A few years ago I decided not to buy any more new books unless, having checked the book out of the library and read it, I was already looking forward to loaning it to friends or rereading it. Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody is in that category. In point of fact, I bought it as a book to pass around at work because I was hearing so much about it. Then I became captivated. I’ll need my own copy.
The subtitle to Shirky’s book is “The Power of Organizing without Organizations,” and that gets to some of what he is writing about. But mostly he is noting that the ways that we coalesce and get things done has changed radically. Tools ranging from email to the newsgroups and social networking sites have changed transaction costs so incredibly that we can no longer look at anything the same. It is now more important to fail early and to fail often, than to get things right the first time (in general). And we are able to find and tap into networks of people who are different from us, or who share interests in common with us, that our ability to live richer, more activist lives is significantly magnified. In fact, we may no longer be interested in bowling leagues (see Putnam’s Bowling Alone ), but meetup.com proves that people are still actively interested in spending time together.
This isn’t necessarily good. The same tools that enable anti-government protesters in Belarus to organize “Smart Mobs” work just fine for organized crime. The point is that “good” or “better” don’t apply during a revolution. As he writes: “Societies before and after revolution are too different to be readily compared; it’s simple to say that society was transformed by the printing press or the telegraph, but harder to claim that it was made better.”
For those of us in the cultural heritage business, these transformations point not only to ways in which we want to rethink (or better yet, put appropriate tools in the hands of as many people as possible to do the rethinking for us, with us) how we make collections available but how people might want to remix them, and how and what we might want to facilitate gathering what in the future.
This is the sort of book that people like me who go to bed by 9pm stay up very late reading, and still find it impossible to fall to sleep afterwards, because there are so many implications to what Shirky writes, and I find so much of it describes things I have long noted and in which I have long sensed similar patterns. The changes we were working on when I left work today? They are nothing compared to the changes I am hoping to facilitate tomorrow.
This is the sort of book that is less important for breaking new territory (I’m not sure how much of what Shirky writes is so new), as makes it all fit together in ways that magnify efforts in much the same way as new networking tools are transforming our society. Digg it.
I should also mention that Shirky will be doing an online interview about the book on the WELL, in the WELL’s public sphere (most WELL discussions are available to members only–worth it, but private to that degree. Not this one.), starting tomorrow (which may be today by the time I post this: Wednesday, May 28, 2008). Check out http://www.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue/ — when the interview is started, that page will contain the intro. You can also watch a fascinating 15 minute talk by Shirky at the most recent Web 2.0 conference at http://web2expo.blip.tv/file/855937/