How change happens when people come together
This is a well written and interesting book about the way the social tools created through the internet have an impact on the way we communicate, share and collaborate.
Clay Shirky has some very interesting things to say about online collaboration based on stories and empirical evidence. Some of these are fairly counter intuitive; for example his observation that the contributions made by different individuals can vary dramatically in quantity – but that this is normal for large scale social activity.
He raises some difficult questions; for example, who decides what is right in a piece of self-organised mass collaboration. Is it those with power derived from their determination, enthusiasm, ability or appearance?
The following notes were taken as I read the book and are for my own future reference:
Chapter 1: It only Takes a Village to find a phone
Shirky opens with the story of stolensidekick and the way this was returned after a huge collaborative/on-line effort. “…the power of group action, given the right tools.” P7
Dan Gillmor “…the author of We the Media, calls “the former audience,” those people who react to, participate in, and even alter the story as it is unfolding.” P7
Shirky reflects on the story: “It demonstrates the ways in which the information we give off about our selves, in photos and e-mails and MySpace pages and all the rest of it, has dramatically increased our social visibility and made it easier for us to find each other but also be scrutinized in public. It demonstrates that the old limitations of media have been radically reduced, with much of the power accruing to the former audience. It demonstrates how a story can go from local to global in a heartbeat. And it demonstrates the ease and speed with which a group can be mobilized for the right kind of cause.” P12
“But who defines what kind of cause is right?” p12
Shirky observes that some of the comments on the site were racist or sexist “… the point is that once a group has come together, those kind of issues of community control aren’t simple. Any action Evan took, either letting the conversation go or stifling it, would have created complicated side effects.)”p13
The story could be read as a fight for justice or of a rich white man bullying a poor Puerto-rican and the NYPD into doing what he wanted.
“The story of the lost Sidekick is an illustration of the kinds of changes – some good, some bad, most too complex to label – that are affecting the ways groups assemble and cooperate. These changes are profound because they are amplifying or extending our essential social skills, and our characteristic social failings as well.” P14
Shirky discusses the inherent social nature of human beings: “Building an airplane or a cathedral, performing a symphony or heart surgery, raising a barn or razing a fortress, all require the distribution, specialization, and coordination of many tasks among many individuals, sometimes unfolding over years or decades and sometimes spanning continents.” P16
“..almost everyone belongs to multiple groups based on family, friends, work, religious affiliation, on and on. The centrality of group effort to human life means that anything that changes the way groups function will have profound ramifications for everything from commerce and government to media and religion.” P16
“…new technology enables new kinds of group thinking…”p17
“The transfer of these capabilities from various professional classes to the general public is epochal, built on what the publisher Tim O’Reilly calls “an architecture of participation””p17
“When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” P17
“So it is with human networks; bees make hives, we make mobile phones.” P17
Intriguing point: “..the costs incurred by creating a new group or joining an existing one have fallen in recent years, and not just by a but. They have collapsed. (“Cost” here is used in the economist’s sense of anything expended…” p18
“The difference between an ad hoc group and a company like Microsoft is management” p19 – coordination
“In a way, every institution lives in a kind of contradiction: it exists to take advantage of group effort, but some of its resources are drained away by directing the effort. Call this the institutional dilemma – because an institution expends resources to manage resources, there is a gap between what those institutions are capable of in theory and in practice…”p19-20
Change: “We now have communication tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change.” P20 “…we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations.” P20-21
“By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management (and its attendant overhead), these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort (the limits that created the institutional dilemma in the first place). They haven’t removed them… but the new tools enable alternative strategies for keeping that complexity under control.” P21
“For most of modern life, our strong talents and desires for group effort have been filtered through relatively rigid institutional structures because of the complexity of managing groups.”p21
Shirky observes that the world is changing although old institutions continue to exist – in fact they must exist since they are necessary – government, media multi-nationals, denominations, etc… “None of the absolute advantages of institutions like businesses or schools or governments have disappeared. Instead, what has happened is that most of the relative advantages of those institutions have disappeared – relative, that is, to the direct effort of the people they represent.”p23
Change is inevitable, the only question is when and what….
