Review by Ken Simon, Reference Librarian at LMU
This is one in a series of posts by university staff, including librarians, reviewing books in our collections.
What have you done on the social web today? How is the explosion of Internet-based social networking in all its forms, from e-mail, to listservs, to Facebook, Flickr and Twitter, changing your world today? And more important: what does this new wave of truly participatory media bode for our future? Clay Shirky takes on these big questions in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.
I was drawn to the premise of this book, as social networking has been of interest to me since before the term existed. My senior thesis as a Sociology student in 1991 was called The Microchip Society: A Study of Computer-Mediated Social Life. I made the then-unpopular assertion that interaction with others by way of computer networks was, legitimately, social interaction. How far things have come since then!
Shirky has written an engaging, eye-opening book that draws upon social change theory, economics, and psychology. He contends that the Internet, cell phones and other two-way communication technologies have lowered barriers to group formation, such that people are organizing to great effect with a speed, flexibility and reach that would have been impossible just a few years ago. This is taking place in all sorts of ways: social groups, political action groups, photo sharing, news and information sharing, lifestyle support groups, the list goes on and on.
Shirky believes that the power of these new tools at our disposal will be harnessed collectively in a positive direction. He acknowledges that many individuals seek to disrupt cooperative efforts (look at spammers, or “trolls” on mailing lists, for instance), but he contends that any tool that is overrun by those seeking to disrupt it was flawed in some way, and will fall away in favor of tools that are designed to facilitate self-healing. One such example is Wikipedia, which has spawned a community of users that corrects for vandalism, usually with remarkable efficiency.
What of corporate and governmental entities trying to screen or censor Internet content? Shirky believes that such efforts are doomed to failure, and that due to the nature of the technology itself, people will find a way around those attempted impositions. World events frequently bear out his perspective.
Shirky doesn’t deal much with inequities in access to these communications tools. But that may be peripheral to his point: after all, not everyone had access to a printing press, yet its invention eventually led to massive change all over the world. Shirky isn’t making any wild assertions that the new ease of organizing brought about by participatory media will eradicate inequality, but he does suggest that major — and positive — changes are coming for those at all socioeconomic levels.
Here Comes Everybody is an important counterpoint to those who think that social networking is just a popularity contest for kids, or who bemoan the “narcissism” of people who put their information onto MySpace or Facebook. There’s a whole lot more going on there, and people of all generations are beginning to figure that out.