"Our principal challenge is not to decide where we want to go, but to stay upright as we go there." In his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, author and NYU faculty member Clay Shirky describes the profound impact of social technological tools on contemporary culture—from e-mail and blogs to Twitter and wikis.
Shirky's book, an example-laden history of the development of such tools, is well-timed. Last week, as anti-government protests erupted in Tibet, China moved forcefully to quash news of the clash by restricting Internet access to YouTube as well as censoring mainstream outlets such as the BBC and CNN. But, underscoring many of Shirky's central points, the crackdown failed as witnesses bypassed the country's "Great Firewall" by uploading photos and videos to other, uncensored Web sites. And, on Mar. 20 the state-run news agency, Xinhua, acknowledged that troops had injured four protesters—the first time China made such an admission since the protests began, and arguably a by-product of its failure to limit the flow of information.
It's too early to tell how the events in Tibet will play out, but they generally fit into the decentralization of control Shirky describes. Clearly, not only repressive governments are being affected by the Internet Age. These tools have widely infiltrated aspects of modern life, both purely social activities and wholly commercial enterprises. Shirky gives plenty of compelling examples of both. He writes of organizations such as MeetUp, which offers a neutral platform allowing like-minded people to form groups both online and in the real world. Industrial examples include companies such as Goldcorp, a mining company that introduced an entirely new way of conducting business by offering a prize for external submissions suggesting where it should mine for gold next.
Invisibility Is Coming
Many of the examples are familiar, but Shirky moves the discussion forward from this imperfect start. In fact, for Shirky, things are just about to get interesting. "It's when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen," he writes. "Invisible is coming." (For a related argument, see the BusinessWeek column by Bill Buxton, principal scientist at Microsoft Research and the author of Sketching User Experiences: The Long Nose of Innovation (BusinessWeek.com, 2/1/08).)
In Shirky's view, we're living in the middle of a revolution as momentous as that which followed the invention of the printing press. Society and industry, in other words, are being radically reshaped. Even a cursory look at the current corporate landscape confirms his view. Existing music and media businesses are in a state of turmoil, with no clear strategy to deal with the rise of mass amateurization and cheap and easy distribution tools. "Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be," he writes.
A world without many of the organizations we rely on today is somewhat hard to imagine, and examples of current corporations that are embracing the changes throughout their organizational structures are still scarce. For many companies, adoption of social tools remains the domain of one department (often marketing or advertising) rather than a goal of the enterprise at large. The book does give tantalizing glimpses of the challenges and changes ahead, along with an analysis of the ongoing tension between commercial and noncommercial. For instance, he cites the nonprofit foundation of Wikipedia as the fundamental reason the site has flourished where Microsoft's for-profit Encarta encyclopedia program withered—even when it sought contributions from loyal users.
As a result, many of the examples Shirky gives in the book are the usual suspects, the Web 2.0 stars that have already been picked apart ad nauseam by commentators eager to construct some kind of applicable business process from their successes. In Shirky's view, however, such analysis is unwise, and he puts much of the success of companies such as Wikipedia and Linux down to a fortuitous combination of elements even their creators didn't realize was so critical.
No Blueprint for the Brave New World
For example, he includes details of the starting points of both Wikipedia (a note from co-founder Larry Sanger to his mailing list saying "Humor me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of 5 or 10 minutes") to Linus Torvalds' similar post to a software discussion group regarding his decision to create what would later become the hugely influential open-source software, Linux: "I'm doing a (free) operating system…I'd like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won't promise I'll implement them :-)." Neither Sanger nor Torvalds had any idea of the huge implications of their questions, and Shirky is adept at analyzing the reasons for their successes—while providing a salient reminder for readers that the brave new world has no blueprint.
But even as it can be somewhat daunting for large corporations to face up to the grassroots assault on their core business models, it's also clear the current Web 2.0 darlings are constantly evolving, too. Wikipedia was able to harness group collaboration and collective action to create an astonishingly valuable and far-reaching resource, but such past commitment from users is no guarantee of continued favor.
Massively popular photo-sharing site Flickr faced revolt from users after it was bought by Yahoo (YHOO) and changed its sign-in protocol, while user-edited news site Digg chose to break the law in order not to alienate its users' collective decision to post information as an act of civil disobedience.
Look to the Future
For most companies, and for many of the world's citizens, such anarchy is unthinkable. In the book's final pages Shirky does not shy away from asking whether the vast changes created by the emergence of new socially connected tools are—on balance—good or bad. He's a self-confessed optimist, but also a pragmatist, arguing that the rise of groups of which the majority might not approve is not just a by-product of the tools; it's the product, too.
Shirky calls for readers to acknowledge the new reality and look to the future. "The important questions aren't about whether these tools will spread or reshape society but rather how they do so." His book is a compendium of smartly analyzed, real-world examples of just that, and it provides a good foundation for those looking to get a handle on the new ways of the world.