here comes everybody?

Over the winter break, I finally read Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Its virtues include good stories, a clear and accessible–rather aphoristic–style, relevant application of social theories (including Coase’s theory of the firm, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and social capital) and balanced value-judgments. The basic phenomenon that interests Shirky is the dramatic fall in the cost and difficulty of organizing groups. Shirky recognizes that this change is not all for the good, but he argues that its effects are already profound. “Our principal challenge is not deciding where we want to go, but rather in staying upright as we go there. The invention of tools that facilitate group formation is less like ordinary technological change, and more like an event, something that has already happened. As a result, the important questions aren’t about whether these tools will spread and reshape society, but rather how they do so” (p. 307-8).

I get the theoretical argument and find the examples persuasive, even exciting. But I am still struck by how little change has actually occurred so far. Maybe we are in a formative period and about to see some really big shifts. I don’t see them yet.

Easy group formation should allow people to create valuable goods without organizing themselves into firms with costly overhead (HR departments, legal offices, executive suites). We should therefore see economic growth, with the engine being informal networks, like the programmers who create and refine Linux or the volunteers who build Wikipedia. Indeed, these are valuable and fascinating goods. Yet the last decade was one of the worst in the economic history of the United States. And the chief corporate rival of Linux, Microsoft, remains the third most profitable company in the whole country, with $17.68 billion in profits in 2008. I suppose you could argue that we don’t count GDP correctly because goods like Wikipedia aren’t priced. But it’s evident that the economy is worse off, overall, than it was 10 years ago.

Easy group formation should have political effects; it should weaken authoritarian regimes and expand freedom of association, even under duress. One of Shirky’s examples is the campaign to bring down President Alexander Lukashenko, dictator of Belarus. Its most remarkable and innovative feature has been its use of flashmobs. People assemble for harmless activities like eating ice cream, and the government arrests them because it cannot tolerate organized assemblies. That is a fascinating development–but Lukashenko is still firmly in charge four years after the flashmobs began in Belarus. I devoutly hope that the Green Revolution in Iran will be more successful, but if it is, I think the cause will be a split in the clergy, not just the availability of Twitter and Flickr.

Easy group formation should have sociological effects, making people feel less isolated and more trusting. Yet according to the General Social Survey, the proportion of Americans who feel they can generally trust others fell from 46% in 1972 to 32% in 2008. The decline has been fairly smooth and steady, and 2008 was the worst year on record.

The one really profound change that has already happened is the decline of metropolitan daily newspapers in the United States, caused by Craiglist and eBay. That’s a perfect illustration of Shirky’s thesis: individuals have been able to avoid the overhead costs (and profit margins) of the newspaper industry by selling directly to one another. So far, the net effects of that change seem bad to me–we have lost our main way of financing journalism. I can well imagine that we will end in a better place, with news peer-produced by citizens. Again, I don’t believe we’re there yet, and progress seems far from assured.

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