Here Comes Everybody Review
In 1937, Ronald Coase answered one of the most perplexing questions in economics: if markets are so great, why do organizations exist? Why don't people just buy and sell their own services in a market instead? Coase, who won the 1991 Nobel Prize in Economics, answered the question by noting a market's transaction costs: buyers and sellers need to find one another, then reach agreement, and so on. The Coase theorem implies that if these transaction costs are low enough, direct markets of individuals make a whole lot of sense. But if they are too high, it makes more sense to get the job done by an organization that hires people.
Economists have long understood the corollary concept of Coase's ceiling, a point above which organizations collapse under their own weight -- where hiring someone, however competent, means more work for everyone else than the new hire contributes. Software projects often bump their heads against Coase's ceiling: recall Frederick P. Brooks Jr.'s seminal study, The Mythical Man-Month (Addison-Wesley, 1975), which showed how adding another person onto a project can slow progress and increase errors.
What's new is something consultant and social technologist Clay Shirky calls "Coase's Floor," below which we find projects and activities that aren't worth their organizational costs -- things so esoteric, so frivolous, so nonsensical, or just so thoroughly unimportant that no organization, large or small, would ever bother with them. Things that you shake your head at when you see them and think, "That's ridiculous."
Sounds a lot like the Internet, doesn't it? And that's precisely Shirky's point. His new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, explores a world where organizational costs are close to zero and where ad hoc, loosely connected groups of unpaid amateurs can create an encyclopedia larger than the Britannica and a computer operating system to challenge Microsoft's.
Shirky teaches at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, but this is no academic book. Sacrificing rigor for readability, Here Comes Everybody is an entertaining as well as informative romp through some of the Internet's signal moments -- the Howard Dean phenomenon, Belarusian protests organized on LiveJournal, the lost cellphone of a woman named Ivanna, Meetup.com, flash mobs, Twitter, and more -- which Shirky uses to illustrate his points.
The book is filled with bits of insight and common sense, explaining why young people take better advantage of social tools, how the Internet affects social change, and how most Internet discourse falls somewhere between dinnertime conversation and publishing.
Shirky notes that "most user-generated content isn't 'content' at all, in the sense of being created for general consumption, any more than a phone call between you and a sibling is 'family-generated content.' Most of what gets created on any given day is just the ordinary stuff of life -- gossip, little updates, thinking out loud -- but now it's done in the same medium as professionally produced material. Unlike professionally produced material, however, Internet content can be organized after the fact."
No one coordinates Flickr's 6 million to 8 million users. Yet Flickr had the first photos from the 2005 London Transport bombings, beating the traditional news media. Why? People with cellphone cameras uploaded their photos to Flickr. They coordinated themselves using tools that Flickr provides. This is the sort of impromptu organization the Internet is ideally suited for. Shirky explains how these moments are harbingers of a future that can self-organize without formal hierarchies.
These nonorganizations allow for contributions from a wider group of people. A newspaper has to pay someone to take photos; it can't be bothered to hire someone to stand around London underground stations waiting for a major event. Similarly, Microsoft has to pay a programmer full time, and Encyclopedia Britannica has to pay someone to write articles. But Flickr can make use of a person with just one photo to contribute, Linux can harness the work of a programmer with little time, and Wikipedia benefits if someone corrects just a single typo. These aggregations of millions of actions that were previously below the Coasean floor have enormous potential.
But a flash mob is still a mob. In a world where the Coasean floor is at ground level, all sorts of organizations appear, including ones you might not like: violent political organizations, hate groups, Holocaust deniers, and so on. (Shirky's discussion of teen anorexia support groups makes for very disturbing reading.) This has considerable implications for security, both online and off.
We never realized how much our security could be attributed to distance and inconvenience -- how difficult it is to recruit, organize, coordinate, and communicate without formal organizations. That inadvertent measure of security is now gone. Bad guys, from hacker groups to terrorist groups, will use the same ad hoc organizational technologies that the rest of us do. And while there has been some success in closing down individual Web pages, discussion groups, and blogs, these are just stopgap measures.
In the end, a virtual community is still a community, and it needs to be treated as such. And just as the best way to keep a neighborhood safe is for a policeman to walk around it, the best way to keep a virtual community safe is to have a virtual police presence.
Crime isn't the only danger; there is also isolation. If people can segregate themselves in ever-increasingly specialized groups, then they're less likely to be exposed to alternative ideas. We see a mild form of this in the current political trend of rival political parties having their own news sources, their own narratives, and their own facts. Increased radicalization is another danger lurking below the Coasean floor.
There's no going back, though. We've all figured out that the Internet makes freedom of speech a much harder right to take away. As Shirky demonstrates, Web 2.0 is having the same effect on freedom of assembly. The consequences of this won't be fully seen for years.
Here Comes Everybody covers some of the same ground as Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks. But when I had to explain to one of my corporate attorneys how the Internet has changed the nature of public discourse, Shirky's book is the one I recommended.
This essay previously appeared in IEEE Spectrum.
EDITED TO ADD (12/13): Interesting Clay Shirky podcast.
Posted on November 25, 2008 at 7:39 AM • 30 Comments