The Penguin folks were sending out some copies of this so I put my hand up and got one. Very pleased I did. I thought the best way to post about it would be to use Mike's blog all dog-eared pages technique so here it is. First, I should point out two things.
1. Although this is an uncorrected proof any typos below are probably the result of my bad transcribing.
2. Rod is concerned there's no mention of Mr James Joyce in here. But maybe there will be by the time it's finalised.
And I should say I really enjoyed this book. It goes beyond wild-eyed webby boosterism and points out what seems to be different about web-based communities and organisation and why it's different; the good and the bad. With useful and interesting examples, good stories and sticky theories. Very good stuff.
(I've posted quite large chunks here, I'm wondering if I've reached the limits of fair use. I hope not. I don't wish to deprive Mr Shirky of any revenue for his excellent book. If I have I'm sure someone from Penguin will let me know with all due haste.)
The old limits of what unmanaged and unpaid groups can do are no longer in operation; the difficulties that have kept self-assembled groups from working together are shrinking, meaning that the number and kinds of things groups can get done without financial motivation or managerial oversight are growing. The current change, in one sentence, is this: most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without those barriers, we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done.
This struck a big old chord with me. And I suspect there are going to be all sorts of interesting semi-commercial groups 'gathering and getting things done'. Groups that are less about profit motive but not entirely without profit motive. And, in fact, many of the problems that large corporations need to solve might have to be broked out to these new and differently gathered groups. Because other large corporations won't be able to help.
We use the word “organization” to mean both the state of being organized and the groups that do the organizing-“Our organization organizes the annual conference.” We use one word for both because, at a certain scale, we haven’t been able to get organization without organizations; the former seems to imply the latter. The typical organization is hierarchical, with workers answering to a manager, and that manager answering to a still-higher manager, and so on. The value of such hierarchies is obvious – it vastly simplifies communication among the employees. New employees have only one connection, to their boss, to get started. That’s much simpler than trying to have everyone talk to everyone.
Running an organization is difficult in and of itself, no matter what its goals. Every transaction it undertakes - every contract, every agreement, every meeting – requires it to expend some limited resource – time, attention, or money. Because of these transaction costs, some sources of value are too costly to take advantage of. As a result, no institution can put all its energies into pursuing its mission; it must expend considerable effort on maintaining discipline and structure simply to keep itself viable.
This gets at the heart of what's wrong with most of the companies that people complain about. It's not that marketing companies are stupid, or agencies are stupid, or delivery businesses, or banks. It's just that large organisations are stupid. (By stupid I mean unable to be as good as a smaller, more flexible, more focused group of people tackling one tiny aspect of what the large business does.) Whenever I used to meet people from a certain large beverage company the same thing always used to strike me - this is a group of really smart people inside (and battling with) a really stupid organisation. And whenever you bump into such a company you have to adjust your expectations. Too many good ideas are wasted because they're not institutionally possible. The transaction costs in doing good, incremental things are too high.
Now that it has possible to achieve large-scale coordination at low cost, a third category has emerged: serious complex work, taken on without institutional direction. Loosely coordinated groups can now achieve things that were previously out of reach for any other organizational structure, because they lay under the Coasean floor.
The cost of all kinds of group activity – sharing, cooperating, and collective action – have fallen so far so fast that activities previously hidden beneath that floor are now coming to light. We didn’t notice how many things were under that floor, because, prior to the current era, the alternative to institutional action was usually no action. Social tools provide a third alternative: action by loosely structured groups, operating without managerial direction and outside the profit motive.
I suspect that we'll also see / are seeing the emergence of a fourth alternative - the slightly-for-profit group. Distributed working for an assortment of reasons, some of them money. Doing tasks which money alone wouldn't get them to do.
