I’m on a Clay Shirky binge after his excellent Cognitive Surplus, and loved Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008) even more. His major theme in both is that because the cost – in both time and money – has dropped for organizing groups, more people are taking collective action and that can produce cool results not driven by a profit motive (social uprisings, Wikipedia, Linux, etc.). My favorite highlights:
- Why was the news media so slow to perceive the threat posed to them by the Internet? The fact that they’re “professionals” – i.e., inculcated into a particular guild mentality. Shirky notes, “When a profession has been created as a result of some scarcity, as with librarians or television programmers, the professionals are often the last ones to see it when that scarcity goes away.”
- Though it’s tempting for web Pollyannas to define TV as bad and passive and the Internet as good and interactive, that’s not always the case. In the early days, everyone could interact with each other – but when you get into Ashton Kutcher levels of Twitter followers, it’s just not happening. Shirky reminds us that you can’t forget the dynamics of fame – i.e., when there’s “an imbalance between inbound and outbound attention.” Specifically, he writes, “The mere technological possibility of reply isn’t enough to overcome the human limits on attention.”
- As many HTML-eschewing humanities types will agree, “Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring…It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen.”
- Why did the priest sex abuse scandal revealed by the Boston Globe in 2002 (with a lot of the heavy lifting done, I should note, by my former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi) shake the church so dramatically, when the Father Porter scandal the decade prior didn’t create many lasting changes? Shirky argues convincingly that parishioners’ ability to self-organize had dramatically increased thanks to the web, allowing them to form powerful advocacy groups like Voice of the Faithful.
- Shirky points out that managing employees is an expensive venture – overhead kills. That’s why, he says, “organizations cannot afford to hire employees who only make one important contribution – they need to hire people who have good ideas day after day.” You have to ignore “casual participants.” But that means their potential contributions (to write code, or create marketing ideas, or whatever) is left on the table. Microsoft can’t afford to have them on their payroll – but there’s no reason for Linux not to take advantage of their occasional help. That’s the biggest difference, and advantage, in an open source, ‘collective action’ kind of world.
Going back to an idea I talked about in reviewing Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, Shirky cites a paper by Ronald Burt of the University of Chicago called “The Social Origins of Good Ideas.” The best ideas, it turns out, are from “people whose contacts were outside their own department.” Too narrow of a worldview (i.e., all your friends work in the same department) and your ideas tend to be too “echo-chambery.” So start making lunch dates!
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You. She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, the National Park Service, and Yale University. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.