Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody posits that the Internet, particularly social tools or social media (broadly defined), has changed society’s expectations of what can be accomplished through group effort (and what is worth the effort) and how widely information or resources can be disseminated.
The ramifications of those changes is that the concepts of hierarchy, group dynamics, management, and expertise have all been radically altered.
Groups are no longer reliant on management to sort through what is and isn’t feasible and to guide the process. Group formation no longer has to start with one person reaching out to one other person. Instead, the Internet allows anyone to propose an idea and anyone else to support it, repeat it, organize around it.
With the management structure completely removed from the equation (or at least in the traditional sense of an organizational hierarchy chart), there is no task too small or too unprofitable to gather around. The Internet makes it easy for one person to reach out to many, or for many people to reach out to each other, to collect and curate information and to disseminate or access that information as needed.
Using the examples of Wikipedia and Flickr, Shirky points out that participation in social media is unbalanced; a small number of users make the majority of changes on any given Wikipedia post. Most people posted and tagged only one photo of the Mermaid Parade but one user posted over 200 photos. Still, there is a committed community participating at various levels of engagement without any resentment, because there are no expectations of equally shared responsibilities.
Another notable element addressed in the book is that when organizing through the web or mobile phones (which can, as in the case of, Voice of the Faithful, or the flash mobs in Belarus, have significant off-line presence), there is no arbiter of what is a worthy cause. In traditional organizing, there were financial limits on what was worth organizing around.
As Shirky notes, because management took time, resources, and money, some efforts–collecting all photos taken at a parade or a natural disaster, writing an article about asphalt–were never worth pursuing. Now, since the cost of participation is nothing, those activities come into being, and impromptu communities (such as the people looking for loved ones after a Tsunami by scanning photos and comments in Flickr) are formed and dispersed as needed.
“[S]ocial tools don’t create collective action,” Shirky wrote, “–they merely remove obstacles to it.” (end of chapter 6)
The idea of non-existent costs leading to the lack of the need for a manager expands beyond group and community forming. For me, the most obvious impact this has on my life is that it has transformed my industry.
What Are The Limits of Organic, Self-Policing Online Communities?
I would have liked to see discussion about the middle ground; communities that are not totally organic but that people care deeply about and participate in nonetheless. There isn’t a lot of talk in the Wikipedia chapter about the role of the moderators at Wikipedia; but they surely play a role. It might be true that only .5 percent of articles on Wikipedia are protected (is that for only the strongest form of protection? Shirky wasn’t clear, but I think that that must be what he was referring to) but I would venture a guess that those are also some of the most visited pages on Wikipedia. (A quick set of guesses lead me to pages for Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Pakistan, Islam, the September 11 attacks, and Climate Change, all of which were at least semi-protected. The page for evolution had no protection).
For a semi-protected article, one only need to register with Wikipedia to edit that article, but that automatically separates those who will edit a typo when they see one from those who intend to be more active participants. In other words, it makes the flow from consumer to contributor a little less fluid.
That fluidity is even more viscous on the Gawker Media sites, of which the feminist, gossip blog Jezebel is one. It takes a conscious effort to become an approved commenter (which is the only way to really participate in the conversation because otherwise a limited group of people can see your posts) and it takes a conscious effort to become a starred commenter (or at least a commitment to posting regularly in hopes that you find the silver bullet; after a year or so of writing thought-out but unfunny comments and responses on posts about religion, feminism, or body acceptance, I was starred after rewriting the caption on a cartoon about how girls wear their hair).
There is some element of a committed group protecting what it loves. Just try slut-shaming or body-snarking on a Jezebel comment section, and see how fast you’d be torn down by other commenters. But the editors of Jezebel are very clear that they do not consider the site a self-policing community.
In the site’s commenting guidelines, the editors wrote” “This is probably obvious but bears repeating: This is our website, and we will moderate it as we see fit.” (Emphasis theirs).
In fact, the decisions have sometimes seemed totally arbitrary and have forced some commenters to find another outlet or to attempt to organize against the editors’ decisions, as was the case with the banning of the user “MizJenkins,” an example that is still referred to occasionally when new rumblings against the editors surface among Jezzies. It does not appear to me that the editors are all that responsive, though I have not asked them or looked extensively into that.
When participation is less fluid does that change the group dynamic? Did Jezebel create two online communities, one where the commenters talk amongst themselves and one where the editors decide what to post as articles? Shirky talks about the pro-anorexia group leaving the moderated space of YM but essentially reconvening elsewhere on the Interent. That certainly happens on Jezebel–in the wake of a recent redesign, people actually used Jezebel to post links to other forums for Jezzies to migrate to–but the Jezebel community doesn’t die. What is the role for those semi-policed communities?
And what happens when the people who love something are only the people who are in charge? Or, in other words, how does a community like Wikipedia, where its members are committed to the success of the product or some subset of the product, form? How could the LA Times have made its editorial wiki experiment a success? Or, if that’s impossible, how can a newspaper like the Chicago Tribune make commenting a vibrant form of discussion.
When I was interning at a national newspaper in 2007, editors were trying to figure out a way to make comments a place for thoughtful discussion while keeping away racist comments (computer programs designed for the latter task regularly missed comments such as “Elect Obama and he will only serve fried chicken in the White House,” because neither fried nor chicken are in and of themselves racially charged words, and the newspaper editor did not have time in his day to moderate comments himself). How does a mainstream organization like a national newspaper cultivate the community driven by love that Shirky talks about in his book? Is it possible? Do newspaper readers have enough in common? (Maybe the link is actually readers of a single section or article). Is it even desirable? If there is no way to prevent racist comments (or, in the only-sort-of equivalent case of the Pro-Ana message board on YM, encouragement for teen girls to starve themselves,) without interfering with the more organic group dynamic, maybe it means that the group dynamic is not worth pursuing.
But I find that hard to believe.