Monday, September 7, 2009

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

Review by Bill Doughty

Superfreakonomics comes out soon, as we learned earlier this month when our blog and Roxanne Darling’s photo from USS Nimitz were featured on the New York Times .com’s Freakonomics blog. Meantime, here’s a book in a similar vein...

Here Comes Everybody grabs you from the first chapter. What happens when someone loses her phone in the back seat of a taxi and the finder of the phone refuses to give it back?

The unfriendly, recalcitrant phone-finder gets a virtual butt-whupping, thanks to the power of social media to share information, encourage cooperation and foster collective action. The story is hilarious.

Clay Shirky fills this topical book about social networking with lots of stories, anecdotes and reports that illustrate the tectonic (“tech-tonic”?) shift we’re experiencing thanks to technology. Among his examples:

  • How collective action exposed the Catholic priest sex abuse (and institutional coverup) scandal because of shared information via the Web, e-mail and blogs in 2002.
  • How airline passengers who experienced poor customer service pooled information and resources to bring about a passengers’ bill of rights in 2006.
  • How, thanks to Twitter and QQ (China’s largest social network), the world quickly became aware of the massive earthquake in Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008. Shirky reports that a Wikipedia page was created 40 minutes after the quake. The page provides a comprehensive review of the quake and its aftermath, including the controversy surrounding construction of the buildings and access to information within China.

Coming after publication of this book is another illustrative example of social media’s power: street protests in the wake of this year’s elections in Iran, fueled by Twitter and other sites.

Shirky explains how shared awareness can bring about social action in the information age.

In 1989 small protests in Leipzig, East Germany grew steadily till 400,000 people turned out as a “flash mob,” pictured above, leading to the downfall of the communist government and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

The lesson for repressive states was: “Don’t let even small protests start, and don’t let the documentation get out.” Reading this gives you an appreciation for our founders’ wisdom about freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, among the inalienable rights of all people.

As Shirky puts it, “With the arrival of globally accessible publishing, freedom of speech is now freedom of the press, and freedom of the press is freedom of assembly.”

But, to paraphrase Spider-Man creator Stan Lee, with great freedom comes great responsibility.

Shirky notes that social systems cannot be of value without some sort of governance, and the best form of control is self-control from a feeling of love and devotion.

Wikipedia shows the overall effectiveness of collective governance out of a passionate devotion to truth. Individuals can edit, but a group can provide democratic oversight.

Free expression through collaboration and cooperation has replaced a great deal of institutional planning and bureaucratic control -- another part of that tectonic shift we’re all experiencing.

Shirky provides an example from military history:

In May 1940, the German army was smaller than France’s. The Panzer III and IV tanks were smaller and less armored than the French Char Bs. But, Germany won decisive victories in its Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War” attacks because of one difference -- radios.

Communication transformed standalone tanks in to a coordinated, networked group weapon that required a much higher degree of autonomy among commanders coordinating actions in the field.

Which is not to say the Germans in 1940 had the right message... just better technology and tactics for their time.

Technology can be abused by people, whether invading another country or refusing to return a cell phone.

Social media can be misused by cyber-vandals posting false information on Wikipedia or bullying someone on Facebook.

But, collective goodness in people can police the commons, tell the truth and provide governance; that’s ultimate freedom. Freakonomics comes to a similar optimistic conclusion about collective goodwill.

Other cool stuff in Here Comes Everybody:

  • Homophily and “Small World” pattern show the effects of probability underlying the six degrees of separation.
  • Social media can connect everyone through a disproportionately few people, called “connectors” by Malcolm Gladwell in Tipping Point.
  • The “Nash Equilibrium,” Pareto as relates to social networking, the “Birthday Paradox,” and homeostasis of group structures, among other laws and principles.

The last two words of Here Comes Everybody are “epochal change,” a great way to describe our collective experience as the millennial generation comes of age.

This is a time in history when those of us born prior to 1980 need to unlearn much of our assumptions, according to Shirky: that news about politics and announcements about jobs come from newspapers; that music comes from stores; that conversations are only by phone; that complicated things like software and encyclopedias have to be created by professionals.

Luckily, as Here Comes Everybody makes clear literally and tangibly, for people of all ages there is still a place in this world for books.

Note: My friend Nancy Harrity, introduced me to this book, along with Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, another really good read on a similar topic, written from a business organization standpoint. In September 2009 Nancy is finishing a gig as public affairs officer for Pacific Partnership 2009, a Navy mission with international partners that builds friendship and promotes peace. Here Comes Everybody is not on the Navy's Professional Reading Program, but it would be of interest to anyone in or out of the military trying to put social media in context.


anonymous said...


My complements on a great blog. Your review for Here Comes Everybody is very timely given the debate taking place in the military and DOD about social networking. I first read Shirky's book about a month ago as I prepared for my new position creating the Naval War College's first alumni network. It really opened my imagination to the incredible power and scope of social networking.

If you were as intrigued by the collective governance concept as I was, I recommend The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Rod Beckstrom and Ori Brafman. Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Director of Policy and Planning for the State Department spoke about horizontal organization earlier this summer at the NWC Current Strategy Forum "Seizing Strategic Opportunities: Challenging the Paradigm" video at (You can also find video of Greg Mortenson discussing Three Cups of Tea.)

Thanks, I look forward to your next post!

Julia Gage

Bill Doughty said...


Thank you for the read, suggestions and additional context. I really enjoyed the talk by Dr. Slaughter -
Naval War College Strategic Forum
- as well as Greg Mortenson's always inspiring words.

"Wherever we go in the world we are there to serve the good people of those countries."

Oh... Seems Gen. Petraeus summarized Three Cups in a much shorter review than mine: "Listen...Build Relationships...Show Respect."


One footnote about Clay Shirky's book. I mentioned that it's somewhat similar to Freakonomics. One key difference readers should know: "Freak" invites you to read any chapter, out of order. But, with Here Comes Everybody, you should really consider reading from front to back, since the logic builds, with references to earlier revelations.