Despite being somewhat dated already (having been published before the Arab Spring, the rise of Twitter and the demise of MySpace, and newer phenomena like Tumblr, FourSquare, and Google+), Clay Shirky’s 2008 book Here Comes Everybody is still, three years later, a remarkably smart and applicable analysis of the role of social networking and social media technology.
The collapse of transaction costs makes it easier for people to get together – so much easier, in fact, that it is changing the world. The lowering of these costs is the driving force underneath the current revolution and the common element to everything in this book. (p. 48)
The book’s analysis is couched in the Coase theorem and its intersection with the power law distribution that applies to social networks. The idea is that what makes social tech compelling and effective is that the cost of participating is so low, because of the minimization of transaction costs enabled by the Internet and social network technology. As a corollary, the cost of failure is trivial or at least deeply diminished. In the chapter called “Failure for Free,” Shirky highlights Meetup’s free-for-all approach to organizing groups and the open-source origins of Linux as examples of new communities that are thriving because the low cost of failure enables them to experiment widely. This made me think of Jane McGonigal’s point in Reality is Broken that nothing motivates people to rebound from failure and try again like games. Shirky focuses on this phenomenon in the context of communities of love (as opposed to communities of practice), but I think the take-home lesson is the same: using technology, we can harness motivators aside from traditional materialist, private property-based interests.
What the open source movement teaches us is that the communal can be at least as durable as the commercial. For any given piece of software, the question “Do the people who like it take care of each other?” turns out to be a better predictor of success than “What’s the business model?” As the rest of the world gets access to the tools once reserved for the techies, that pattern is appearing everywhere, and it is changing society as it does. (p. 258-9)
Meanwhile, in real life and online, the Occupy Wall Street movement might very well be the latest and greatest sociopolitical phenomenon in distributed organizing. At The Economist‘s Democracy in America blog, G.L. calls it “the world’s first genuine social-media uprising.” I’m not interested in disputing whether earlier social movements were, in fact, primarily driven by social media,* but it does certainly seem to be the case that (new or newish) social tech tools like Tumblr are making a significant impact in the rapidly-growing Occupy movement. As G.L. points out, the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr is a critical part of the Occupy movement because it establishes a narrative clarifying what the movement wants and what it is about: ” jobs, cheaper health care, cheaper education, and relief from suffocating debt.” G.L. cites the number of blog posts and the frequency of posting over time, as evidence of the movement gaining traction, but I think better metrics would be citations/links, pageviews and shares over Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc. (For one thing, the frequency of posting is mediated by the human moderation of submissions by whoever it is that’s behind that Tumblr.) Of course, the tricky thing is the mismatch between the online ferment and the offline consequences, but I think the effectiveness of social movements in general is pretty outside the scope of this post. Even without access to these kinds of metrics, it’s indisputable that the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr is making its mark: the right-wing We Are the 53 Percent “parody”/response is beginning to gain attention of its own.
In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky observes that:
The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society. (p. 107)
I think this applies pretty well to the Occupy movement, both in terms of online and offline social institutions.
*Although some might argue that the text message-organized Falun Gong sit-ins or the Belarus flash mob protests, which were publicized on Livejournal (and discussed by Shirky on pp. 167-8).