Here comes everybody by Clay Shirky

clay shirkyThis post is overdue – by about 5 years. I loved this book, it sent me racing in to discover the world of social (web 2.0 we used to call it) and I have talked to heaps of people about it. Clearly it needs its own blog.

Here was my introduction to the power of group effort on the internet. Many commentators have tried. I have since read a little Don Tapscott (macrowikinomics) and Yochai Benkler (the penguin and the leviathin). All of these guys are trying to explain why projects crowdsourced by volunteers can end up doing so much better than similar efforts by internet giants. They all use Wikipedia and Linux as their main two examples. Don and Yochai talk about things like unlocking the effects of networks and being able to chop jobs into many tiny tasks that can end up being done by volunteers – but Clay was my first and this is the book I have talked about the most – by far.

So what did I learn?

This book argues that the organisational hierarchy* was invented in order to connect the railways of America and has been with us ever since in any corporation or institution you can think of – layers and layers of managers. The key to the efficiency of the internet is that you don’t need to invest in organisational layers because people can self organise. A beautiful idea, used to explain why internet platforms can disrupt so many industries – through efficiency. Of course there is much more to it (eg Coasean economics) but lets just stick with that simple idea.

And, as I have written in other blogposts, I love the idea of everyday people with something to contribute self organising to drive change.

I also love the innovation. Existing corporations are somewhat stuck. To use Shirky’s metaphor, they have little incentive to take risks and explore the desert. The startup will explore the desert but once it has found the first oasis, it has something to lose and will not explore far past the first oasis. Many individuals, however, given the autonomy to go off and explore, each putting only a bit of their time and effort at risk – they will map the whole desert. The project driven by these individuals will outgun the startup or the corporate project. (Possibly, potentially or at least for innovativeness)

Shirky provides a frame in this book. Not every platform is successful and simple sharing is much easier than collective action. The difficulty increases with each step on the ladder:

  1. Sharing
  2. Co-operation (A conversation might be a simple form of cooperation)
  3. Collaborative production – as a form of cooperation you can imagine that the more complex the thing you produce, the more difficult the challenge of collaboration. [I’ve worked in Government, so plenty of experience here – good an bad]
  4. Collective action

So Shirky proposes the following trio as his framework for the keys to making this ‘groupwork’ successful:

  • plausible promise,”it’s easy, just go here and type a little article” turned into Wikipedia. The promise becomes the reason why someone would join the group.
  • an effective tool has to overcome the challenges of coordination and so the right tool is needed for each social purpose. (I have struggled to find the right tools for my collaborative work so this sounds easier than it is – I recommend Digital Habitats to provide a few frameworks)
  • an acceptable bargain. Remember these are not democracies but the person who makes the ultimate decisions about how these groups work has nothing if his/her community leaves. So what to expect and what is expected of your behaviour within the group become key to your successful participation.

If this post has you intrigued – Wikipedia have a much more comprehensive summary of the book and Clay has some good Ted talks too.

*there is a whole other post in me about whether this is true. For example I have read a number of references to the East India company as the beginning of governance (essentially a form of organising and hierarchy). In Reinventing Knowledge the authors argued it was much earlier than that (about 400 years earlier) when masters and students organised in early groups to demand good pay and good education from each other, establishing early legal rights to govern the members of these institutions.

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About Heather

I am an energy and climate change specialist with a background in industrial energy efficiency and climate change policy.
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2 Responses to Here comes everybody by Clay Shirky

  1. Pingback: The world in a truly democratic era | changing weather by Heather Smith

  2. Pingback: Governance and organisational structure | changing weather by Heather Smith

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