Tag Archives: social networking

Review of Here Comes Everybody

In the early days of Wikipedia, one of their editors joked that their freely-editable encyclopedia was a project that could work only in practice, never in theory. If you had asked someone in the 1990s whether such a project could ever succeed, you would have been hard-pressed to find many supporters. In theory it sounded ludicrous. Why would anyone donate their time to write articles, much less subject experts, many of whom need to get credit for publishing? How could you prevent articles from becoming overly slanted, or simply vandalized? How could something written collaboratively by mostly anonymous authors ever be a reliable source of knowledge?

Yet there it is; and for the most part, it’s actually quite good. I use Wikipedia all the time to lookup basic bits of information, like dates or names (for which it seems highly reliable), and occasionally use it as a starting point for researching a new subject. Some articles are of course better than others, but the fact that any of it is of high quality is really counter-intuitive.

But “counter-intuitive” is really just shorthand for saying that it doesn’t fit into our existing theoretical models of how society supposedly works. We all walk around with these mental models that help us interpret phenomenon and predict outcomes, but they also limit what we think is possible. When we then encounter something in practice that we formerly thought was impossible in theory, we are faced with a dilemma: do we reinterpret the thing so that it continues to fit within our existing models; or do we reevaluate our model, potentially changing it to accommodate this formerly inexplicable reality?

In the wake of successful collaborative projects like Wikipedia and the open-source operating system Linux, sociologists and economists have actually been doing a bit of both as they attempt to explain how and why such things occurred. Some have concentrated on researching how these projects actually work, showing that they are not really as undirected, noncommercial, or anti-corporate as the press coverage might lead you to believe. Others have argued that they are anomalous, something that can’t be repeated. But others have been developing new theories (or more commonly, pulling more esoteric ones out of the closet) to make these seeming anomalies fit again.

Here Comes Everybody.jpgClay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, is an insightful popularization not only of these efforts, but also his own ongoing research of Internet culture. As the subtitle suggests, he focuses on how social media tools have made it easier than ever for people to organize, whether it be for the purposes of general communication and knowledge-sharing, or the more difficult activities of collaborative production and collective action. Social tools, he argues, have lowered the costs not only of group formation, but also those of ongoing coordination. As a result, we are now trying out new forms of organization that are not simply improvements upon our existing institutions—they are fundamental shifts towards a new type of social organization, one that he thinks will soon become dominant.

What will that new structure look like? It’s too early to tell, but he identifies a few trends that he argues will likely continue. First is the mass-amateurization of efforts that previously had been restricted to groups of professionals. There are many examples of this: music production and distribution; journalism; encyclopedia production; stock photography; even advertising. In all of these cases, the professional class had enjoyed an almost exclusive control over the means of production and distribution, but that control has now been undermined by digital and networked technologies. His stock photography example was especially interesting: web sites like iStockPhoto allow amateurs to sell stock photos for a fraction of the price a professional would charge. The artistic quality of amateur photos might not be as high, but for many users of stock photography, it is plenty good-enough. This will no doubt redefine what is means to be a professional photographer, but I think it would be overstating things to say that professional photographers will soon go the way of travel agents.

The second and related trend he identifies is a shift from filter-then-publish to publish-then-filter. The economics of traditional journalism or music production required that professionals filtered and selected only a subset of the available material for publication. This gatekeeper role gave them enormous control over what the public saw and heard, but that control has been weakened considerably by the self-publication enabled by inexpensive digital and networked technologies. This has resulted in a flood of new content, only a subset of which is interesting to any given person. Thus, great effort is being put into developing mechanisms by which one can find those interesting gems amongst the rubble, some of which are purely algorithmic (e.g., Google search), and others of which rely on an army of amateur taggers and filterers (e.g., digg, del.ico.us, and blogs like this one).

The third trend is a shift away from hierarchical forms of organization towards more loosely-joined networks. We tend to think of hierarchically organized firms as a kind of “natural” organizational form blessed by God, but this kind of organization is the product of a historical context, one that is perhaps not so relevant anymore. Shirky provides a number of examples of networked cooperative production, but most are centered around some kind of information-processing. One is left wondering if such a model could really be extended into something like manufacturing, an arena where hierarchical organizations have historically thrived.

Shirky’s analysis of all this adheres generally to the social-shaping position, striking a nice balance between technological determinism (adopted technologies deterministically cause social change) and social determinism (technologies are neutral tools completely controlled by social forces). He acknowledges the ways in which social media change not only the economics of organization, but also the way we think about what is possible and good. But he also is careful to note that the same tools used in different contexts have generated different results, a clear indication that the technologies are to some degree shaped by the culture that adopts them.

