In the early days of Wikipedia, one of their editors joked that their freely-editable encyclopedia was a project that could work only in practice, never in theory. If you had asked someone in the 1990s whether such a project could ever succeed, you would have been hard-pressed to find many supporters. In theory it sounded ludicrous. Why would anyone donate their time to write articles, much less subject experts, many of whom need to get credit for publishing? How could you prevent articles from becoming overly slanted, or simply vandalized? How could something written collaboratively by mostly anonymous authors ever be a reliable source of knowledge?
Yet there it is; and for the most part, it’s actually quite good. I use Wikipedia all the time to lookup basic bits of information, like dates or names (for which it seems highly reliable), and occasionally use it as a starting point for researching a new subject. Some articles are of course better than others, but the fact that any of it is of high quality is really counter-intuitive.
But “counter-intuitive” is really just shorthand for saying that it doesn’t fit into our existing theoretical models of how society supposedly works. We all walk around with these mental models that help us interpret phenomenon and predict outcomes, but they also limit what we think is possible. When we then encounter something in practice that we formerly thought was impossible in theory, we are faced with a dilemma: do we reinterpret the thing so that it continues to fit within our existing models; or do we reevaluate our model, potentially changing it to accommodate this formerly inexplicable reality?
In the wake of successful collaborative projects like Wikipedia and the open-source operating system Linux, sociologists and economists have actually been doing a bit of both as they attempt to explain how and why such things occurred. Some have concentrated on researching how these projects actually work, showing that they are not really as undirected, noncommercial, or anti-corporate as the press coverage might lead you to believe. Others have argued that they are anomalous, something that can’t be repeated. But others have been developing new theories (or more commonly, pulling more esoteric ones out of the closet) to make these seeming anomalies fit again.
Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, is an insightful popularization not only of these efforts, but also his own ongoing research of Internet culture. As the subtitle suggests, he focuses on how social media tools have made it easier than ever for people to organize, whether it be for the purposes of general communication and knowledge-sharing, or the more difficult activities of collaborative production and collective action. Social tools, he argues, have lowered the costs not only of group formation, but also those of ongoing coordination. As a result, we are now trying out new forms of organization that are not simply improvements upon our existing institutions—they are fundamental shifts towards a new type of social organization, one that he thinks will soon become dominant.
What will that new structure look like? It’s too early to tell, but he identifies a few trends that he argues will likely continue. First is the mass-amateurization of efforts that previously had been restricted to groups of professionals. There are many examples of this: music production and distribution; journalism; encyclopedia production; stock photography; even advertising. In all of these cases, the professional class had enjoyed an almost exclusive control over the means of production and distribution, but that control has now been undermined by digital and networked technologies. His stock photography example was especially interesting: web sites like iStockPhoto allow amateurs to sell stock photos for a fraction of the price a professional would charge. The artistic quality of amateur photos might not be as high, but for many users of stock photography, it is plenty good-enough. This will no doubt redefine what is means to be a professional photographer, but I think it would be overstating things to say that professional photographers will soon go the way of travel agents.
The second and related trend he identifies is a shift from filter-then-publish to publish-then-filter. The economics of traditional journalism or music production required that professionals filtered and selected only a subset of the available material for publication. This gatekeeper role gave them enormous control over what the public saw and heard, but that control has been weakened considerably by the self-publication enabled by inexpensive digital and networked technologies. This has resulted in a flood of new content, only a subset of which is interesting to any given person. Thus, great effort is being put into developing mechanisms by which one can find those interesting gems amongst the rubble, some of which are purely algorithmic (e.g., Google search), and others of which rely on an army of amateur taggers and filterers (e.g., digg, del.ico.us, and blogs like this one).
The third trend is a shift away from hierarchical forms of organization towards more loosely-joined networks. We tend to think of hierarchically organized firms as a kind of “natural” organizational form blessed by God, but this kind of organization is the product of a historical context, one that is perhaps not so relevant anymore. Shirky provides a number of examples of networked cooperative production, but most are centered around some kind of information-processing. One is left wondering if such a model could really be extended into something like manufacturing, an arena where hierarchical organizations have historically thrived.
Shirky’s analysis of all this adheres generally to the social-shaping position, striking a nice balance between technological determinism (adopted technologies deterministically cause social change) and social determinism (technologies are neutral tools completely controlled by social forces). He acknowledges the ways in which social media change not only the economics of organization, but also the way we think about what is possible and good. But he also is careful to note that the same tools used in different contexts have generated different results, a clear indication that the technologies are to some degree shaped by the culture that adopts them.
On the whole, I highly recommend this book to those who are trying to understand how the Internet and social media are enabling deep structural changes in our society.