When Clay Shirky was a young boy he thought that the main technologies for the 21st century would be the atomic energy and the spaceships to travel throughout the milky way.
Fast forward to when he is a grown up in the late 20th century, he discovers that the main technologies are the transistors and the abortion pill. The first has allowed the advent of many electronic devices, the second has entitled women to control birth.
Both are used at individual level (companies and citizen respectively) and are not controlled by the state. As Shirky puts it : they changed the world because no one was in control of how the technology was used.
In the early 21st century he’s discovered a third main technology for this era : social networks. These have allowed for groups to gather in the cheapest and easiest way ever, with spectacular results on the society as a whole. This is what this great book is all about.
Clay Shirky does a fantastic job connecting real life stories, sociologists researches, his own experience of social tools and patterns of usage to propose a global theory based around solid ideas, main ones being extracted hereafter …
Social tools remove transaction Costs
Ronald Coase in a 1937 paper (The Nature of the firm) introduces the concept of transaction costs as a reason why completely open market for labors could not happen back then. People could not benefit for such system because of the costs of discovering options and asking / enforcing agreements between parties.
This is the reason why firms exist : their aim is to make sure that the structure costs (management etc …) is lower than the potential gain of directing activities.
With the advent of social tools, for the first time in history these costs are becoming negligible. Emails, wiki, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, mobile phones : they all make it ridiculously easy to share information and set up collective actions.
Setting up groups and coordinating collective action is now becoming cheaper and easier than it has ever been. This has allowed to make connections when none previously existed to quote danah boyd’s blog mantra.
Publish then filter
In pre-socialnetworks times (as you would say prehistoric), creating and publishing content was going through different filtering phases.
In 20th century edition organisations (newspapers, publishers etc …) you would have people deciding what gets published, have them modified before hand, etc …
In Wikipedia times, people publish first and then the content is filtered (i.e modified etc …). This is what make Wikipedia a) more of a process than a product and b) so successful.
Prior to Wikipedia there was Nupedia, an online encyclopedia with 7 specialist that would filter every information to be published and a very complex process in many steps. This ended up with a dozen articles published in 18 months.
Swapping the order and going to a publish then filter process allowed everybody to start and edit online article. It proved to be the key in making Wikipedia such an amazing collaborative project.
Network complexity is not predictable
A group complexity grow much faster than its size : the increase in complexity is not linear but rather exponential. A group of 5 people has 10 connections, a group of 10 has 45 and a group of 15 has 105.
Philip Anderson in 1972 notes that aggregations of anything from atoms to people exhibits complex behaviors than cannot be predicted by observing the component parts. This is the reason we have used hierarchies in organisation.
This also is the reason why a) the value of social tools is incommensurable, i.e we can’t put any specific value on them and b) not predictable.
Power laws distribution
Whenever looking at the usage and the users of social tools, a similar pattern always appear : power law distribution.
Be it the number of contributors to collaborative projects (wiki article, Flickr photos dedicated to a specific event), ranking of blogs per number of users, number of downloads of open source projects, this Long Tail pattern always appear whenever illustrating the frequency of occurrences.
There always are a very few numbers with many occurrences (example : user contribution to a wiki article) and a very large number with very few.
In Clay Shirky words, power law distribution tends to describe systems of interacting elements rather than just collections of variable elements. In other words, system of interacting elements are inherently imbalanced. This is something to keep in mind whenever implementing social tools in a professional environment.
Bridging Vs bonding social capital
In this research, they describe efficient networks as a set of small densely connected groups, sparsely connected together.
There are two ways to leverage social capital through networks :
- bonding social capital into densely connected groups
- bridging social capital between densely connected groups
The main value of large networks come from these nodes (i.e very socially active people with thousand of relations) that bridge densely connected groups one to another.
What he found out is that most good ideas come from people bridging structural holes across organisation silos : the highest number of good ideas where coming from people whose contacts were outside their own department.
On the other hand, ideas coming from people with a dense social network in the same department were not as valuable : this bonding social capital creates a echo chamber effect from people too involve in the minutiae of that department and didn’t provide strategical advantage for the company.
Revolution is not technological
Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring
This is an awesome statement. Actually, I’ve been trying to express this for a while but I haven’t find the words and the efficiency of this very sentence. Thanks Clay did it for me.
Another one just as telling on the matter of revolution, an important one for hypertextual in the context of social tools adoption in a corporate context :
Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopt new technologies it happens when society adopts new behaviors.
Value is incommensurable : interpretation tells more about people
The current argument is revolving around the question as to whether social networks bring added value. Clay Shirky believes they do as they increase the freedom of people to say and do what they like.
However there will always be the discussion of pro and cons but the author say that their value is incommensurable, you just can not put any objective value to them. Therefore the question is just irrelevant, apart that it reveals more about the speakers than the subject.
In any case, they are there and there is no turning back. Going back to nuclear energy, Shirky gives this brilliant metaphor. Atomic technology is like a car. A state can take the decision to go for it. It will put the required money and infrastructure around it to build the political energy around this technology. It is like a care, it can be controlled.
Social tools on the other hand can’t be controlled. They’re just like kayaks : we are being pushed rapidly down a route largely determined by the technological environment. We have a small degree of control and that control does not extend to being able to reverse or even radically alter the direction we’re moving in.
Institution Vs Collaboration
Social Networks provide new way to coordinate work and make collaboration more effective. They make the transaction costs much lower. Therefore they are a threat to organisations. This is what Kevin Kelly calls the Shirky Principle : Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.
For more information, check out this amazing 2005 TED talks by Clay on the topic. “The tension here is between the institution as an enabler and institution as a an obstacle”.