In Here Comes Every Body: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky examines technological changes and the integration and impact of new social media tools on the way we communicate with one another in an evolving digital age.
One of Shirky’s central themes involves what he refers to as the “elimination of scarcity,” an “old world disadvantage” that placed limitations on an individual’s ability to organize and share information. Shirky utilizes a wide range of examples to highlight the fact that, in our current digital age, prior barriers to publish, distribute, reproduce and categorize information have disappeared or have been intentionally eliminated based on new ways of utilizing technology to expand concepts of community.
Shirky’s notion of the “amateurization” of certain professions was an interesting proposition, and one that I have often struggled with. Who is a journalist? What does that title constitute? Am I now considered a journalist after my first foray into blogging? A former co-worker, who will remain nameless, wrote a “tween” fiction novel recently. The plot is derivative of the latest Hunger Games or Twilight-style offering, and would stand no chance at print in a competitive publishing market. However, in this digital age, he was able to self-publish and distribute copies to friends and family to generate interest from their networks. Does the elimination of the barrier, or “scarcity” to publish and the amatuerization of this industry require that I refer to him as an author or novelist? Perhaps I must.
Another theme I focused on was the way “sharing can anchor community” and the impact a wide and expansive network can have on an issue as small as the return of a cell phone, or something as heart wrenching as sifting through the aftermath of a Tsunami. The latter example conjured memories of the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings. After the explosions and the initial chaos, there was a small network of marathoners who were, for security and logistics reasons, cut off from their backpacks, wallets, car keys and even families. These people would essentially have no place to go. No shelter – simply waiting for direction and opportunity to reconnect with their belongings and/or loved ones. In an outpouring of support for their neighbor’s, individuals took to social media sites like Twitter, Craigslist, and Facebook to offer their homes to stranded runners and their families. It happened instantly and without provocation or request from some higher authority. A truly remarkable showing in the midst of such sadness and uncertainty.
I also agree with Shirky’s acknowledgement of the impossibility of responding to one’s entire network, with respect to fame and scale, as it closely touched on experiences I have had working for elected officials. Shirky asserts that as fame increases, the size and scale of your network or organization will also increase. As an elected official, interacting with your constituency is essential. While social media tools have made this interaction much easier, expectations have increased along with technology. I recall working for a MA State Senator who was interested in expanding his social media presence to Facebook and Twitter. In the early stages, as we began to roll out his twitter account and facebook page, the experience was very positive. In fact, he insisted on handling 100% of the responses. This insistence would prove temporary, for at the time we only maintained followers who were very loyal to the Senator. He was able to handle the two-way communication in what Shirky calls “tight conversation clusters”, but once the network grew, and with its growth came divergent feelings toward the Senator, it became unwieldy for the Senator to handle all of the responses. Shortly after that evolution, it became unwieldy to respond to most of the questions posed through those mediums. A complex challenge to operating within the new digital reality.
In all, I have enjoyed my reading of Here Comes Everybody. Shirky has provided a diverse set of examples to highlight the impact of this technological revolution, and while he notes that “the old world of scarcity may have some disadvantages, it spared us the worst of amateur production”, I will take to poorest of amateur production rather than return to the age TV and radio.