Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody looks at how people form groups using online tools. Throughout the book, Shirky argues that we do not need formal organizations to organize ourselves; rather, online tools have made it easy for ordinary people to organize groups and rise to collective action. Although Shirky specifically mentions Wikipedia, Flickr, Twitter, and a number of other collaboration, file sharing, and communications/ social networking tools, Shirky places greater emphasis on how these tools have allowed us to change our perceptions and behaviors to form groups, rather than write ad nauseam about tool functionalities. The latter, tool functionalities, will undoubtedly change as new competitors “up the game” for all current players.
Here Comes Everybody is rich with examples: how the low transaction cost of publishing information on the Web enabled Evan to publish a play-by-play account of Ivanka’s stolen Sidekick retrieval, how Meetup lowers the burden of coordination and allows Witches, Pagans, and Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses to gather, and how Kate Hanni was able to use the American-Statesman’s comment page to communicate with other passengers and create a Passenger’s Bill of Rights. In each example, Shirky states that there was “a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users.”
Shirky uses the terms, “promise,” “tool,” and “bargain” to explain (1) why someone would want to join a group, (2) how one can manage/overcome the difficulties of coordination, and (3) what can you expect and what will be expected of you. He argues that the interaction of these terms cannot be used as a recipe for successful social tool usage because of the dynamic relationship between any two of these elements. Shirky then contends, “a successful bargain among users must be a good fit for both the promise and the tools used. Taken together, these three characteristics are useful for understanding both successes and failures of groups relying on social tools.” Of the three elements, Shirky states that the promise is the most critical element because it is the hook that engages users in today’s busy world.
I agree that promise is the most important element. Without an engaged base who finds value from the group, it is less likely that you can overcome the difficulties of coordination and achieve a bargain to take collective action. I experienced this firsthand when my employer required new hires to join its social networking site, DStreet, a tool to foster connections between employees and to help with business pursuit efforts. While well-intentioned, DStreet became yet another thing that employees had to maintain and failure to do so meant that you would get an update reminder email from HR. Unfortunately, most preferred to use LinkedIn or Facebook because they already had profiles and had connections to those outside of the company. Furthermore, as an internal firm tool, DStreet did not have any unique features that would entice users to maintain an active profile. Thus, it yielded very little value to users. DStreet remains to be an ineffective tool; however, its ineffectiveness is grounded in the fact that it offered a weak promise to users and most did not find its bargain worthwhile.
Although I found the book engaging, I felt that Shirky glossed over the link between group formation and collective action. Unlike formal organizations, I believe that groups formed online have a greater set of challenges to overcome including, (1) group legitimacy: because it is so easy to form groups, what differentiates organizations and what would incentivize smaller groups to give up part of their identities to pursue collective action? (2) weak ties: how can you entice large groups that are only connected online (and not by a national organization/local chapter model used by the NAACP) to take action? (3) engage non-users: how do you engage members of the population who are not online or non-users for the communication tool you use (i.e., organizing my 10-year HS reunion through Facebook – 371/800+ class members contacted)? I believe that the key to group formation and collective action in today’s world requires integrating traditional strategies with online networking tools and I believe that Shirky could have done a stronger job to express how today’s tools are enhancing traditional organizing strategies and behaviors.