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Review of Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

Before Clay Shirky was courting controversy by claiming that women don’t get ahead because they aren’t arrogant, self-aggrandizing jerks, he wrote a book called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. In this book, he performs an eloquent and well-thought-out analysis of social organization in the 21st century, leading to the unsurprising conclusion that the dramatically lower costs for self-organizing are bound to have a serious, disruptive effect on our society and the power structures that govern it.

Shirky’s book can be seen as diametrically opposed to Andrew Keen’s book (which I reviewed in an earlier post), and in fact, I attended a “debate” sponsored by the Ryerson School of Journalism, at which Keen and Shirky faced off with Mathew Ingram of the Globe and Mail moderating. On the whole, though, Shirky is much more nuanced than just being a cheerleader about Web 2.0 and the “amateurization” of formerly professional arts. Rather, he is an optimist about the democratizing effect of cheap technology on our society. He feels that the easier it is for people to organize around common themes, the more connected we are with others, and the more we can effect social change.

He begins with the story of Evan Guttman who, in 2006, helped his friend Ivanna recover a lost SideKick PDA. There is nothing remarkable about the story at first glance, except for the fact that Guttman not only managed find the name and contact information of the individual who had stolen Ivanna’s phone, but subsequently used social media tools like Digg to build an almost instant community of thousands of interested followers who kept the issue alive, both online and offline. The sustained pressure forced the NYPD into investigating and laying charges, thereby resulting in the return of the phone.

Shirky goes on to argue that such a “flash mob” of online organization would never have been possible before the advent of the Internet and social media tools like Facebook, Flickr, Digg, Slashdot, and many others. Traditional models of organizing around a common goal have required enormous management structures and overhead; for example, the management overhead required to coordinate and supervise the work of thousands of Microsoft Windows 7 programmers into launching that product. Now, ordinary citizens have the ability to self-organize in a semi-autonomous way without such overhead, due to the proliferation of these tools. Moreover, they can produce products with quality rivaling those developed by traditional hierarchies (take Linux versus Windows). It is this fact which causes such traditional organizations to quake in their boots – across the spectrum of not only high-tech but government and news media, to name two examples.

The book concludes by postulating that for successful online self-organization, three fundamentals must be present: a promise, the tool, and a bargain, in that order. To quote Shirky, “The promise creates the basic desire to participate. Then come the tools. After getting the promise right (or right enough), the next hurdle is figuring out which tools will best help people approach the promise together. … Then comes the bargain. Tools don’t completely determine behavior … cultures are a result of an often implicit bargain amongst the users.” While there is no formula for successful use of online tools to organize around a cause or goal, these are the basics.
Overall, Shirky’s book is well-argued and superbly written. It’s refreshing to read a book on, basically, sociology and organizational behavior adapted to the 21st century, written by an academic, but at a level that is practical and accessible to the layman. Kudos to him for being able to clearly articulate his thoughts – perhaps good authors have nothing to fear from self-organizing mobs of writers on the Internet.

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