé on rampant sexual abuse among the priesthood since the 1960’s. Incidentally, similar reports had been published in the 1990’s, but it wasn’t until the organizational and publishing tools of 2002 that enough pressure was able to be put on the Church to affect explicit change—the group used email, online versions of the articles, and an increasingly short news cycle to organize and apply this pressure.

Shirky calls out the removal of two major obstacles—the locality of information and barriers to group reaction—at play here. Using new social tools, VOTF was able to reach concerned Church citizens the world over. And once significant attention was given to the abuse by a wide range of movement constituents, the Church could not do what they had done in the 90’s, which was forbid meetings about the abuse from occurring on Church grounds. It seems important to note here that Shirky reminds us: “social tools don’t create collective action—they merely remove the obstacles to it” (159).

Once the collective action is created, Shirky points out in the beginning of chapter seven, it becomes difficult to slow down. Thus, a rapidly developed shared awareness—a concept used often by the military—of a movement or an action is extremely important. Being able to coordinate action quickly makes sure that those who can suppress the action are unaware until it becomes to large to quietly put down. Our new social tools are extremely important in this case, as “no one can found a newspaper on a moment’s notice, run it for two issues, and then fold it, while incurring no cost but leaving a permanent record,” (170) but actions such as flash mobs could easily be coordinated via LiveJournal accounts in 2006. Of course, now that hegemonic entities like police departments and private security firms know where to look, it’s easy to question whether or not this is no longer the case.

Whether that is the case or not, Shirky’s assertion that “Whenever you improve a group’s ability to communicate internally, you change the things it is capable of” certainly rings true. I might broaden the argument to: “whenever you change a group’s ability to communicate.” Consider that the Arab Spring gained momentum when Facebook and Twitter were shut down in Egypt and everyone had to take to the streets to communicate.

Stepping back a bit, a major requirement to coordinating collective action is trust in one another. Shirky offers in chapter eight that we measure trust in social capital: “that mysterious but critical set of characteristics of functioning communities. When your neighbor walks your dog while you are ill, or the guy behind the counter trusts you to pay him next time” (192). A decrease in social capital, combined with an increased transaction cost of gathering in a communal space (what with so many of us moving out of cities, watching TV, and delaying marriage) are, according to Robert Putnam the reasons no one goes bowling any more (according to his 2000 book, Bowling Alone).

Scott Heiferman’s reaction was to start a website that would allow individuals with something in common to meet in person: Meetup.com. He felt that if he could connect individuals from otherwise non-normative social groups (e.g. Witches, Xena fans, Atheists), that would increase social capital and get people meeting in person again (the site was also in response to William Gibson’s concept of cyberspace and the fear that humans would no longer need real space to interact).

Sites like Meetup.com work because they bring people together in groups that “represent not just things people do but ways they think of themselves” (199). A desire to meet with people with similar interests, plus a lack of means to organize outside of the website also add to the appeal. Of course, without societal approval, groups which may be deemed dangerous can also form: the Pro-Ana (pro-anorexia) movement, for instance, or terrorist groups. Shirky lists this as one of the “losses” of the cultural revolution (he notes that a revolution cannot occur without said losses). Also on this list are the loss of jobs associated with antiquated technologies (today’s “scribes”) and of “current social bargains” such as the way government puts controls on the media.

Chapter nine continues to analyze the properties of the groups being created by our new social tools and introduces the concept of the Small World pattern. Aided by the fact that we congregate in homophilic packs and that connecting everyone we know to everyone else we know is impossible, we create smaller networks, all connected by one or two individuals. Bringing to mind the work of Yochai Benkler on the nature of new networks, Shirky takes a brief break to explain some sociology—specifically, bonding and bridging capital. “Bonding capital is an increase in the depth of connections and trust within a relatively homogeneous group, bridging capital is an increase in connections among relatively heterogeneous groups” (222).

