Monday, April 14, 2008

Off the Shelf: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

Pardon my enthusiasm. This is a must-read for those who would lead, influence, or work for any kind of group goal. Shirky looks at the proliferation of Web 2.0 technology ... tools that enable users to connect and generate content themselves. If Web 1.0 was the idea of a bunch of online articles that were hyperlinked so people could go and get information, Web 2.0 is the idea that we extend our social relationships online so that we can share, collaborate, and accomplish more together.

Shirky believes that these tools will bring about a fundamental change in society (and he's been writing about that belief for a while....see his extensive list of articles here). Even so, he's no doe-eyed utopian who uncritically embraces technology as a panacea. He gives some frightening examples of negative uses of online tools as well as thrilling examples of positive uses.

There are many who consider social media to be a colossal waste of time. It's easy to come to such conclusions...for so many waste their time amassing vast stores of trivia online (though, part of the genius of Web 2.0 is that anyone is able to connect with people who share their same interests...or as Shirky puts it "people who are odd in the same ways you are odd").

Shirky makes this an interesting tale by loading up with real world stories of how social media has been used to accomplish ends. He begins with the story of a stolen cell phone, and how one man was able to use blogging, news aggrigator sites, and online message boards to mobilize a veritable army of helpers who assisted in the recovery of the phone. Shirky uses this as a parable to point us to the truth that the rules are changing “When we change the way we communicate, we change society. The tools that society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life.” (17)

He then backs up and does a little sociology...spending time talking about why heirarchical organizations fit a particular need. He explains how as a group grows, the complexity increases numerically. I wish I could find a visual representation of this online, but instinctively we know this. We understand that when a small group grows over 12-15 members, the dynamics radically change. When a congregation grows over 150 the dynamics radically change. This is because we're not only considering our relationship with each person in the group, but also each person's relationships with others in the group. If a group of 150 adds just one person, you don't just add one more point of complexity, you add 150 points of complexity (how does x person relate to they know each other...are they mad at each other...etc). Centralized heirarchy allowed for levels of bureacracy to manage that complexity.

But with that bureacracy comes a cost. To accomplish the ends of the group, a significant amount of energy needed to be poured into managing the group. Therefore, certain tasks -- that might be interesting to a few -- were left undone because it just didn't make economic sense to do would cost to much in terms of oversight and management for the organization to do them.

Shirky's thesis is that social media tools lower to the "management costs" of organizing people. “So long as the absolute cost of organizing a group is high, unmanaged groups will be limited to undertaking small efforts – a night out at the movies, a camping trip. Even something as simple as a potluck dinner typically requires some hosting institution. Now that it is possible to achieve large-scale coordination at low cost, a third category has emerged: serious complex work, taken on without institutional direction.” (47) From this vantage point, he talks about the different means of collaboration: sharing of information (like sharing photos on flickr); cooperation (synchronizing with people who share a similar interest); collaboration (a group committing to a particular undertaking together).


He then spends a chapter explaining the development of media....particularly interesting was his approach to the Gutenburg printing press destroyed a scribal tradition that dated back for a millenia. Scribes solved a great problem, but the printing press eliminated that problem, and it created opportunities for new literature. In much the same way, social media is transforming our understanding of "news" and it is creating new opportunities for new ways of packaging events. But the most interesting change comes in the next chapter, titled "Publish, then filter." The concept here is that because of printing and distribution costs, old media institutions added value by deciding what was important ("all the news that's fit to print") and delivering it to us. Get that...the old media did the job of filtering.

Now that the costs of printing and distribution have virtually been erased there is still a need for a filter argues Shirky. He gives the illustration of taking a library, shaking all its contents out into a football field, and then randomly picking up a book and hoping it's Aristotle. Access to information still doesn't solve the problem of filtration. Shirky posits that new "communities of practice" arise that allow people to filter in groups. He believes that we as humans are wired to be social...we like creating and sharing things that we've found that are helpful. When we gather together around a common interest or common cause, we naturally share what we've found helpful. And thus, our community becomes a filtration system. (It's like all the hunter gatherers around the fire telling stories about the great hunts and great battles....they filter out information for each other so the group learns....only now that sharing can happen across great geographical distances).

