Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book Review: Here Comes Everybody


reviewed by Sabrina Beram

Here Comes Everybody takes the new technology of the internet and deconstructs it’s effects on social organizing in comparison with technological revolutions of the past. Shirky identifies four such revolutionizing technologies: the printing press, the telegraph and telegram, recorded sound and images, and, finally, the ability to harness broadcast or to send media out to an audience (106). An observable pattern exists in which those technologies that made it possible to communicate bi-directionally did not enable groups to form (ie. the telephone created a one-to-one person information exchange) and those that inspired the aggregation of viewers/listeners did not make it possible for that audience to communicate (watching a particular television show is an experience shared by many people who have no power to interact back with the medium or the majority of other viewers). The internet is a break from that pattern; cybercitizens can create media, broadcast it to many people, receive comments from anyone and everyone who consumes it, and carry on a discourse around the object of attention. This system of increased expressive capability, successful due to a low barrier of entry, is empowering individuals by enabling them to connect with others who share similar interests at a very small cost. This fosters what Bill O’Reilly deems an “architecture of participation” in which “the former audience…react[s] to, participate[s] in, and even alter[s] a story as it is unfolding,” ergo becoming active sources of news, skill-based teaching, and social change (7).

The internet’s facility for “ridiculously easy group forming,” an alternative to managing large scale effort, is posing a challenge to managerial culture and specialized professions previously essential to allowing groups to “tackle tasks that are bigger, more complex, more dispersed, and of longer duration than any person could tackle alone” (22, 16). Thus, traditional institutions (commerce, government, media, and religion) quintessential to society as we know it are being debased by civilian groups who utilize the principle of power in numbers to call attention to bureaucratic flaws and impact them. This new group leverage can change existing rules, as in the case of the stolen sidekick where Evan Guttman drew on the expertise of many diverse, interested parties and their public display of dissatisfaction to pressure the NYPD to shift away from their power play resistance (“we make the rules”) and respond to Guttman’s rational request to have his complaint handled not as a lost property case, in which no action would be taken, to a stolen property case, in which the thief was jailed and the property retuned to its rightful owner.

We are already beginning to see the threat of replacement that the modern group dynamic poses to comparatively less effective organizations, such as news corporations and the music industry which are “still reeling from the discovery that the [production] and distribution [of news and music]…is now [not only] something their customers can do for themselves” but something that consumers can do differently (23). For example, a slew of bystanders with camera phones can document a newsworthy situation better than professional photographers who contend with time and geographical constraints. And once a picture hits the net in a group forum, the conversation around it can change the function of the photo from mere documentation to a method for awareness meant to galvanize viewers to help find a loved one who has gone missing in a tsunami (36). Especially poignant was the trend that even in situations in which a “change that threatens the profession benefits society ..the professionals can be relied on to care more about self-defense than progress” (69). The dictatorial response of the NYPD to Guttman demonstrates this as does the case of the French Bus Company TSE which shockingly attempted to sue former passengers for carpooling (79).

What I liked most about this book was the incorporation of anecdotes to demonstrate each of Shirky’s claims. The stories were succinct and well chosen. Shirky does a great job of clarifying key concepts by first, defining the concept, second, showing how the concept has played out in society prior to the invention of the internet, and third, applying that concept to the effects of the internet on society. Because Shirky drew on the history of the scribe succumbing to the influence of the printing press to demonstrate the power of technology to change existing media systems, he prepared his readers to accept his projections of the future disintegration of news corporations resulting from grassroots journalism, thus, making his assertion credible.

Shirky is incredibly skilled at raising practical questions of latent ambiguity that are becoming pressing issues as the tectonic plate shift occurs within media, my favorite topic in the book. “Who are the journalists” who should enjoy journalistic privilege when anybody can report and publish (70)? If everyone is a journalist entitled to this “safety valve for investigative reporting,” will journalistic privilege compromise the law’s ability to uncover and prosecute wrongdoing to the point that the privilege becomes counterproductive to the maintenance and protection of society (71)? Maybe in the lawmaker’s eyes, but not in those of the journalists’ who fight for the right to get information from sources that wish to remain anonymous and are unwilling to share what they know if their identity is to be publicized. If this investigative tool is extended to civilian Internet reporters, perhaps the traditional journalists will publicly disapprove of their own methods of effective journalism out of self-interest to limit the amount of people who are enabled to do their job in attempt to resist the effect of mass amateurization breaking professional categories (If I can’t have it, no one can). These tough conundrums regarding competing sovereigns and latent ambiguity were the strength of the shift in media topic, because they were thought provoking. It peaked my interest to take action to find out more about the process of how this is being handled and even get involved.

