Social Tools Allow Ridiculously Easy Group-Forming [en]

More notes and related thoughts to my reading of Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody (chapter 2).

Both markets and organisations imply costs (transaction costs in large groups, labour required to maintain organisation). There are activities which simply don’t happen, because their cost is higher than their potential value both for markets and organisations. This is where social tools step in: they lower the cost of coordinating group action, and allow new forms of activities to appear.

Stuff that we find normal in 2013: if you stage a public event, photos of it will most certainly be made publicly available (through Flickr and the like) even if you do not hire a professional photographer or mandate people to collect photos. The social tool provides a cheap way for any person taking photos of the event for their personal satisfaction to add them to a public pool that anybody can draw from, through spontaneous tagging.

Under the Coasean floor: activities that are valuable to somebody but too expensive to be taken on in an institutional way, like aggregating amateur documentation of the London transit bombings. People have always had the desire to share, and the obstacles to sharing are now gone, so it happens.

When transaction costs are high, hierarchical organisations are the least bad solution for group action. If transaction costs drop a little, large organisations can afford to become larger, and small organisations appear where there were none, because they are now “cheap enough” to put in place. But when tools arrive which make transaction costs plummet, all kinds of group action which were impossible before are now happening outside of traditional organisations, in loosely structured groups, without managerial direction or profit motive.

Group undertakings: sharing, cooperation, collective action — by order of increasing difficulty.

Cooperation is more demanding than sharing because it requires changing one’s behaviour to synchronise with others (who are also doing the same thing). Conversation is an example. This makes me think of something I wanted to say about Facebook groups: groups where all that happens is people “sharing” stuff don’t take off. Sharing doesn’t really create a sense of community like conversation does. So if one wants a community of people, one must encourage conversation, which is more difficult to achieve than simple sharing. Collaborative production (cf. wikipedia, a potluck dinner, a barn raising) is another form of cooperation, more involved than conversation.

Collective action goes a step further, ambitioning to change something in the world, creating shared responsibility by tying the group and individual identities together. Action is taken “in the name of”. This comes with a share of governance issues, especially the larger the group. The shared vision of the group needs to be strong enough to keep the group together despite the tensions arising from individual disagreement on specific decisions.

Seb Paquet: ridiculously easy group-forming. This reminds me of an O’Reilly book that I read during my year in India (I read a number of O’Reilly books there, purchased in Indian editions and therefore compatible with my student’s budget): Practical Internet Groupware. It was an eye-opener, and much of the stuff in there is still true nearly 15 years later.

Says Clay Shirky (quoting!):

Ridiculously easy group-forming matters because the desire to be part of a group that shares, cooperates, or acts in concert is a basic human instinct that has always been constrained by transaction costs. Now that group-forming has gone from hard to ridiculously easy, we are seeing an explosion of experiments with new groups and new kinds of groups.

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