Shirky then moves on to the more complex task of getting people to self collaborate. And he uses the idea of Wikipedia as an example. The core idea of Wikipedia was to facilitate editing. The original intent of the tool was to let experts quickly publish drafts of encyclopedia articles and then let the editing process happen quickly. The experts didn't want to give up control, so they loosed Wikipedia on the web and it became a quick smash...there are a few reasons why.

1) Simplicity of the idea. Everybody knew what an encyclopedia was already. They had a mental model. This lowers the amount of creativity required to take a first stab at something. Also “In a system where anyone is free to get something started, however badly, a short, uninformative article can be the anchor for the good article that will eventually appear. Its very inadequacy motivates people to improve it: many more people are willing to make a bad article better than are willing to start a good article from scratch.” (122)

2) A dedicated core. Shirky talks about the "power distribution" --- basically a graphical curve illustrating the old 80/20 principle. 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. That small group becomes the core who defends Wikipedia against the vandals and raiders. That small core makes it possible for the other 80% to submit their articles and have them be meaningful....having a small dedicated core actually empowers all the others to be able to come and make a contribution.

3) Quick reward. We all get a good feeling from sharing our knowledge (no matter how esoteric) and feeling like we've left a positive mark. When our contribution is out there, we're more bonded with the community and more likely to come back. Soon the project becomes a labor of love, not just for a dedicated few, but for a broader set: “We don’t often talk about love when trying to describe the public world, because love seems to squishy and too private. What has happened, though, and what is still happening in our historical moment, is that love has become a lot less squishy and a lot less private. Love has a half-life too, as well as a radius, and we’re used to both of those being small. We can affect the people we love, but the longevity and social distance of love are both constrained. Or were constrained – now we can do things for strangers who do things for us, at a low enough cost to make that kind of behavior attractive, and those effects can last well beyond our original contribution. Our social tools are turning love into a renewable building material. When people care enough, they can come together and accomplish things of a scope and longevity that were previously impossible; they can do big things for love.” (141-2)

Collective Action
Shirky then ventures into the most interesting arena: Collective Action. Joining forces to achieve some specific common goal. Here the stories come fast and furious. Voices of the Faithful using blogs and social media to keep the story of the priest sex abuse scandal alive. Airline customers across the country banding together to push for an airline passenger bill of rights. Activists in Egypt using twitter to give instant updates on police movements, and track their own movements through the judicial system. Dissidents in Belarus using cell phones and text messaging to organize "Flash Mobs" to protest governmental oppression. People using Meetup to develop all new social groupings and to facilitate face to face get togethers with folks of like interest.

Shirky draws a few lessons
1) the cost of failure with these groups is so low, that it pays to keep trying different things until they fit (again, back to the publish then filter model)....if something doesn't work, we have lots of leeway to tinker with it and try yet again.
2) there is a process that marks the successful efforts. Promise - Tool - Bargain. Your social group has to offer a promise that is enticing, yet attainable (We'll offer you a chance to contribute articles to a reliable encyclopedia; we'll offer you a chance to .....) - then you have to match your tool to your promise (see earlier point...not all tools fit all purposes....) and then you have to keep to the bargian ... you provide certain parameters within which people will operate, and they'll provide content/interaction.
3) Defend what you love. Shirky gives a great illustration .... utopian anarchists (who believe that people are basically good and can self organize) in Holland launched a White Bicycle program in the mid 60s. They distributed bicycles in Amsterdam for all to use for free. Pick up a white bike, ride it, and leave it for the next guy. It was an instant failure. Within a month, all the bicycles had been stolen or thrown into the canals. Other utopians have tried the same scheme "The cumulative results of these experiments are unambiguous: programs that offer unrestricted access to communal bicycles have struggled with theft, and most have ended up collapsing completely." (282)....the programs that succeed have registrations and ID cards and places to check them out and return them to. The point being....we need to consider human depravity when working through our social networks....and defend them, just like we would defend our property.

Lots of stuff there....lots of implications for how the church (or Christians) can take advantage of social media. More thoughts are going on at the Geek Culture Mission Project on Facebook. Feel free to chime in here or there.

Soli Deo Gloria