Organizing Groups and Online Capabilities

In Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, one theme is central: technological developments have made groups much easier to develop, organize, and sustain.

Groups that could have never existed before now thrive online.  Someone in Ann Arbor, Michigan can interact with someone covering the Grammy’s red carpet on Twitter.  Someone in Birmingham, Alabama can comment on an NYC fashionista’s planned outfit.  And so on, and so forth— interaction is like it has never been before.

Working together has become easier in leaps and bounds.  Coworkers can build projects using an online Wiki rather than navigating a complicated shared computer drive.  Individuals interested in niche topics, like collecting marbles, can share knowledge instantaneously rather than only at an annual meeting.  This has implications not just for social purposes, but for political and societal purposes as well.

Shirky points out that “before,” in order for an idea to be explored to its full potential, someone had to believe in it enough to fund it. Now, the Internet allows the public to collaborate, work, share, all on projects that would not be possibly without it.  As he points out, “most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without these barriers, we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done.”  Established leaders are no longer required— even if they make things easier.

In fact, it’s likely that this capability of the Internet to simplify group activity is one of the reasons why it spread.  Shirky says that “our basic human desires and talents for group efforts are stymied by the complexities of group action at every turn,” thus it’s no surprise that online tools like Doodle, which help groups identify scheduling opportunities, become so popular.

One of the most interesting implications for the opportunity that online organizing presents is the increase in the wealth of content available.  Shirky’s classification of journalists as the traditional gatekeepers, and of media executives as business people who must make difficult decisions about what news warrants coverage is important— and as he points out, losing relevance each day.  The ease of online publishing presents opportunities for extensive coverage of things that never before received attention— obscure sports, time-consuming investigative stories, breaking news in developing countries, and so forth.

But as the content increases, the difficulty becomes uncovering and curating the worthwhile content.  Shirky points out that much online conversation occurs within small groups and, though anyone can find it, is not intended to be public facing.  On top of that, low-quality writing is prevalent, as is bias.  But beyond that, so much good content is out there that it actually becomes overwhelming.

Shirky asks an important question when he asks how a journalist is defined these days.  On a more basic level— who gets press passes?  Are bloggers more important VIPs than the traditional media?  A recent study showed bloggers more influential in the entertainment and technology realms than mainstream publications.  Personally, Shirky’s idea that “the old division of amateur and professional is only a gradient rather than a gap” really struck a chord with me.  I think that influence is gaining more and more importance— more than prominence and professional title.

Here Comes Everybody is an important read— it assumes familiarity with digital tools and instead looks at the societal implications of it all.  With current events in Egypt and other countries relying on social media for organization and communication more than ever before, Shirky’s points only become more relevant and important. I really enjoyed the book, and can’t wait to see how groups continue to evolve as platforms and the digital realm change rapidly.

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