Shirky calls out Joi Ito’s IRC channel as an example of someone with high bridging capital using one of our new social tools to expand on the reach of his network. He also notes Howard Chui’s “Howard Forums,” a place where the broad network of Chui’s readers could answer questions for each other about mobile phones, rather than him trying to do so on his own. As with many of the real world examples of these tools in action, Shirky reminds us that there is a catch: “Even when the judicious use of social connections increases the proportion of good ideas, most ideas are still bad” (232).

As such, we must learn to deal with a more frequent rate of failure. In chapter ten, Shirky posits that we will be able to do so by turning to our new social tools. For instance, by reaching out to a broad network of software developers to all pitch in, Linus Torvalds made sure that his new operating system, Linux, would take advantage of the deep wealth of skill of this network while making sure it stays accessible even to those who didn’t work on it. By being the one to start the project (something, Shirky notes, very few are willing to do), he facilitated the peer production of one of the first open-source software projects, accepting small contributions of code (which many are willing to do). Thus, by lowering the cost of failure, it was more likely to be completed.

While the open source movement can certainly be characterized by predictable imbalance, there are significant benefits to its model of participation. Tolerance of failure allows it to be an eco-system, not an organization, according to Shirky. He cites the application of open-source methodologies to handling the SARS outbreak of 2002 as well as the success of Perl over possibly more powerful, but less accessible programming languages.

Having espoused the benefits (along with some of the risks) associated with our new social tools, in chapter eleven, Shirky finally presents a framework upon which the success of these tools are built. He notes that successful tools require, “function of a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users” (260). He goes on to explain that the promise answers the question “why,” the tool addresses “how,” and the bargain establishes the expectations of both the producer and user of the tool.

Of particular interest to me in this chapter was the assertion that “the implicit promise of any given group matters more than any explicit one” (262). That is, what will you actually get out of participation in a group? I believe that this was a struggle for the Occupy encampments—on the one hand, the group publicized that it was in existence to fight for economic justice. On the other, in order to participate in the camps or the GA’s, you had to spend a great deal of time and energy on learning and living the tenets of an extremely inclusive horizontal movement.

Continuing with an application of the framework to Occupy, I would bring to attention Shirky’s point that “small groups are more effective at creating and sustaining both agreement and shared awareness.” This explains the emphasis on both the individual encampments around the world, as well as the smaller working groups within each location’s movement.

The bargain, however, is where I think Occupy struggles the most. “A bargain helps clarify what you can expect of others and what they can expect of you” (270). Shirky does go on to explain that “the essential aspect of the bargain is that users have to agree to it” (273), which is certainly something preached by the movement. On the other hand, a pubic criticism of the movement is that it actually has no clear bargain—no specific promise of outcome. I should note that I am not offering whether or not I agree with this criticism. Rather, I think it’s important to question whether the lack of a clear bargain is actually detrimental to the movement.

In all, I found Shirky’s work to strike a successful balance between the accessibility of anecdote and the legitimacy of theory. In mixing stories of Flickr and Meetup.com with offerings from Coase and Benkler, I found myself trusting the author more than I wanted to (I admit that I approach “framework” books that The Boston Globe calls “An eye opening paean to possibility” with some skepticism…but I’m also a bit of a snob). I’ve heard Shirky speak on the Arab Spring and have read some of his Occupy writing. I’d be interested to see him release a version of the book applying his multiple frameworks and mnemonics to those specific movements.


Is “publish-then-filter” really the “only working system”?

If “the hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries   of the existing society,” does that make Occupy a revolution in itself? Or part of one, enabled by the changes Shirky mentions?

Is Occupy the Wikipedia of social movements?

Is it now easier to spy on collective action planning than it was before, thus negating the effects of more rapid shared awareness?

What are some other “losers” in the cultural revolution?

Is Occupy an open-source movement?

How does Occupy fit in with the “Promise. Tool. Build.” framework?