Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody is essentially a list, with explanations and illustrative anecdotes, of the ways the Internet has changed the way we communicate with one another and thus upended the notion of a traditional organization.  The book encompasses the idea that groups of individuals, formerly latent, are now able to come together and harness power in a way that wasn’t possible before.  He illustrates how collective action no longer means literally marching in protest – in fact; the idea of a protest is in some cases obsolete now that groups of people can come together, circumvent the old institutions and get things done themselves.  He also discusses how the media has morphed into something that has yet to be defined because everyone can be a media outlet and there is no longer a ‘filter, then publish’ standard.  He cites the Power Law of participation to show how websites like Wikipedia and Meetup aggregate people and the knowledge they have as individuals and then, somewhat counter-intuitively, self-edit into a quality product.  Shirky uses the Birthday Puzzle and the Six Degrees rule to illustrate the Small World network, wherein small groups are densely connected and large groups are sparsely connected.  Essentially, we are all connected in closer ways than we might think – the Internet has just made it easier for us to discover and utilize the connections we may not otherwise have realized were there.   Overall, the book emphasizes how the Internet has awakened the power of the individual in ways that at best change and at worst threaten major institutions in existence today.

Here Comes Everybody covers a lot of ground in a relatively succinct way but there is no order to it.  He accurately identifies large shifts in social organizing, professional organizing, industry, etc. but he doesn’t tie them together well except when he reiterates themes he’s mentioned previously.  True, it’s hard to create a timeline of when each of these shifts first occurred but, for example, using the anecdotes as a way to set up a chronology would have made it easier to understand the arc of the evolution.  However, the anecdotes themselves are the best part of the book; Shirky is good at illustrating larger themes with interesting, relevant stories.  He also does a great job of at least mentioning every major effect social media has had in changing the landscape of communication.  I can’t think of anything he completely missed, which is impressive for a few hundred pages.

Shirky’s analysis of the new media (Chapter 3 – Everyone Is A Media Outlet) ties in well with Jeff Jarvis’ post on BuzzMachine last week But is it journalism? (Damnit) where he asks What Is Journalism? And, more importantly, Does It Even Matter? Jarvis and Shirky both point out that anyone can now publish information.  So, either everyone is a journalist or no one is and the profession is quickly becoming obsolete.  Which is true? What is journalism? Jarvis doesn’t know and neither do I.  But it seems like the industry needs to remake itself entirely if it wants to stay relevant.  As is obvious by their waning viewer/readership, the old guard of networks, newsweeklies and the like is doing a poor job of that.  That’s probably why, even as a former network TV journalist myself, I check Twitter for the latest earthquake updates and Wikipedia to read up on a presidential candidate.

Shirky spends some time on a concept he calls “the promise, the tool and the bargain,” something that can be applied to pre-Internet circumstances.  Now, though, the tool is the Internet and it has drastically changed the plausibility of the promise and thus the conditions of the bargain.  Shirky says that the promise has to convince an individual that a service will be useful, satisfying and effective not only to him/her but also to his/her peers.  So, social media is in part contingent upon the bandwagon effect.  In Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin and Robert B. Cialdini’s Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, the authors conduct a study at a hotel where half of the patrons have cards in their rooms encouraging them to recycle their towels to help protect the environment.  The other half have cards in their rooms encouraging them to recycle their towels for the environment and citing the fact that most people who had previously stayed in the room had opted to recycle.  Those whose cards had the latter message were more likely to recycle their towels.  This illustrates the bandwagon effect.  People are inclined to think and behave as others do.  So if the promise, in Shirky’s words, can convince an individual that others will like a service, he or she will be more likely to sign up thereby causing others to sign up for the same reason.  The Internet means that growth potential for the bandwagon effect is now exponential (see: Facebook) and, according to Metcalfe’s Law, more valuable (see: Facebook when it goes public).