In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky explores the current impact and potential of the Internet and new media. Clearly a fan of what is possible and an admirer of what has already happened, he explains how the advent of new communications tools and interconnectivity have had a fundamental impact on organizing people. Now, it is possible for a group to communicate, share, interact, mobilize, and direct their energies without the need of any type of traditional organization. The “transaction costs” as Shirky puts it, of organizing, publishing, connecting, spreading ideas, and communication are lowered or disappearing. In essence, the barriers to collective action are being removed. Wikipedia, flash mobs, and a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan group are some examples of what is possible in the right circumstances combined with the right technology.
The conditions necessary to take advantage of well known tools such as The Internet, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Wikipedia, blogging, messaging, and SMS are summarized by the need for three key ingredients: The promise (of what the group or media tool is going to/can do) the bargain (of what the users or group can expect), and the tool itself (the correct new media technology to make these things happen). Touching on various theories such as the Tragedy of the Commons and Longtail, Shirky convincingly explains many examples of things that worked, like Wikipedia and flash mobs, and things that did not, like the Wikitorial of the LA Times.
In this new ‘eco-system’, roles are redefined, and I think Shirky does a great job in explaining this. The news industry is a key example of this profound change as many areas reserved for institutional journalism professionals and publishers have moved online or led to mass amateurism. Definitions for a journalist and news have grayed because so many people have the opportunity to communicate whatever they want with many others. The technological impact described is not unprecedented, and blogger Jeff Jarvis would likely agree about the shift in what we look at as news. A September 1 post in his blog BuzzMachine discusses Jay Rosen’s research on the history of publics and press. He highlights a 1780s printer announcing the service of a city register enabling people to receive word of who was in town. The register provided a form of news for people in a community that had too many changing connections with people coming and going. Jarvis parallels this with Facebook’s ‘newsfeed’ which he now considers news, something he scoffed at previously.
The fact that I can reference a ‘blog’ as a legitimate way to make a point even as I’m writing one is a reflection of the magnitude of change that has taken place. Back in 2004 the LA Times ran an article titled “No doubt about it, blogs are major players,” that highlighted the role of blogs and their impact on the CBS story concerning George W. Bush’s national guard service. This was a watershed event showcasing the changing media landscape Shirky describes.
Shirky marvels at what is possible, especially when it comes to international situations like Belorussian flash mobs or the local citizen reaction to a Chinese earthquake. Author Evgeny Morozov interprets such events differently, and has written extensively on the limits of the Internet. Morozov feels that it can be just the opposite of revolutionary. He writes about the likelihood of the state using the tools to monitor and oppress, and explains why Twitter, for example, won’t overthrow the Iranian government. What backs up these ideas is the fact that many authoritarian regimes are still in place after various uprisings using new communications technology. Both Shirky and Morozov have very interesting views found in a debate on the Edge.org, and this particular area is one in which both could ultimately prove correct to some degree since no one knows what technology or implementation the future will bring. I think its clear there is an impact on authoritarian regimes and the ways and means that Shirky lay out are an excellent way to grasp this. However, perhaps best to keep in mind are the three ingredients he deems necessary for technology to take hold and cause change, as well as what is on the front cover of his book: “revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technology, it happens when society adopts new behaviors.” Technology, as Shirky knows, is only part of the equation.