I have two main criticisms of this book. The first is that the repetition made it a laborious read. General ideas that had been solidified very early on (the cosean theory, transaction costs) were reiterated in subsequent chapters with nearly the same amount of detail. I understand that these ideas form the core of the book, but it often felt that Shirky was filling up space, wasting ink and my time by not bringing anything new to the table.

Second, the overt optimism left the book feeling a bit skewed. This book brings to mind Jonathan Zittrain’s z-theory, by which we celebrate the good and do not pay enough attention to the bad when examining the internet as a generative platform. Shirky’s accounts of influential collective action show the ability of groups to motivate change, as exhibited by the “smile mob” which used social networking as a tool for protest in October Square and the 2006 Myspace school boycott in California, but they also illustrate the power of groups to upset order. The power of the groups he cites are only going to grow stronger with each small success. The ability for the underdogs to work together to support one another is a great check on the abuse of power, but what will happen when multiple groups try to influence authorities to opposite ends? Shirky maintains that “technology doesn’t free us from social preferences or prejudices” and that “opposition can strengthen [a] group’s cohesion” (225, 210). What if groups created by large scale divisions organize against each other? When groups resisting authoritative rules become more massive than the authority in question, say the government, how will society function? Once various groups bond together online and reinforce each other’s conflicting views, might we find that a single unifying government is no longer as effective as a sub-divided, group based democracy? Will it mimic the groups within groups within a group structure of Myspace? I think that these questions are beyond the scope of the futuristic timeline in which Shirky sets his predictions. We are in the era of the initiation of lasting internet cooperatives, at the moment where technology has become boring and can be taken for granted while the network is becoming interesting because it is starting to use that technology for new purposes without being bogged down by bugs in the system.

Also, Shirky sanguinely concentrates on the internet’s encouragement of sharing, conversation, and collaboration, but neglects to explore the darker side of the internet as a medium for negative interaction within a group. He identifies love as a motivation for internet groups and points to wikipedia, but offers no equivalent for hate.

A friend of mine has a slight addiction to TMZ message boards, on which fans discuss celebrity gossip and entertainment news. The fact that users return to this site on the daily is evidence that this is a successful platform for group aggregation, but the communication largely consists of participants engaging in inane bickering as they rip each other’s opinions down with personal attacks and hurtful comments, creating a toxic, rather than harmonious environment.

Much of TMZ’s content is the product of paparazzi invading the privacy of the famous and, by giving them attention, the site praises celebrities who engage in unhealthy behaviors such as taking drugs, making obnoxious comments, suffering from body image issues, and snubbing authorities by assuming that they are above the law due to their financial status. By glamorizing such behavior, TMZ indirectly encourages it.

Speaking out in response to TMZ’s posting of a personal and unflattering recording of a heated conversation with his daughter, Alec Baldwin stated “You find out that everybody who works in tabloid media are people who are filled with self-hatred and shame, and the way they manage those feelings is they destroy the lives of other people.” I presume that many of the pedestrian consumers and producers of tabloid culture are similarly afflicted and that is reflected in their bitter group interactions. When they are not threatening physical violence or engaging in offensive name-calling, TMZ commentators are making fun of celebrities. Sure this interaction qualifies as sharing, but the content, in my opinion, is not productive use of time because it is not a healthy influence on users. It is a breeding ground for the reinforcement of insecurities.