Chapter 2: Sharing Anchors Community
“Groups of people are complex, in ways that make those groups hard to form and hard to sustain; much of the shape of traditional institutions is a response to those difficulties. New social tools relieve some of those burdens, allowing for new kinds of group-forming, like using simple sharing to anchor the creation of new groups.”p25
Shirky illustrates the complexity of human connection through the “Birthday Paradox” – which demonstrates how the number of possible links increases exponentially as the number of people rises.
Fred Brooks, Mythical Man-Month – “…adding more employees to a late project tends to make it later, because the new workers increase the costs of coordinating the group.”p29
“The typical organization is hierarchical, with workers answering to a manager, and that manager answering to a still-higher manager, and so on. The value of such hierarchies is obvious – it vastly simplifies communication among the employees.”p29
“.. no institution can put all its energies into pursuing it mission; it must expend considerable effort on maintaining discipline and structure, simply keeping itself viable. Self-preservation of the institution becomes job number one, while its stated goal is relegated to number two or lower, no matter what the mission statement says.” P29-30
Ronald Coase, 1937 – hierarchies are better than open markets because they reduce complexity and transactional costs… p30
Richard Hackman, Leading Teams, “Because of managerial overhead, large groups can get bogged down…whenever transaction costs become too expensive to manage within a single organization, markets outperform firms…” p31
“Activities whose costs are higher than the potential value for both firms and markets simply don’t happen.” P31 – this would be a good measure to use to track why things don’t happen in our organizations…
Shirky contrasts this with the ease of picture sharing made possible with digital media and flikr. Note concept of a tag as a way of making links. Flikr doesn’t manage collaborative events but it does provide a platform… Question: how to create the tag?
Shirky discusses the 7/7 London Bombings and the way Flickr provided a mechanism for reporting and sharing…
“The basic capabilities of tools like Flickr reverse the old order of group activity, transforming “gather, then share” into “share, then gather.””p.35
Reflecting on the role of new media in big events: “The groups of photographers were all latent groups, which is to say groups that existed only in potential, and too much effort would have been required to turn those latent groups into real ones by conventional means.” p 38
The first org chart was created to help deal with the complexity of railway management.
Shirky discusses Coase’s theories about institutional costs and observes that small changes in transactional costs can have a big difference in the function of an institution. “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 pot-luck 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. Loosely coordinated groups can now achieve things that were previously out of reach for any other organizational structure, because they lay under the Coasian floor.” P47
“Cooperation is the next rung of the ladder. Cooperation is harder than simply sharing, because it involves changing your behavior to synchronize with people who are changing their behaviour to synchronize with you.” P 49-50
“One simple form of cooperation, almost universal with social tools, is conversation…” p 50
“Conversation creates more of a sense of community than sharing does, but it also introduces new problems.” p 50
“Collaborative production is a more involved form of cooperation, as it increases the tension between individual and group goals… no one person can take the credit… at least some collective decisions have to be made.” P 50 – see Wikipedia
“Collective action, the third rung, is the hardest kind of group effort, as it requires a group of people to commit themselves to understanding a particular effort together, and to do so in a way that makes the decision of the group binding on the individual members.” P 51
“…collective action creates shared responsibility, by tying the user’s identity to the identity of the group…” p51
Tragedy of the commons – sheep grazing – selfish overgrazing of common pasture reduces the available pasture for all… - similar to prisoner’s dilemma…
Two solutions – elimination of the commons by private ownership or governance. Hardin: “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”
This is why taxes are never voluntary.
“Collective action involves challenges of governance, or put another way, rules for losing.” P 53 “For a group to take collective action, it must have some shared vision strong enough to bind the group together, despite periodic decisions that will inevitably displease at least some members.” P 53 “In the current spread of social tools, real examples of collective action – where a group acts on behalf of, and with shared consequences for, all of its members – are still relatively rare.” P 53
Chapter 3: Everyone is a media outlet
“Our social tools remove older obstacles to public expression, and thus remove the bottlenecks that categorized mass media. The result is the mass amateurization of efforts previously reserved for media professionals.” P55
In this chapter, Shirky discusses the development of publishing and news distribution from scribes to printing to the internet. On the way, he makes some interesting observations about professionals and the link between professionalization and scarcity.