On the whole, I highly recommend this book to those who are trying to understand how the Internet and social media are enabling deep structural changes in our society.

Alone Together

When I recently travelled to a memorial service for a close friend, the program, on heavy cream-colored card stock, listed the afternoon’s speakers, told who would play what music, and displayed photographs of my friend as a young woman and in her prime. Several around me used the program’s stiff, protective wings to hide their cell phones as they sent text messages during the service. One of the texting mourners, a woman in her late sixties, came over to chat with me after the service. Matter-of-factly, she offered, ‘I couldn’t stand to sit that long without getting on my phone.’ The point of the service was to take a moment. This woman had been schooled by a technology she’d had for less than a decade to find this close to impossible (loc 5642).

Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, is full of stories like this one. One of the reasons that Turkle’s books are so interesting is that she collects and tells the kind of stories that make you as the reader both scowl with judgement and cringe with self-recognition. Texting during a memorial service seems especially distasteful to me, but I know that I have done similar things, attempting to dissociate so that I did not have to be fully present in the place where I was, feeling the anxiety and sorrow that would be appropriate for the moment.

The first half of the book, reviewed in my last post, deals with social robotics, but the second half focuses on social networking technologies: not only the typical examples of Facebook and Myspace, but also mobile telephony, texting, instant messaging, simulations like Second Life, and confessional web sites (which are particularly interesting). For Turkle, social robotics and social networking are part of the same phenomenon; we are trying to use technology to mediate relationships so that we can control, or entirely avoid, their inherent risks. Turkle is concerned that we are trading away real human relationship for something that is shallow and ultimately narcissistic. It gives us the illusion of “being connected,” but we are left feeling alone. Like relational junk food, it satiates our immediate surface desires, but leaves our deeper relational needs malnourished.

Turkle’s critiques of Facebook and Myspace are similar to, but refreshingly different from, those of other authors. For example, Jaron Lanier, who worries that Facebook is causing adolescents to confuse their limited online profile with a fuller understanding of personhood, rarely quotes or cites interviews with real adolescent Facebook users to show that his concerns are genuine and not simply the projections of an older adult. Turkle, however, has spent her academic career talking with children and adolescents about identity formation online, and her extensive quotes show that most adolescents are fully aware that their Facebook profiles are just an avatar, a projection of who they would like to be, constructed for an audience.

Turkle reminds us that adolescents have always used artifacts to play with and project their developing identities. In the 1980s, we would decorate our cars, folders, book covers, and the inside of our locker doors with pictures, the names of cool bands, comics, or anything that would communicate a desired message about who we wanted others to perceive us to be. Today’s generation now does this same thing on Facebook or Myspace, but these new platforms are different in two important ways: they are always available, resulting in many adolescents feeling pressured to constantly perform on them; and those performances are very public and essentially permanent.

But Turkle is also quick to remind us that our use of these technologies is not determined by the systems themselves. Facebook’s wide availability, or the speed of text messaging, may afford constant performances and rapid responses, but it is we who require those patters of use. This is not a pedantic distinction; to confuse the two is to leave us with a false dichotomy–play along, or leave the game. It does not enable us to consider our third option: rewrite the rules.

Turkle notes that this kind of binary choice actually stems from the language of addiction, a language that many critics use when discussing the ills of social networking technologies, but one that is ultimately unhelpful. Turkle explains:

Talking about addiction subverts our best thinking because it suggests that if there are problems, there is only one solution. To combat the addiction, you have to discard the addicting substance. But we are not going to “get rid” of the Internet. We will not go “cold turkey” or forbid cell phones to our children…. The idea of addiction, with its one solution that we know we won’t take, makes us feel hopeless. We have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes. This is hard and will take work. Simple love of technology is not going to help. Nor is a Luddite impulse (loc 5604).

Of course, those who are truly addicted to social networking technologies should seek help, and may need to discontinue using them, but for most of us, we must be suspect of both triumphal praise of, as well as apocalyptic predictions about, these technologies. Finding the middle road towards a more healthy pattern of use will be difficult, but it can be done.

Turkle ends the book with an encouragement that we have not yet locked ourselves into a particular pattern of use:

It is too early to have reached such an impasse. Rather, I believe we have reached a point of inflection, where we can see the costs and start to take action. We will begin with very simple things. Some will seem like just reclaiming good manners. Talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car, or in company. There will be more complicated things: to name only one, nascent efforts to reclaim privacy would be supported across the generations. And compassion is due to those of us–and there are many of us–who are so dependent on our devices that we cannot sit still for a funeral service or a lecture or a play…. Yet, no matter how difficult, it is time to look again toward the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment (loc 5647).

I couldn’t agree more.