While I’ve wanted to start this blog for several months now, what finally gave me the impetus was…you guessed it, a class requirement. So, interspersed with my public health musings, you’ll be seeing musings related to readings from this course, entitled “Media, Power, and Politics in the Digital Age.”
A Summary: Out with the old organizations; In with the new behaviors
This past week, we’ve been reading Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky. Shirky argues that the integral role group effort plays in our world means that anything that alters the way groups function will have a drastic impact on, well, everything. And the new technologies enabling “ridiculously easy group-forming” (as Shirky so aptly puts it) are altering society in fundamental and permanent ways – and will continue to do so in ways we can’t even imagine.
The reason? According to Shirky, it’s largely because we can now organize without organizations. Managing resources takes resources. And as per Coase’s theory, at some point, an institution cannot grow further because the costs of managing will destroy any profit margin. Now that these costs have not just gone down, but collapsed entirely, we no longer need organizations to organize, and activities lying under the “Coasean floor” – those that are valuable but not valuable enough to overcome the basic costs of being an institution – are emerging. Groups can operate without managerial direction and outside the profit motive. And they are creating products of immense value – from sets of photos on Flickr to entries on Wikipedia, from protests organized via twitter to open-source systems like Linux.
The new tools we have allow for sharing, cooperation, and collective action outside of organizations and on an unprecedented scale. But, Shirky emphasizes, it’s not the tools that are changing the world – it’s the way we use them. The tools make our new behaviors possible; it’s our new behaviors that are causing the revolution.
And as our ability to share, cooperate, and act together is being improved dramatically by today’s social tools, Shirky predicts the next step will be, with the help of new legal structures, groups of people bypassing government and commercial entities to take on problems directly.
My Thoughts: Out with the old newsletters; In with the new collective action
I can’t even imagine what the realization of Shirky’s prediction would look like. But I find the possibility both likely and inspiring. Indeed, Shirky’s entire analysis resonates with my optimistic frame of mind – and has the added (and more important) advantage of being rooted in theory and supported by fascinating examples. I found his book particularly engaging because one of the main reasons I wanted to take this class is that I have been increasingly frustrated by the way many public health organizations are using social media. Everyone is jumping on the facebook/twitter/blog/etc. bandwagon just because. As Shirky so effectively reminds us, it’s not about the tools; it’s about the people and the ways in which we use the tools. Public health organizations (and others) need to be strategic in their use of new tools, thinking about the exciting possibilities for collaboration and collective action they present.
Instead, most organizations are using these tools as merely a way to inform those interested in their organization/cause about what is going on. Not much different from a newsletter except that they don’t have to spend money printing and they can send updates more frequently. Not to deny the importance of those things, but Here Comes Everybody encourages, inspires, and (at times) berates us to think bigger. As Shirky says, the future belongs to those who take the present for granted. Of course we can get our messages out to people who care cheaply and quickly. The question is: what next?
Similar Readings: Out with the old corporations; In with the new relationships
It’s with that “what next?” question that Here Comes Everybody concludes. And as I finished the book, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s definition of the groundswell in their book by the same name, which we read last week, is basically just another way of saying “organizing without organizations” – the groundswell is “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.” In addition, Li and Bernoff call on us to concentrate on the relationships, not the technologies – again exactly in line with Shirky’s repeated call to focus on the behaviors that technology makes possible, not the technologies themselves. I don’t think the importance of these two fundamental take-away points, reiterated in both these books, can be overemphasized.
They’re even echoed in a post from just last week on BuzzMachine, a blog we were asked to read for class. The author Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor and media consultant (among other things), calls on Howard Stern to take his show to the internet. Howard shouldn’t work for a company, Jarvis says, Howard should be the company – organizing without organizations, anyone? Or in groundswell terms, Jarvis thinks Howard-on-the-net would allow Howard and all his listeners, Jarvis included, to get what they need from each other, rather than from corporations. Jarvis also hits the nail on the head as far as the aforementioned second theme about relationships (i.e., the behaviors the technologies make possible) – he writes regarding the internet, “We get to prove to unique entertainers everywhere that they can cut out the middlemen – networks, studios, all that – and create valuable relationships directly with their fans…[sic] This is real freedom.”
Indeed, this is a revolution.