“A profession exists to solve a hard problem, one that requires some sort of specialization… Most professions exist because there is a scarce resource that requires ongoing management…” p57
Q. Wilson, Beaurocracy: “A professional is someone who receives important occupational rewards from a reference group whose membership is limited to people who have undergone specialized formal education and have accepted a group-defined code of conduct” p 58
“A profession becomes, for its members, a way of understanding their world…” p58
“In any profession, particularly one that has existed long enough that no one can remember a time when it didn’t exist, members have a tendency to equate provisional solutions to particular problems with deep truths about the world.” P59
Shirky notes that universal availability of publishing does not equate with mass professionalization of amateurs – but mass amatuerisation of journalism.
He also notes that the invention of the printing press did not cause the reformation, but the reformation was possible because of the printing press. Radical social change can lag behind technological change by a couple of decades…
“A professional often becomes a gatekeeper, by providing a necessary or desirable social function but also by controlling that function…” p 69
“Professional self-conception and self-defence… become a disadvantage in revolutionary [times], because professionals are always concerned with threats to the profession… What was once a service can become a bottleneck…” p69
“Journalistic privilege is based on the previous scarcity of publishing. When it was easy to recognize who the publisher was, it was easy to figure out who the journalists were. We could regard them as a professional (and therefore minority) category. Now that scarcity is gone…” p 73
Shirky also discusses the issue of professional photographers…
N.B. Jeff Howe - Crowdsourcing
“…what seems like a fixed and abiding category like “journalist” turns out to be tied to an accidental scarcity created by the expense of publishing apparatus… What was once a chasm has become a mere slope.” P 76-77
Shirky notes one “professional” organisation which attempted to reclaim its previous status. This was a French bus company that sued three of its former customers when they decided to try carsharing… p78
The talk about professions and scarcity is interesting since it has direct relevance to the de-professionalization of ministry and the rising ecology of collaborative ministry. Now that most people can have access to theological learning and knowledge – and even to training or supervision – where is the distinction between lay and professional in the church? The concept of “setting aside” remains helpful in some form – but for a smaller and smaller range of activities…
Chapter 4: Publish, then filter
“The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact.” P81
In this chapter Shirky discusses the issue of the ease with which user generated content can be produced. He establishes a distinction between material produced for public consumption and personal messages uttered in public spaces.
“In this world the private register suffers – those of us who grew up with a strong separation between communication and broadcast media have a hard time…” p89
He also discusses the problem of fame, ie the more people you could interact with, the less you are likely to do so. “The web makes interactivity technologically possible, but what technology giveth, social factors take away… Fame is simply an imbalance between inbound and outbound attention… Though the possibility of two-way links is profoundly good, it is not a cure-all. On the Web interactivity has no technological limits, but it does have cognitive limits…” p 91
“Whether Oprah wants to talk to each and every member of her audience is irrelevant: Oprah can’t talk to even a fraction of her audience, ever, because she is famous…” p 92 “Egalitarianism is possible only in small social systems…” p 93
For many of us, dealing with emails is a similar issue – many small messages come in – but how many are we capable of returning? (see illustration on p 94-5)
Filtering is crucial, but it is no longer done by professionals before publication.
Shirky concludes that the internet can’t be compared to broadcast media.
Cory Doctorow: “Conversation is King. Content is just something to talk about.” P99
The web provides a platform for what Etienne Wenger called “communities of practice” in which people discuss what they do and how they could do it better. P 100
Chapter 5: Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production
“Collaborative production, where people have to coordinate with one another to get anything done, is considerably harder than simple sharing, but the results can be more profound. New tools allow large groups to collaborate, by taking advantage of nonfinancial motivations and by allowing for wildly differing levels of contribution.” P 109
In this chapter Shirky discusses the origins, development and functioning of Wikipedia as an example of collaborative production. He makes a number of interesting observations, including the following:
“A Wikipedia article is a process, not a product, and as such is never finished…” p119
“…since anyone can act, the ability of the people in charge to kill initiatives through inaction is destroyed.” P121
“…many more people are willing to make a bad article better than are willing to start a good article from scratch. In 1991 Richard Gabriel, a software engineer at Sun Microsystems, wrote an essay that included a section called “Worse Is Better,” describing this effect…” p 122
There is huge imbalance in participation, illustrated by a chart on p. 123 A tiny proportion of the participants usually do the greatest proportion of the work – and this pattern is similar for all social tools…
“…the imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them. Fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute, yet that is enough to create profound value for millions of users. And among those contributors no effort is made to even out their contributions…” p 125
“To understand the creation of something like a Wikipedia article, you can’t look for a representative contributor, because none exists…” p126
Shirky tells the story of a Shinto shrine that is not being classed as a historic place even though it is 1300 years old – because it is demolished and rebuilt with fresh wood every so often on the original design.
