Millions of citizens around the globe contribute to an online encyclopedia for free. Hundreds of young people show up simultaneously in a city square to happily lick ice cream. Computer programmers from Sweden to the Silicon Valley collaborate online to build an operating system that outdoes even Microsoft—none of them pocketing a penny. What do these things have in common?
According to NYU professor Clay Shirky, they’re examples of group activity that grew out of new communication tools—from wikis to websites. And we will see more of it. In his extraordinarily perceptive new book, Here Comes Everybody, he argues this newly harnessed group power will change the way we work, achieving efficiencies and results far beyond the power of conventional organizations.
This is a compelling premise, and there are echoes of digital futurism in some of Shirky’s bold declarations. But he goes much further than most writers on the Internet. Drawing from anthropology, economic theory and keen observation, he makes a strong case that new communication tools are making forms of group action possible where they weren’t before.
Shirky’s range of examples is exciting. In Egypt, for example, dissidents communicate over blogs and a new online tool, Twitter, to describe when friends are arrested and borders are closed down. In New York City, attendees of a parade post and share photos on Flickr in a way never before possible. An angry, motivated office worker spearheads an online campaign over a blog to have a stolen PDA returned.
These are, of course, cherry-picked examples from a blizzard of talk and cant that fills up the Internet—something Shirky readily admits. In fact, he believes the high preponderance of failure—whether it’s a blog about bunions or Microsoft’s own (not free) encyclopedia—is one of the Internet’s great strengths in marshaling group behavior. It allows people try out ideas and participate in activities that would be too expensive for a company to direct or manage.
Still, I think Shirky underestimates the effect such forms of online communication will have on person-to-person relations. Will our social skills suffer, if at all? Also, how will these new tools affect our acquisition of knowledge? Everyone knows an old, printed encyclopedia might have out-of-date information—but what if you click on Wikipedia at the moment someone has sabotaged it? Can we tolerate being a lot wrong some of the time?
Finally, Shirky is also needlessly hard on newspapers (says the newspaper reviewer). Indeed, newspapers were far too slow to grasp the Internet’s power, but a newspaper couldn’t exist without exactly the kind of group effort Shirky describes. Community members tell reporters what’s going on—inform them when they got it wrong. The Letters to the Editor page is not the primary locus of that interaction, as he writes, just its long tail—a tail that will (or should) get much, much longer if Here Comes Everybody is any judge.