I don’t think that such a community would exist outside of the anonymity of the internet. In the real world, when two adults meet, they don’t immediately insult each other’s tastes or open with controversial and opinionated subject matter. Such behavior would be frowned upon and reprimanded. Instead, there is a process of introduction and getting to know one another. This helps foster respectful conversation. If I know my opponent and have the opportunity to find aspects of their life and personality which align with my own interests, I am much more likely to argue a point without attacking them, and a vicious cycle of unproductive hate spewing does not emerge.

Exploring this aspect of group interaction would not have benefited Shirky’s theme that assembly and collaboration on the Internet leads to positive social change, so it is not surprising that he barely touched on it. The negative social change brought about by the ridiculously easy formation of this group as a byproduct of the internet still falls within the jurisdiction of Shirky’s book topic (how society and our lives are transformed by net-enabled social tools) so from the perspective of a reader, his report is lacking.

More time should have been spent on the propagation of rumors and the role of fear, jealousy, and hate within and as a product of group organization on the internet. Have nazi-sympathizers achieved collective action through virtual planning? Are authorities monitoring the potential of such behavior? Are impressionable teens being prepared to and resist recruitment by responsibly processing the content on sites that promote hate? Are cults on the rise? I would have also liked to have read more about how the time individuals dedicate to internet-chat reduces their opportunity to form personal connections with the people in their real-world communities. Is the education system suffering because kids are spending more time learning from internet peers as opposed to teachers? Is this alternative education necessarily a bad thing? My aunt, an art teacher who sees kids getting “dumber” each generation due to internet usage would. Virtual friends cannot provide the same emotional support as is offered by a real world person who comforts a friend in trouble with a physical hug or a place to stay. Is the increase in virtual group support as opposed to physical support contributing to depression?

I think Shirky would respond to my criticism first by maintaining that positive collaborative groups survive negative groups interactions since the pattern is that users who feel mistreated will leave a conversation or troublemakers are chastised and blocked in most online communities. Then, I think he would look at the positives by stating that message boards like TMZ’s and the social group interactions that take place on them support the right to free speech, so their existence is valuable. He would add that the member retention rate demonstrates that it feeds some desire of the members who use it as a platform for discussion, so it does enrich their lives by their standards. Shirky addresses the questionable nature of groups that bond over unhealthy behavior in his comments surrounding the pro-anorexia self help groups, when he states, “Sorting the good from the bad is challenging in part because we’re used to social disapproval making it hard for groups to form (207).” It is dangerous to condemn individuals for exploring interests considered taboo by the general public, since that stifles freedom of choice, but I think that Shirkey would have better substantiated his position that group forming on the internet will lead to positive social change if he has proposed some potential solutions for the regulation of harmful efforts. His optimism would have come off as more credible if he has tipped the scale more towards the middle, acknowledging crime as an alternative outcome of anonymous internet group forming and providing examples of how checks on these behaviors have been implemented.

I think that the power of organizing without organizations will have many affects in the future. I predict group organization online will guide the way we organize reality. More easily than ever before, the internet enables us to find others with similar interests, and those people affirm each other’s identities. This is attractive and leads to individuals investing more of their time interacting virtually, yet Shirky reminds us that the “popularity of Meetup groups suggests that meeting online isn’t enough” (198). When internet users bond online, trust is built and communities thrive. Why not use those groups as the basis for interest-themed housing communities? My second prediction is that group action on the internet will be increasingly regulated by code by changing the architecture to reduce anonymity. This will be necessary to crack down on the dangers of bringing anonymous group formation from the realm of the internet to that of reality. For example, if more strangers meet up in person, this may lead to untraceable crime. Untraceable crime will lead to more crime since there is less threat of consequence. More crime will inspire terror, and as Lessig explained in Code 2.0 with the Patriot Act example, terror gives the government license to increase control. Thirdly, I think that huge strides in intellectual development will be made at a faster speed than ever before. Pulling resources and diverse contributions together will advance the upper academic sphere. Just as free software collaboration lead to the creation of the valuable GNU/Linux Operating System, academic collaboration may lead to the concoction of better vaccines, the development of alternative energy, or the design of a high dynamic range video camera. More can get done faster with more people working together in a virtual environment that allows for flexibility in time and geography. The threshold for finding and integrating good ideas has been lowered. What affect this will have on education, law, and the market is yet to be determined.

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