Book Review: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

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Joshua Glinert, a participant in the London Net Tuesday group, received a free copy of Clay Shirky's new paperback edition of "Here Comes Everybody" for his participation at Clay's London presentation in February.  He is working on a start-up project, Civic Agora, which will be a platform for collaborative deliberation and problem-solving.  Below is his thoughtful review and conversation starter from "Here Comes Everybody." Enjoy!

Book Review from Joshua Glinert

As readers of this blog will probably be aware, the internet has brought about a change of revolutionary proportions, one that rivals the invention of the printing press in its capacity and breadth of implications. Being adaptable creatures as we generally are, most of us have taken to this new invention and integrated it into our daily lives without much ado and have quickly come to expect and rely upon the services that it offers, such as instant communication and publishing, as though this were a natural part of life and had always existed.

Unlike with political revolutions, which often present themselves with blood, turmoil and the urgency of establishing a new regime, the social and technological revolution of the internet has introduced itself with pleasant and useful comforts and conveniences. Still, as Clay Shirky chronicles in great detail in "Here Comes Everybody", the changes that the world wide web bring about instill a profoundly new way of doing things into daily life, that holds promise for collective action, but that also brings forward a fundamental challenge to our social institutions.

With great care and attention to detail, Shirky describes the phenomena that are the outgrowth and consequences of the introduction of the web into widespread use. As a space where information can be recorded and stored at little to no cost to participants, the internet serves as a level playing field where everybody can come together and share and exchange information about themselves, friends, society and ideas. Whereas the previous technological revolutions of the television and radio allowed communication to reach a broad audience, the web enables 'symmetrical participation' where anybody can potentially communicate with everybody as either a recipient or producer of information.

Where Shirky's work is emphatic is that enabled by this online space is an ease of collaboration where people are willing to help each other or work on a together on a project that they love. The internet facilitates groups easily coming together not only because of the low transaction costs of group formation and output, but also because as the author puts it, "large social groups are different than small ones", as groups become more expansive there is a networking effect allowing people to more readily connect along similar interests.

Much of the book is filled with an array of illustrative examples, brimming with a palpable excitement, on where and how collaboration has been taking place, from people coming together to find a woman's lost phone, to the spontaneous organisation of protests in Belarus, to describing the origins and development of Wikipedia. However, lurking behind this gloss of optimism, is also a mild skeptical questioning. Shirky points out that this bright and brave new world of people acting together also shifts the ground beneath established institutions that work with information towards a social end, including not just the media, but also government and regular businesses. In a reflective mode the author wonders whether the formation of online groups will necessarily be able to provide output to those standards as those institutions that they threaten to upend or change radically.  

With this wealth of evocative depiction of the quiet revolution we are living through, Shirky brings us to a tantalizing point. He hints at some of the paradoxes that this new found potential bring and offers some hunches as to where this might lead. Still, the dynamics that underlie the shift between the old and new remain only lightly examined. Beyond highlighting the facts of the contrast itself, the book, then, does not identify the core dichotomy by which the internet can be a spontaneous positive force, while seemingly shaking the bedrock of key pillars of society, nor does the work arrive at a satisfactory synthesis of how this tension might resolve.

We are seemingly standing at the cusp of a conflict between the immediacy that the internet offers and the mediating process which lies at the heart of the social purpose of institutions. If we imagine the copywriter in a newspaper, the activities of parliament or congress, or a quality assurance system in a company, each of these involves careful review and consideration of whether the item being introduced reaches the decent standards that properly serve the social end of the institution.

The phenomenon identified by Shirky that "groups have become ridiculously easy to form" offers the promise that people from disparate parts of the globe can come together for a social objective. But without the institutional framework of rules, the 'bargain' that the activities of the group will be carefully reviewed to guarantee it meets its social purpose is harder to ensure.

The immediacy of the internet presents a shimmering allure, because of the boundless freedom that it offers. Anybody can see anything that anybody else posts on the internet at any instant, whether these are photos, Twitter updates or youTube videos. This shared capability has made enormous strides in the possibility for individual expression. It is the next step though, to which the title "Here Comes Everybody" alludes, that is much more difficult and represents a real transition where the plethora of material that is available online becomes enduringly meaningful to the collective.

Certainly it is as much the culture of immediacy as the technology of the internet that has challenged the ability for institutions, such as newspapers, to continue to serve their social role. Tools   along the lines of Twitter may be able to provide instant access to facts from the scene of a disaster, but a collection of Tweets cannot adequately constitute an article. While blogs provide a invaluable platform for diverse perspectives, it is only through a structured process that integrates a mediating process into the organisation of material, which in the case of a news article would entail a careful analysis of facts in terms of their importance and context, that output can reliably serve a lasting socially constructive role.

There is an incipient evolution of the internet, which Shirky's work brilliantly captures though without fully penetrating, that is the development of web 2.0 tools that actually have an in-built mediating process and so truly harness collaborative potential towards the common good. The exemplary model of this is Wikipedia, where everybody really is a potential conscientious reviewer of everybody else's work and thereby bringing the social purpose to be both broad and exacting in its standards. However, whether the burgeoning culture of immediacy will drown out the social mediation that these new collaborative tools offer, or whether instead online collective action will become structured and regulated enough to promote a thoughtful and conscientious mindset for citizen activity is far from having yet been determined.

One aspect necessary for the transition which Shirky identifies is the development of a legal framework to protect collaborative work that would extend the GNU public license. One could also suggest beyond this that for collaborative efforts to realize their full potential will require the recognition and realization of a set of norms and principles that come to be commonly accepted so that the decency of output can reliably reach the level of quality attained by the institutions that the web applications are beginning to rival or replace.

Revolutions throughout history have shown that the initial overthrow of the old order, for all the excitement and havoc that this brings, is only the start of long and arduous road towards constructing on these new foundations a well-constituted order for society. The internet revolution is likely to be no exception.