Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Thoughts on Clay Shirky's Book: 'Here Comes Everybody'

The main premise of the book is that the emerging social tools (social networks, forums, blogs, wikis, etc.) have significantly driven down the transactional costs of any group to organize themselves. This results in many "failed" attempts, but the good ones naturally rise in popularity and lend themselves to longevity and community (or political/activist) value.

Here are some of the key passages that stood out for me:
"It's Not How Many People You Know, It's How Many Kinds
...The essence of Burt's [Ronald Burt of the University of Chicago) thesis comes down to a linked pair of observations. First, most good ideas come from people whose immediate social network included employees outside their department. Second, bridging these structural holes was valuable even when other variables, such as rank and age (both of which correlate for higher degrees of social connection), were controlled for. ...this experiment was a test for bridging capital, not mere sociability - the highest percentage of good ideas came from people whose contacts were outside their own department. On the other hand, managers who were highly connected, but only to others in their department, had ideas that were not ranked as highly. Bridging predicted good ideas, lack of bridging predicted bad ones." p. 229-230

Basically, the above quote emphasizes that in order to generate the best ideas, don't limit "brainstorming" or "feedback" sessions to people in your own work unit or branch. Collaboration and consultation with various kinds of groups of people is essential for capturing the BEST ideas. The underlying message is also that those managers that are most open to and most connected with people from various groups/fields/levels/backgrounds, are in turn the most successful in coming up with good ideas for the organization.

"... a 'fitness landscape' -the idea that for any problem or goal, there is a vast area of possibilities to explore but few valuable spots within that environment to discover. When a company or indeed any organization finds a strategy that works, the drive to adopt it and stick with it is strong. Even if there is a better strategy out there, finding it can be prohibitively expensive. For work that relies on newly collapsed transaction costs, however, providing basic resources to the groups exploring the fitness landscape costs little, and the failure of even a sizable number of groups also carries little penalty. ... [In the book Wikinomics] The mining firm Goldcorp made its proprietary data about a mining site in Ontario public, then challenged outsiders to tell them where to dig next, offering prize money. The participants in the contest suggested more thean a hundred possible sites to explore, many of which had not been mined by Goldcorp and many of which yielded new gold." p. 247
The above quote really emphasizes that the reason sites like Meetup.com are so successful is that they have an inherent tolerance for failure (thousands of groups never even have a single meeting), but eventually, the best groups emerge on their own and usually they are not the types of groups that were predicted to be successful by the founders at the outset. And, at times, the entire purpose of the site may be shifted by users.

Near the end of the book, Shirky goes on to comment on the "revolution" that is happening as a result of the rise of online social tools...

"Anyone inclined to see the good effects of the coming changes can assure a positive value to society simply by deciding to weight the benefits more heavily than the disadvantages, while anyone who believes that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket can support that conclusion by the evidence, simply by deciding that the new bad things are worse than the new good things. The advantages and disadvantages of mass amateurization are a judgment call; people who dislike the current increase in mediocre writing or photos or video can simply declare those things to be worse than any advantages that come from the democratization of production, or from the surprisingly good work that comes from the most talented amateurs. Arguments about whether new forms of sharing or collaboration are, on balance, good or bad reveal more about the speaker than the subject." p. 297

I really enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone trying to understand social media from a sociological, organizational or managerial perspective.

If you've read the book, feel free to share your thoughts on what stood out for you!