“Wikipedia is a Shinto shrine; it exists not as an edifice but as an act of love. Like the Ise Shrine, Wikipedia exists because enough people love it and, more important, love one another in its context. This does not mean that the people constructing it always agree, but loving someone doesn’t preclude arguing with them…” p 141
Chapter 6: Collective Action and Institutional Challenges
“Collective action, where a group acts as a whole, is even more complex than collaborative production, but here again new tools give life to new forms of action. This in turn challenges existing institutions, by eroding the institutional monopoly on large-scale coordination.” P143
In this chapter Shirky explores the catholic abuse scandals which became significant during 2002. He looks at the way new forms of sharing and simple group formation made collective action possible.
“The communications tools broadly adopted in the last decade are the first to fit human social networks well, and because they are easily modifiable, they can be made to fit better over time.” P 158
“…many of the significant changes are based not on the fanciest, newest bits of technology but on simple, easy to use tools like e-mail, mobile phones, and websites, because those are the tools most people have access to and, critically, are comfortable using in their daily lives. Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies – it happens when society adopts new behaviours.” P 166
Chapter 7: Faster and Faster
“As more people adopt simple social tools, and those tools allow increasingly rapid communication, the speed of group action also increases, and just as more is different, faster is different.” P 161
This chapter is about protesting with flash mobs, twitter and facebook as tools for collective action.
Judge Richard Posner: “Conspiracies are punished separately from single-offender criminal act, and often as severely even if the conspiracy fails to achieve its aim, because a group having some illegal purpose is more dangerous than an individual who has the same purpose.” p 161
“The military often talk about “shared awareness,” which is the ability of many different people and groups to understand a situation, and to understand who else has the same understanding.” p 163
Shirky discusses large scale group protests in Liepzig (1989) and
Shirky discusses the success of Blitzkreig and attributes this to the use of radios by the German tank commanders: “The ability to turn a collection of tanks into a coordinated force rested on two very different kinds of things, in other words. First, it required the media with which to coordinate the tanks. No radios, no blitzkrieg. Secondly, it required a strategy that took the new possibilities of radio into account. No new strategy, no blitzkrieg either. Neither the technological change nor the strategy alone was sufficient to ensure German victory, but together they changed the way the world worked.” p173
Howard Rheingold: Smart Mobs
Shirky tells the story of a protest against HSBC coordinated through Facebook. He notes that social tools “lower the hurdles to doing something in the first place…” p 181 “Having a handful of highly motivated people and a mass of barely motivated ones used to be a recipe for frustration. The people who were on fire wondered why the generl population didn’t care more, and the general population wondered why those obsessed people didn’t just shut up. Now the highly motivated people can create a context more easily in which the barely motivated people can be effective without having to become activists themselves.” p 182
Shirky then talks about Evan Williams who invented Blogger and Twitter. He lists some ways that Twitter is used by activists in the middle east.
Chapter 8: Solving Social Dilemas
“There are real and permanent social dilemmas, which can only be optimized for, never completely solved. The human social repertoire includes many such optimizations, which social tools can amplify.” p 188
In this chapter Shirky raises the question of the Prisoners Dilemma.
He then references Robert Putnam Bowling Alone, 2000 – and the issue of social capital. Societies with high social capital – living in the “shadow of the future” – do better than those with low levels – where trust and mutual cooperation are low. This involves direct and indirect reciprocity – indirect reciprocity means that you do something for someone else knowing than a completely different individual may do something for you.
Putnam observed that social capital was important but that is was also in decline. Better communications have contributed to the problem.