In fact, most user-generated content isn’t actually “content” at all, at least not in the sense of “material designed for an audience.” Saying something to a few people we know used to be quite distinct from saying something to many people we don’t know. The distinction between communications and broadcast media was always a function of technology rather than a deep truth about human nature. Prior to the internet, when we talked about media, we were talking about two different things: broadcast media and communications media. Broadcast media, such as radio and television, but also newspapers and movies…are designed to put messages out for all to see (or in some cases, for all buyers and subscribers to see). Broadcast media are shaped, conceptually, like a megaphone, amplifying a one-way message from one sender to many receivers. Communications media, from telegrams to phone calls to faxes, are designed to facilitate two-way conversations. Conceptually, communications media are like a tube; the message put into one end is intended for a particular recipient at the other end.
…Now that our communications technology is changing, the distinctions among those patterns of communication are evaporating; what was once a short break between two styles of communicating is becoming a gradual transition.
Brilliant stuff. Of which there's more here. I think you see this the most with telly people and YouTube. They think YouTube is full of rubbish, but might be a great way of distributing their high-quality stuff. In fact almost everything on YouTube is genius - to the person who posted it and two of their friends. And because it's genius, they're not going to waste their time looking at your high-quality stuff, they're going to be making more of their genius.
On the Web interacting has no technological limits, but it does still have strong cognitive limts; no matter who you are, you can only read so many weblogs, can trade email with only so many people, and so on. …In the early days of weblogs (prior to 2002, roughly) there was a remarkable and loose-jointed conversation among webloggers of all stripes, any anyone with a reasonable posting tempo could count themselves on of the party. In those days weblogging was mainly an interactive pursuit, and it happened so naturally that it was easy to imagine that interactivity was a basic part of the bargain.
Then things got urban, with millions of bloggers and readers. At this point social limits kicked in. If you have a weblog, and a thousand other webloggers point to you, you cannot read what they are saying, much less react. More is different: cities are not just large towns and a big audience is not just a small one cloned many times. The limits on interaction that come with scale are hard to detect because every visible aspect of the system stays the same. Nothing about the software or the users changes, but the creep of increased population still alters the circumstances beyond your control. In this situation, no matter how assiduously someone wants to interact with their readers, the growing audience will ultimately defeat that possibility. Someone blogging alongside a handful of friends can read everything those friends write and can respond to any comments their friends make – the scale is small enough to allow for real conversation. Someone writing for thousands of people, though, or millions, has to start choosing who to respond to and who to ignore, and over time, ignore becomes the default choice.
Egalitarianism is possible only in small social systems. Once a medium gets past a certain size fame is a forced move. Highly trafficked weblogs like Boing Boing often disable the ability for users to comment on stories, because they can’t give the resulting conversation enough attention to keep it from descending into mudslinging. Early reports of the death of traditional media portrayed the Web as a kind of anti-TV, two-way where TV is one-way, interactive where TV is passive and (implicity) good where TV is bad. Now we know that the Web is not perfect antidote to the problems of mass media, because some of those problems are human and not amenable to technological fixes.
As Merlin Mann, a software usability expert, describes the pattern: "Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can’t handle that one tiny thing. “What ‘pile’? It’s just a pebble!”
This has happened to me a little bit. This blog's stopped being part of a conversation, which it used to be, a bit, and has become broadcasting. There aren't that many comments, emails etc but with my job and everything, genuine interaction is beyond my cognitive limit. Which is my way of apologising if I owe you a response to something.
But I think it's also something those organisations thinking about 'a corporate blog' have got to worry about. If you do get yourselves 'a blog' and it's in anyway successful you'll soon reach your own cognitive limits and the conversational value of the thing will disappear again. That's why organisations need to let many blogs bloom, as Microsoft have done. That way each individual blog can remain conversation-sized and genuine discussion can happen.
Quoting Ronald Burt in “The Social Origin of Good Ideas” (pdf)
“People whose networks span structural holes have early access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations which gives them a good competitive advantage in delivering good ideas. People connected to groups beyond their own can expect to find themselves delivering valuable ideas, seeming to be gifted with creativity. This is not creativity born of deep intellectual ability. It is creativity as an import-export business. An idea mundane in one group can be a valuable insight in another.”
This rings so many little bells for me that I think I need to save it for a whole other post.
This is a smart, timely, thoughtful book. You should get a copy.