Clay Shirky Celebrates Mob Rule

New-media philosophe praises tech-driven changes in community power

Crowds are the new American heroes. And like all American heroes, crowds have their legend: They arise out of a superconnected people, a nation now linked virtually and unpredictably to one another. Amateur circles of ordinary people are wresting power and creativity back from the oligarchs. Finally, we're all benefiting from the mass production of intellectual property by nonprofessionals. Yay, us!

Swarms and hives are beguiling us so much that they're now the main characters in a good number of books. Enter the latest—and least gimmicky—of the pro-crowd volumes, Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Its captivating title promises that the book will render Web groupness itself. While it doesn't quite do that, it does offer incisive analyses of the new day as it dawns.

Shirky starts Here Comes Everybody with an anecdote about a bride-to-be's stolen Sidekick and the ensuing viral campaign to get the device back. This 2006 episode generated lots of attention online and off, leading to the return of the phone and the takedown of its thieves. This is the first of this book's many small tales, the idea behind these true parables being that all aspects of our everyday lives are in flux. Access to technology and to creating media has revolutionized both cultural fields and business ventures. This, in turn, has changed how we view bigger things, like professionalism and community.

Digital stimulation: NYU's Shirky
Lia Bulaong
Digital stimulation: NYU's Shirky

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Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
By Clay Shirky
The Penguin Press, 327 pp., $25.95

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Shirky, who teaches at NYU, is clearly happy with these developments. His examples of crowd power are myriad: Flickr users covering the Indonesian tsunami and the London Underground bombings before the mainstream media; bloggers exposing the racist leanings of Trent Lott better than CNN; the rise of Wikipedia, which he likens to "a Shinto shrine" and an "act of love"; and the exponential Web-enabled growth of the Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic activist group dedicated to battling abusive priests.

My favorite chapter is "Everyone Is a Media Outlet," about the newspaper industry's present disarray. Shirky writes: "There was a kind of narcissistic bias in the profession: the only threats [newspaper executives] tended to take seriously were from other professional media outlets." Because of this bias, news executives didn't see the fatal danger in eBay and Craigslist siphoning away their ad dollars. But they also didn't see that the Web would soon be exposing newspapers as incoherent entities. Like most varieties of institutionalized culture, newspapers were initially accidents of history that hardened over centuries into stable establishments. The digital distribution of words and images, Shirky writes, has revealed that newspapers as physical objects were always just a "provisional solution." The real question for Shirky is not how these media grande dames can be saved, but how "society will be informed of the news of the day" in the future. It's an attitude one encounters a lot among young journalists, who think of their job as one of finding and organizing information instead of immersion reporting.

Here Comes Everybody is speckled with analyses like this. That's not to say it's cool and cerebral: Like in other books of its type—Linked, The Long Tail, Emergence, The Wisdom of Crowds, Smart Mobs, and even Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's brilliant Multitude, plus films like Babel and Me and You and Everyone We Know—these new, mysterious-seeming links between people are romantic. The crowds are shining multitudes, kind of like "the masses" loved by American writers in the 1930s—but different.

Ultimately, Here Comes Everybody's rosy outlook convinces. The book may be awfully cheery, but it's still precise and intellectually fresh.

What isn't so fresh is the lack of real-seeming people among the book's visionary mobs. This is the volume's main shortcoming: no developed characters or fleshy descriptions. Instead, there's a lot of exposition, abstract thought, and, yes, diagrams.

I'd also have liked to see Shirky more sharply take on those who oppose "everybody." For starters, he could battle more strenuously against the new anti-crowd books, such as The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen (recently joined by Lee Siegel's Against the Machine). These tracts fulminate against YouTube, media democratization, and what they see as a gruesome assault on our cultural institutions. Shirky could also have gone after the many remaining opponents of crowd power. These tend to be people with some measure of real power, grandees (Hillary Clinton and John McCain) who seek to preserve the superiority of the established. The evidence of the undiminished power of the elite and the superprofessional is all around us, from the continued reign of Rupert Murdoch to Microsoft. While amateur networks may now challenge traditional journalism, for example, they haven't necessarily conquered it.

That said, Here Comes Everybody is more than a simple celebration of our happy, busy mobs; it offers frameworks by which to better understand them. By doing so, Shirky proves that, in the end, credentialed, knowledgeable, and clear-headed media and technology critics haven't been rendered obsolete by the crowds they love. At least not yet.

 
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