Shirky discusses the concept of cyberspace noting that “The overlap is so great, in fact, that both the word and the concept of “cyberspace” have fallen into disuse. The internet augments real world social life rather than providing an alternative to it.” p 196
N.B. Scott Heiferman launched Meetup to help people realte geographically on the basis of online interests.
Shirky discussed the issue of groups that exist for purposes that we may disapprove of – such as a self-help network of Pro-Ana (pro-anorexic) girls who were swapping advice on how to get thin.(!) He observes that it is easier for such groups to form and harder for society to police them.
Latent groups become real groups if the transactional costs drop low enough for them to form.
Three kinds of loss:
- “people whose jobs relied on solving a formerly hard problem” p 209
- “damage current social bargains…” p 209 e.g. definitions about who does what…
- “The third kind of loss is the most serious…” – better organisation for crime and terrorism… p210
“This is going to force society to shift from simply preventing groups from forming to actively deciding which existing ones to try to oppose…” p 211
Chapter 9: Fitting our Tools to a small world
“Large social groups are different from small ones, but we are still understanding all the ways in which that is true. Recent innovations in social tools provide more explicit support for a pattern of social networking called Small World pattern, which underlies the idea of Six Degrees of Separation.” p 212
Shirky discusses the fact the you are likely to find a connection with a random individual that you might meet on a plane. He explains that this is because people social connectedness follows a power curve – i.e. a few people are very well connected and you – or the other person – are more likely to know one of those than any random average individual.
1998 Duncan Watts and Steve Strogatz “Small World Network”: “Small World networks have two characteristics that, when balanced properly, let messages move through the network efficiently. The first is that small groups are densely connected… The second… is that large groups are sparsely connected…” p 215
“When you list the participants in a Small World network in rank order by the number of connections, the resulting graph approximates a power law distribution: a few people account for a widely disproportionate amount of the overall connectivity. Malcolm Galdwell, in The Tipping Point, calls these people Connectors; they function like ambassadors…” p 218
Ronald Burt, The Social Origins of Good Ideas – “…most good ideas came from people who were bridging “structural holes,” which is to say people whose immediate social network included employees outside their department.” p230
Chapter 10: Failure for Free
“The logic of publish-then-filter means that new social systems have to tolerate enormous amounts of failure. The only way to uncover and promote the rare successes is to rely, yet again, on social structure supported by social tools.” p 233
In this chapter Shirky discusses the fact that most social networks/activities are latent – and only a few of those that are tried are successful. Failure is an essential element of social behaviour – and yet it can’t be tolerated in traditional business structures. The use of social tools lowers the cost of failure and therefore enable greater risk taking…
“Open source is a profound threat, not because the open source ecosystem is outsucceeding commercial efforts but because it is outfailing them.” p 245
“Why? The most important reasons are that open systems lower the cost of failure, they do not create biases in favour of predictable but substandard outcomes, and they make it simpler to integrate the contributions of people who contribute only a single idea.” p 245
“This metaphorical environment is sometimes called a “fitness landscape” – the idea is that for any problem or goal, there is a vast area of possibilities to explore but few valuable spots within that environment to discover.” p 247
Chapter 11: Promise, Tool, Bargain
“There is no recipe for the successful use of social tools. Instead, every working system is a mix of social and technological factors.” p 261
In this chapter, Shirky sets out his theory that in order to succeed, each social endeavour needs three things:
1) A Promise – this is the offer or possibility of benefit that can be gained from engaging with the activity.
2) A Tool – this is the social tool, media or space which makes the activity possible.
3) A Bargain – this is the conscious or unconscious deal struck between the host, organiser or provider and the users or contributors. The Bargain can be a legal contract (as with UNIX or Wikipedia) or it could be an informal understanding (as with the StolenSidekick…)
Shirky argues that most collaborative activities fail because one of these elements is absent. He also speculated that collaborative action has yet to be significant because we are only in the early days of establishing effective methods of creating a Bargain – he thinks that legal structures may arise to make this possible.
In the epilogue Shirky discusses the
He discusses the growing impact of social tools on ordinary life. He notes the “network effect” which is that “networks become more valuable as people adopt them.” p 301
“Most of the work on supporting collective action around starting or sustaining work is speculative at this point.” p 318