Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations

Tara Brabazon on bold tales of a Web 2.0 revolution to which the poor and excluded need not apply

April 3, 2008

I am not sure when management consultants colonised publishing and academia. Richard Florida, Charles Leadbeater and Chris Anderson are enthusiasts - cheerleaders - for creativity, collaboration and the market economy. We used to isolate such people into courses and categories titled "organisational culture". It was safer that way. Then they could talk (only) to people who held a similar passion for sharing experiences, celebrating institutional memory, defending knowledge management, facilitating networking and writing strategic plans.

Now we are all locked in a digitised echo chamber where seemingly random words such as "networking" are thrown into sentences, encouraging similarly random rebuttals such as "quality assurance" and "subject benchmarks". I'll give you one "corporate plan" and raise you a "generic competency". When Web 2.0 and social networking are mixed into this managerial speak, the result is as excitable as a bag of ferrets, and probably as useful.

We can now add another pseudo-organisational communitarian to the ranks. Clay Shirky is a professor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program. He has been a consultant for Nokia, News Corp, the US Navy and - brilliantly - Lego. This book investigates how groups are formed and operate in a networked society, exploring how new technology creates fresh modes of group formation.

Shirky argues that Web 2.0 tools are now flexible enough to match and shape human social relationships. He is interested in flattening organisational cultures while assembling "rungs on the ladder" of participatory culture: sharing, co-operation and collective action.

Here Comes Everybody is filled with powerful and passionate stories of excitement, change and involvement. A characteristic of this book genre is that authors are great storytellers but dodgy historians. They start with tales of individuals and render these micromoments paradigm shifting. Experience replaces research and anecdotes mask argument.

For example, Shirky's book commences with the story of Ivanna. She left a phone in a New York cab that was taken by Sasha and then reclaimed by Ivanna's friend Evan. He created a website (www.evanwashere.com/stolensidekick), and then proceeded to blog, e-mail and text message Sasha's family, friends, police and news organisations around the world until it was returned. Sasha was arrested and police seized the phone.

Shirky reports that "the loss and return of the Sidekick is a story about many things - Evan's obsessive tendencies, Ivanna's good fortune in having him for a friend, how expensive phones have gotten - but one of the themes running through the story is the power of group action, given the right tools".

Another issue jutting from this story is why so many became focused on something as small as a New York woman losing her phone in a cab. Web 2.0 has become a warm and dark space for people with too much time and too few ideas. They are shielded through the flawed assumption that if more "people" (and as a visitor to Second Life, I use this word advisedly ...) are involved in doing "something" then it becomes important. When we were at high school, this was called mob rule. Now it is called social networking.

Older citizens, the poor, the illiterate and the socially excluded are invisible in Shirky's "everybody". Once more, the US, and occasionally the UK, is "the world" in the world wide web. The hypothesis is clear: the internet/web/Web 2.0 changed "everything". The question remains: for whom? Shirky states that "the hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society". Yet he is no Bolshevik. His collectivised hippydom hits trouble when dealing with the less palatable/consumerable parts of social networking, such as cutter communities and the "pro-ana" anorexia websites. In response, Shirky simply continues his metaphor for radical change: "it's not a revolution if nobody loses". "Everybody" suddenly evaporates.

The great absence in the book is any mention of information literacy, or the excluded "everybodies" that may not have the latest phone or the time and ability to join, gather and collectivise online because they are managing analogue injustice. His assumption that "we" can learn about technology from technology - without attention to user-generated contexts rather than content - is the gaping, stunning silence of Shirky's argument.

The long tail of proliferating mediocrity, where bloggers link to other bloggers and podcasters namecheck other podcasters, is the great cost of Web 2.0. A wider body of knowledge is not well represented in Here Comes Everybody. No citations are used throughout the text and a strange bibliography concludes the book.

The introduction to this odd list may be significant: "Wikipedia is an especially good guide to many of the general topics discovered in this book, precisely because everyone who contributes to Wikipedia is comfortable using social tools." Once more, we find confusion between tools and knowledge, process and production. It is a shame that "comfort" with social tools does not create a "discomfort" with analogue injustice.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations

By Clay Shirky
Allen Lane
336pp
£20.00
ISBN 9780713999891
Published 28 February 2008

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