Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody

Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody “Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship.” –Walter Benjamin, from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

We’ve heard it all before. It’s the latest Megatrend, or the latest Microtrend. Some day, somewhere, somehow, computers will upend everything, right down to the way we think, and the nature of what makes us human.

According to the conventional wisdom, the linearity of words on the printed page encouraged linear, rational thought. This set down on paper–literally–ideas of narrative flow and stylistic constraints that have been with us for centuries since.

We were led to believe, early on, that hypertext would upend this model; by rearranging the printed page (and the media experience), it could (theoretically) rearrange human thought. The argument went–as it had earlier for word processing, with its ease of cut-and-paste–that this would divorce thought and narrative from convergent, linear models, in favor of divergent and wide-ranging associations. Add sound and visual elements to the mix, and you have–in theory–the perfect recipe for a medium that would result not only in truly new works of art, but a radically different approach to their creation.

And with all this supposedly endless potential, all the New Media mavens have given us has amounted to old media in new clothes. One reason—in this writer’s opinion, at least—with “interactive” media as precipitated on machine-mediated or software-mediated experience is that the measure of interactivity isn’t what the user takes away from the experience, or if either program or user are any different for having intersected; it is, rather, “click-through.” That is, if there’s plenty of bells, whistles, and buttons, and if someone doesn’t spend too much time in any one place on a site (or even, for that matter, too much time on one site), it’s “interactive,” whether it’s a genuine experience or just something Pavlovian.

But the idea of interactivity (and, more importantly, its practice) has been hiding in plain sight. The revolution, it turned out, didn’t come from removing the human element from the equation, but from emphasizing it. Blogs, social networking sites, open source software, and Wikis have all brought interaction galore to the Web, and in the process they have redefined our notions of collaboration, interaction, media and social transactions. Into this context steps Clay Shirky, whose Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations helpfully explains how we got from there (the internet as a disorganized mass of potential) to here (internet as powerful social tool).

Shirky’s thesis is a simple one: Social software has made the organization of masses of people, and the coordination of their efforts, easier than they’ve been at any point in our history. Each chapter explores a different facet of this phenomenon, with ample illustrations and case studies to hammer home the points. Flash mobs, Wikipedia, Linus Torvalds’ Linux operating system, Flickr, Facebook, and MySpace—many practically household names—are brought forward to show the whys and wherefores of what underpins this phenomenon.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Shirky’s writing, both in the book and on his blog and website, is the fact that he’s neither cheerleader or naysayer. This isn’t about hyping the “next big thing” any more than it’s about decrying how technology is driving individuals and civil society to Hell on a fast train. Indeed, one of the key arguments the author makes is that it’s not ‘til the technology gets boring—the bugs and the unpredictability have been ironed out, and the use of the technology becomes routine to the average user—that new things become possible.

He also points out that social involvement in technology, whether you want to call it open source, crowdsourcing, or just a social network, provides not only for a higher tolerance for failure, it practically encourages it. The institutionalization of innovation (large corporations making innovation their stated goal) is doomed to fail precisely for the fact that they’re likely to take a more conservative approach in order to minimize that failure. On the other hand, the beauty of Linux (to choose one example) was and is the simple fact that anyone can throw anything at the wall to see what sticks. When failure becomes simultaneously the best and worst thing that can happen, it frees the creative impulse.

Sociology is as much at the bedrock of Here Comes Everybody as is technology. The use of technology in a social context has both social possibilities and social consequences. Yes, I know. Big “duh” moment. But the difference here is that Shirky doesn’t shy away from this. He even goes so far as to outline the criteria for a MySpace or a Twitter to become cultural phenomena, further noting that having all the pieces fit together is something akin to catching lightning in a bottle, rather than being a formula or roadmap by which anyone can create the next big thing. This further sets him apart from the bulk of writers who would package and sell the same formula as just that kind of magic fix.

This is a perceptive work. It clearly owes a debt to Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar, but goes much farther than that its predecessor. It’s not just because of the time that’s elapsed between both books’ publication, or the vast changes in the online and cultural landscapes. Where Raymond chronicled the beginnings of what turned out to be a revolution both in programming and the use of open source, Shirky explores the aftermath and consequences of that revolution. This isn’t a postmortem, however, but rather a snapshot of a work (or series of works) very much in progress.

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