Reading Review: Shirky

“Dirty Harry had his .44. Sherlock Holmes had his brain. Evan Guttman had his computer, the Web and a few thousand people he had never met. That was enough.” Those are the opening lines from a 2006 New York Times article that chronicled the amazing tale of the stolen cellphone that Shirky recounts at the start of his book, Here Comes Everybody. It was fitting for Shirky to open with the story, as it proves the awesome “power of group action, given the right tools” that the Internet enables. Why did the Internet aid Evan in mobilizing against Sasha the Teenager? How? It did so thanks to three catalyzing ingredients: “a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users.”

All campaigns, traditional or not, in some form or another must have these three things. Obama promised “change,” parlayed the promise through rockstar advertising gimmicks, and said if elected president he would follow through on his vision. The Save the Children foundation promises a way to help needy kids, offers a quick and easy way for Internet users to donate money, and keeps new donations coming by staying as transparent as possible. The promise moves people to action, the tool is the platform used (very important: email? mailing list? Wiki?), and the bargain tells people how the campaign will conduct itself if it keeps getting their support. Shirky calls the promise “the essential piece,” and I suppose it is. But if the wrong tools are applied and a bargain doesn’t convince anyone, a promise falls on deaf ears. The book shows this best in discussing the halted and unsuccessful efforts of civilian action groups to punish the Catholic Church for its relocation of priests who molested young children.

The cases against Revs. Porter and Geoghan were known to all–published in print newspapers and chronicled on TV–but it was not until the Boston Globe became Boston.com that the Archdiocese began to concede. This is because there is a literal, physical hassle to “forwarding” newspaper clips or magazine articles to friends and neighbors, or even to calling them to talk about news. It’s effortless to forward an email or publish a blog post to countless Internet users. (If Twitter had existed in the ’60s, there is no way the Catholic Church would have made it to the new millennium without the firestorm that finally rained down on it.) It’s also because the three-dimensionality of Internet conversation continually hand-ties power structures and social institutions that are “unused to seeing written material in public that isn’t intended for [everyone].”

In recent years, the rise of Anonymous–a “digitized, global brain” that “hactivizes” against anybody it wants to–demonstrates the strength held not only in numbers, but in digital numbers that can be amassed through simple HTML webpages and social networking, which are of course far easier to conduct that traditional media campaigns. As Shirky explores, people are more likely to be drawn to a campaign if they think others will join them (group paradox). Joining a group through social media is free, quick and easy, so campaign-makers risk less by working through Facebook, Twitter, et al., and subscribers risk less by becoming members.

The Internet is a self-sustaining machine. Once it finds an issue and sinks its teeth into it–once something goes “viral”–that thing becomes important not only to the Internet, but to traditional media as well, which makes the thing even more important. While there is definitely something random and a bit mystical about what the great, finicky e-audience deems interesting or meme-worthy, there is also a loose pattern: with minimal investment, such as a webpage, some hype on “snackable” social media sites like Deadspin or Digg, and the right angle, almost anything can become a “story.”

At its core Here Comes Everybody is about this, about the invisible Internet collective that influences pop culture and modern campaigns with a speed, strength and efficacy that traditional media can only dream about.

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  • […] worded statements are replacing the high-brow. Most importantly, the Internet is empowering “everybody” (as Shirky calls them)–ideas can now die or thrive based on how engaged ordinary people are at the grassroots level. […]

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