May 28, 2008

Shirky, Clay. Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Press, 2008. 327pp.

One of the main reasons I wanted to actually write the review of Wikinomics even if it had been quite a while since I'd finished reading it was so I could contrast it with Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody.

I would bet anything that Clay Shirky read Wikinominics and thought to himself, "Hey, there's some pretty interesting ideas in this book, but it's a bit over-hyped and repetitive. I bet anything I could basically write the same book, but better if I just see my main audience as more than just the business crowd. If I see my audience as everybody."

And guess what? He would have been right. Here Comes Everybody is a great book. Potentially a classic. This could be the book that explains to the masses what's truly powerful about web 2.0, social software and peer production. It's clear, concise, to the point, not unnecessarily repetitive and most of all, a realistic look at the strength (and even some weaknesses) of the web 2.0 paradigm. It's aimed at anyone interested in how that set of software tools and mindsets are changing big and small things about society -- about sharing, collaboration and cooperation. In other words, it's a great book for librarians, scientists and everyone in between.

The central idea of the book is that two (or ten or a million) heads are better than one. If a problem needs to be solved, if a social need needs filling, if art, culture and science are in need of being created and communicated, the best way to do those things is to share the production of that content or idea or service among those that are interested and have a stake in it's success.

Some recap: The book gets us started with some of the central stories of the book: how this nerdy guys goes about using social tools to get his girlfriend's cell phone back. It's an interesting story about cooperation to get a job done but there is also some exploration of the potential of these tools to harm people and to violate their privacy. We see people using social tools to battle cartel-like airlines and the Catholic Church among others and for stay-at-home moms (and other groups) to connect with others with the same needs and interests in fractured communities.

An interesting thing is that Shirky does see the potential for these all-encompassing social tools to replace traditional, local communities in ways that aren't always positive. In other words, we have to remember our connection to our local communities.

If the cost of creating communities is next to nothing, so is the cost of failure in the web 2.0 world. Once of the great strengths of these new social tools is that you can just try stuff without huge outlays of time and money. It's almost Darwinian how, for example, many different online communities get started but only those that really fill a need end up survival.

Like I said, this is a great book. Not a perfect book, of course. Sometimes I thought he tried too hard to make the case that everything newnewnew is goodgoodgood. He often seems like he wants to acknowledge that some of the "old ways" are worth keeping or have some value but then backs away. The book ends on a note that implies that experience has nothing to teach youth -- only that youth will trample and destroy all old fogey ways. It's an interesting point given that it wasn't a young person that wrote this book. It's hard to imagine that a 20-year-old would have the experience and maturity to write such a generally fine and balanced book, largely free of hype and overstatement. But maybe I'm too old to see that -- but then Shirky and I are about the same age.


Anonymous said...

It sounds like I could use this book myself - I was just thinking about my own personal reservations about "2.0" and social networking tools, and realizing that they mostly stem from unfamiliarity (I'd been ahead of the curve for a while, technology-wise, but with the burst of evolution among social networking tools, I'd fallen pretty far behind), from a genuine curiosity about what, exactly, they do, and, frankly, from institutional culture.

Your comments about Shirky almost admitting that "old ways" have value, and then backing off, helped me formulate a question that's been nagging at me: in a given library, when you consider the balance of "old" librarians versus "new" librarians, what effect does that have on acknowledging the benefits of the old/new ways? I'm one of the "new" librarians, but I dismissed social networking tools as having real use partly because the culture here has only a grudging acknowledgement that some of these new tools have value (or perhaps it's not a grudge; it's simply that nobody really is interested in trying it out).

John Dupuis said...

Hi Chris, thanks for the comment.

It is definitely hard to find a balance between old and new -- between trying new things and sticking with the old ways.

On the other hand, libraries have always changed and progressed, have always tried new things. Are social tools necessary for libraries? Who knows. The only way we'll find out is to try a whole bunch of things and see what happens.