Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky

Published by: The Penguin Press, 2008
Pages: 336 pp
Price: $25.95
Reviewed by Cynthia M. Gibson

Clay Shirky clearly is a man who does not subscribe to the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Shirky, a leading observer of technology and communications professor at New York University, argues that technology is not only changing culture, it is revolutionizing it.

Thanks to technology and the array of communication tools it provides—from email and text messaging to YouTube and Flickr—people are now able to connect with one another and, with just a few key strokes, form new kinds of groups with a capacity for collective action and collaboration that was previously unimaginable. Today, people throughout the world are using email, text messaging and cell phones to help upend entire governments, organize mass protests, raise millions of dollars for campaigns, and expose injustices.

Most important, they are doing it outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations that groups have historically depended on to help them assemble and take action. This reliance existed because formal organizations had more ability to manage complex systems and groups by virtue of their hierarchy, financial resources, and layers of staff oversight. Organizations will have to adjust or risk becoming vestigial—especially those that rely on information as their core product—now that there is competition to their ability to get things done without a complex and expensive bureaucracy bankrolling them.

As Shirky puts it, “By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management (and its attendant overhead), these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication and scope of unsupervised efforts.”

Those who dismiss Shirky’s perspicacity have only to look at the newspaper industry to see what happens when organizations whistle past the graveyard of the revolution occurring outside their doorsteps. For decades, newspapers have relied on journalists and editors to decide what gets published and how. These gatekeepers became a new set of professionals, which Shirky defines as individuals with expertise that is relatively scarce in the larger world.

When professionals’ skills and resources, however, become more ubiquitous, these gatekeepers become less needed. That is exactly what is happening as more people obtain more access to sophisticated web-based social media tools that allow them to create and distribute mountains of information more quickly and efficiently. Today, anyone can be a journalist, as evidenced by the rise of millions of “citizen journalists” who, through blogs, text messages, web videos, and camera phones, are shaking up what gets reported and how.

While journalists and newspaper owners may shudder over this trend in public (just as the scribes did, Shirky notes, when the printing press came along), in private, they are reeling from a drop in paid subscribers and advertising revenues. Shirky asserts this is largely due to their early dismissal of the Internet as “another form of competition,” rather than a new communications ecosystem in which they are becoming only one small part.

Technology is also pushing organizations to become more transparent and less dependent on those “in charge” deciding what their activities and strategies will be on behalf of a set of stakeholders. Now, organizations will have to consider moving from serving as arbiter of what gets done and how that is communicated to facilitating information distribution and activities bubbling up from individuals and communities themselves. Unaffiliated citizens can alter the balance of power between themselves and an institution through the power of social media.

In short, the information decision-making pyramid is being turned upside-down. Information has traditionally been processed under a “filter first, then publish or distribute” model. Now, with the rise of technology, it is shifting to a “publish first then filter” model. Wikipedia is the best example of this process (what Shirky calls distributed collaboration). He argues that the “wiki” format —through which both experts and ordinary people contribute to knowledge-sharing—allows for staggering amounts of information to be generated with minimum overhead. It also builds community, with individuals not only contributing to the site, but also serving as editors and fact checkers who can rapidly correct incorrect information or rein in vandalism.

So what does this mean for nonprofits? Shirky does not delve much into specific recommendations for different types of organizations to consider as they try to figure out where they fit in this brave new world. That is unfortunate because one could argue that technology offers enormous benefits to nonprofits, among them, low transaction costs; the ease with which it allows groups to assemble and advocate for issues nonprofits care about; and the ability to encourage the development of new communities of individuals, many of whom may have never had the opportunity to interact, thus, helping to bridge the silos that have sometimes inhibited nonprofits’ effectiveness. Technology is also more tolerant of failure because of those low transaction costs, meaning that it can help nonprofits be more innovative without risk of imploding, which may be particularly important now in view of the unfolding financial crisis.

Nonprofits have a long way to go if they are to move beyond providing lip service to the potential of technology and putting it into practice more strategically

Still, nonprofits have a long way to go if they are to move beyond providing lip service to the potential of technology and putting it into practice more strategically. Even among nonprofits that are using technology, the bulk of these efforts tend to be focused on sending email messages to convey information and creating websites, rather than on using the powerful interactive capacities technology offers.

Nonprofits could be using technology to create new forums for conversation among more diverse groups of people; ask the public for comments on their agendas and activities; offer opportunities for people to advocate for causes more efficiently; create wikis for groups to develop agendas and strategic plans; and, in the case of philanthropy, give the public the opportunity to weigh in on what gets funded. Nonprofits might also start listening more to young people, who are much more comfortable with technology, and being more willing to test the innovative ideas they bring to the table.

While Shirky does mention some of the drawbacks of the new, interactive technologies—including the insularity that on-line communities can develop; its ability to network people for less altruistic purposes; the misinformation and rumors it can generate to devastating effect; and the rise of a relatively small group of technologists and bloggers who have become the most read and quoted group of “experts,” which seems to mirror the very hierarchy that’s antithetical to the democratization the web ostensibly promotes—he does not spend as much time on them as they warrant. That may be another book, however, and one that would be equally interesting to read.

Still, it is important to note that while Shirky is a true believer, he is not a zealot. Proof of that may be in the rather surprising choice he made to convey his thinking in a book—arguably, a communication venue that would seem to be relatively archaic in Shirky’s world. Nor does he believe that the significant changes that technology portends will happen overnight.

What technology does, he claims, is increase our freedom, enhance our democracy; support connections among individuals who previously would never have come into contact; and demonstrate that when people have the opportunity to participate—not for economic reasons, but for love of community—they will. Those are values on which the nonprofit sector was founded, and, hopefully, will be those its organizations will use to transform themselves in new ways and with social media as the driving force.

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