Wednesday 12 November 2008

Book Review: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

I must admit I was a little dubious about this book, worried that this would just be an another evangelical soapbox about Web 2.0. But I should have had more faith in ShirkyHere Comes Everybody turned out to be more and so much better than I expected.

(For those of you who don’t know him, Clay Shirky is a US-based consultant, educator, and writer on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is recognised for coming up with the particular phrase, social software, back in 2002 to describe the software of participation we see in Web 2.0. So, he has all the right credentials to write about this subject.)

After starting with a story about a lost mobile phone, Shirky goes on to explain that while that’s a good example of social software at work:

This is not to say that corporations and government are going to wither away. Though some of the early utopianism around new communication tools suggested that we were heading into some sort of post hierarchical paradise, that’s not what’s happening now, and it’s not what’s going to happen… Instead, what has happened is that most of the relative advantages of those institutions have disappeared

In the next chapter he provides some grounding in that explanation with reference to the Coase theorem, social networks and the limits of traditional efficiencies that come out of organisational structures. This is where everything begins to fall into place. He explains the impact of social software this way:

Think of these activities as lying under a Coasean floor; they are valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way, because the basic and unsheddable costs of being an institution in the first place make those activities not worth pursuing.

This alone has important implications for the whole debate about return on investment (ROI) and enterprise social computing. However there is more and Shirky is able to provide yet more convincing layers of argument and examples of how the impact of this plays out in real life, including our relationship to technology, the media and human behaviour. I won’t describe them here, as the fun part of the book is the observations he makes about these various examples.

One other interesting part of this book was a description about audience size and conversational patterns, with particular reference to blogs. Firstly, this model reminds me of Figallo’s model for online communities that I have been using for years. But secondly this describes the death of the blogosphere we have been discussing recently. Effectively Shirky says that some Weblogs have such a large audience that they can only operate in a broadcast mode, but as the audience size drops loose conversation and then tighter conversation is possible. Having said that, I would have liked to have seen more discussion about this in relation to the fractal nature of social networks in organisations as I believe that is a key issue in understanding where, how and why enterprise social computing can or doesn’t work. It also makes me curious about the long term success of enterprise social computing tools, like micro blogging, in large organisations if they attempt to retrofit usage back into the organisational structure.

Finally, Shirky does actually give us some rules, if not a recipe, for using social tools successfully:

Every story in this book relies on a successful fusion of a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users

On the tools side in particular he also says:

There is no such thing as a generically good tool; there are only tools good for particular jobs [but]when you improve the available tools, you expand the number of plausible promises in the world.


new tools are not always better. New tools, in fact, start with a huge social disadvantage, which is that most people don’t use them, and whenever you have a limited pool from which potential members can be drawn, you limit the social effects.

There are many interesting things to think about in this book, but my summary here really doesn’t do it justice as the stories and examples that go with these theories are equally important.

Overall, this book neither over hypes or provides (easy) answers to the opportunities that Web 2.0 and enterprise social computing (“Enterprise 2.0”) present. What it will do is provide you with some solid background knowledge on why social software is impacting society and the business that is grounded in ideas that, to me at least, make a lot of sense.

Here Comes Everybody comes with a definite buy recommendation from me.

Photograph courtesy of and copyright James Duncan Davidson.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I'm getting here a little late, but I'm reading this book (out of fortune, as I found it and thought it might be a good read) and so far, it's being awesome.

    I guess that it's a matter of perspective, but I do think it does gives some answers to the opportunities of web 2.0 inside the Enterprise, it's just a matter of connecting the dots. I guess you first need some background with Enterprises, but if you do have it, it's fairly easy to see through his ideas and identify real opportunities.

    I feel he strikes some very good points and dissects the nature of social interaction so it's easy for everyone to understand. With those concepts in hand you can do wonderful things if you know how to use them in your favor. I guess it all ends up being a psychological game.


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