Clay Shirky has written a book. Oh joy! Here Comes Everybody is a wise and insightful look into what’s happening as the costs of group forming evaporates. The book is in your bookstore starting today, so run out and get it!
The big question Clay takes on here runs as follows: Given that we are social creatures. Blessed with a having a latent desire to form groups. What happens when it suddenly becomes radically cheaper to form these groups? The straw-man answer: a lot of groups get formed. Groups start popping up, all over, all the time, for all things.
In much the same way that a mole, living underground, is unlike the butterfly living in the summer air these groups are sufficiently different that our intuitions about groups are called into question. While the cost structure does that so does the scale. The traditional organization must cut off it’s own long tail to curtail it’s classic coordination costs from running out of control. These new lower costs groups can push that cut off much further out. That creates entirely new organizational patterns.
This book is roughly targeted at the same audience as Tipping Point or The Long Tail; i.e. the intelligent reader interested in trends. I don’t want to undervalue how critical such books are, but unlike those books this work brings much that is new to the table. Clay frames existing ideas in new ways that gives them additional energy. For example when he says “beneath the Coasean floor” he is illuminating a very radical idea. E.g. We can now solve large swaths of coordination problems in ways that are contrary to architecture of institutions as we have come to know them.
But at the same time Clay introduces many ideas I’d not seen before and which I suspect are fresh. For example it’s well known that modern societies are rich in groups whose domain is very limited. The neighborhood group that forms only to worry about traffic, or the diet club, the knitting group, the professional society each with it’s very specific topic. These go by the name communities of limited liability, and I’ve often encountered people who would prefer that these not be called communities because they are so carefully limited in their scope.
Clay points out a wonderful reason why we choose to create and maintain these limits. First he reminds us of the birthday problem, i.e. that the chance is high that in a group of 30 people two will have the same birthday. That happens because the number of pair wise connections in a group is N!, i.e. grows very fast in the number of people. Now having a common birthday, that’s a delightful coincidence. But the same pattern has a dark side. As the group grows the chances of pairs with some deep-seated antipathy explodes as well. By keeping the scope of the groups limited so some very narrow topic the chance that these will be uncovered and go onto polarize the group is kept low.
There is much more that I’m loving about this book. So I’ll no doubt be talking about it more over the next weeks. But I think if you’re the least bit interested in groups you gotta read this. Like I say it should be in your bookstore today – get a move on!
Interesting. I heard Clay give a talk about the book about a week ago, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. Online group forming is nothing new. And the examples of Collective Action (capitalized because he was emphasizing that phrase) that Clay presented were inane: airline passengers creating a blog to introduce a bill that never passed beyond New York (and the blog is lame – I’ve subscribed for the past year), a flash pillow mob in Washington Square Park, etc. A couple of examples from other countries were a bit more compelling, but still no meaningful change was accomplished. Hardly the kind of collective action that we’ve seen without the support of the Internet. You know, ones that matter, like the fall of the Iron Curtain, U.S. civil rights, heck… Woodstock.
And if, as you write, groups stay limited in size, then one likely doesn’t need the Internet to find enough like-minded people, no?
I’m not saying that cool things don’t happen when people find each other online, but if Clay emphasizes “Collective Action” in the book the way he did in his talk, he needs better examples of significant impact. Hopefully the book is better than the presentation. Because I came away pretty sad about the world.
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