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Here Comes Everybody: Journalism and Ease of Publication [en]

Here Comes Everybody: Journalism and Ease of Publication [en]

I’m reading “Here Comes Everybody“. I’m taking notes.

In the chapter “Everyone is a media outlet”, Clay explains very well what is the matter with the journalism industry. (He has since then co-authored a report on the future of the news industry, which I need to read.)

In a world where everyone is a publisher, journalism is becoming an activity rather than a profession — activity which can be carried out both by those employed by the news industry and the “amateurs” (oh heck). A profession serves to solve a hard problem, that requires specialisation. Reproduction, distribution, and categorisation are now orders of magnitude easier and cheaper than before: professionals are no longer required for these activities.

Look at iStockPhoto and professional photography: the price of professional photography not so much due to the incredible quality of the professional’s work, in many cases, but comes from the difficulty of finding the right photo. iStockPhoto helps solve that problem, so the photo now costs 1$ instead of 500$, can very well have been shot by an amateur, and be no lesser in quality than a more expensive, specially-commissioned professional one.

As it has become easier to publish, public speech and action have become more valuable and less scarce, just like the ability to read and write became more commonplace with the invention of movable type, and scribes lost their raison-d’être.

Journalism is a profession that seems to exist because of accidental scarcity of published material due to the expense of publishing in the physical world. Scarcity (and therefore cost) is not an indication of importance: water is more important to life than diamonds, but that doesn’t make it expensive (The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith).

When everybody had learned to read and write, and scribes weren’t needed anymore, we didn’t call everybody a scribe, we just stopped using the word; reading and writing is ubiquitous and so not rare enough to pay for, even if it’s a really important skill. Scribes as a profession died out.

As for music and movie industry: the service they performed was distributing music and movies, but now anybody can move music and video easily and cheaply. The problem they were solving does not exist anymore, and so they are trying to maintain it by turning on their customers and trying to make moving movies and music harder artificially.

Because it’s so easy to publish, making something public is less the momentous decision that it used to be. The general criticism of the low quality of online content has to do with the fact we are judging “communications” content (conversation, often) by “broadcast” content standards of interest and quality. We look at Facebook statuses and think “was that really worth broadcasting?” — not realising that it was never intended for broadcast in the first place. It was not meant for us. If you eavesdrop on a dining hall conversation at the table next to you, doubtless you’ll find it uninteresting, but you won’t think “why are they speaking so loud I can hear what they’re saying?”

There used to be a distinction between communications and broadcast media, which has now broken down. Broadcast is one-to-many, a one-way megaphone which attempts to reach as many people as possible of a target audience. Communications, on the other hand, are two-way conversations for specific recipients, one-to-one. Now we also have many-to-many, communications tools which enable group conversation. There is a continuum between broadcast and communications rather than a sharp break neatly following the lines of the technology used (TV/radio vs. phone/fax). Communications and broadcast are mixed in the same medium, and we make the mistake of judging communications by the standards of broadcast.

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Social Tools Allow Ridiculously Easy Group-Forming [en]

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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Here Comes Everybody: Organisations and Transaction Costs [en]

Here Comes Everybody: Organisations and Transaction Costs [en]

[fr] Je lis "Here Comes Everybody" et je blogue mes notes. Un deuxième chapitre fascinant (en tous cas pour moi) sur les coûts organisationnels.

In an effort to be a better reader, here are some notes and related thoughts to my reading of Clay Shirky‘s book Here Comes Everybody (chapter 2).

Making a decision inside a large unstructured group is hopeless, as you’ve most certainly experienced if you’ve found yourself caught up in a spontaneous “dinner party group” of 15 people or so at the end of a conference (a larger group is more complex). What ends up happening is that somebody steps up and seizes power, either by dictating a venue and giving marching orders, or proposing a decision-making process for the group. If that doesn’t happen, you can bet that some group members will get tired of the situation and head off in their own separate sub-groups, in which it was possible to reach an agreement for action more easily. (I personally usually end up playing “friendly dictator”.)

“More is different” (Philip Anderson, 1972). Aggregates exhibit novel properties which their components did not have. Scale changes the nature of things. This is super important.

At some point of group size, it becomes very costly to maintain connection between each member of the group, and so the “everybody interacting with everybody” dynamic of a small group breaks down. Add more employees to a late project and it will make it even later, because more people involved means higher cost of coordination for the group (Fred Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month). But it’s an inevitable problem: large groups have to be managed in some way, and that’s why people gather together into organisations.

A hierarchical structure simplifies communication between organisation members, but also requires resources to maintain itself. This means that job number one of any organisation is self-preservation, as if it breaks down there is no way in which it can fulfil its stated mission.

Preserving the organisation requires work, and comes at a cost. It’s worth it as long as this cost is lower than the gain from having an organisation (i.e., the organisation allows us to do stuff that would not be possible in an open market of individuals, who would all have to independently agree on how to work together: higher transaction costs).

The Coasean ceiling (Ronald Coase, 1937, The Nature of the Firm): when the organisation grows so much that the cost of managing the business destroys any profit margin. There is a cost whether your hierarchy is flat or deep: if it’s flat, each manager has more subordinates, and so has to spend more time communicating with other people; if it’s deep, there are more layers, and information has to transit through more people.

The first org chart, probably: Western Railroad (McCallum, 1855 or so). It’s a management system designed, amongst other things, to produce “such information, to be obtained through a system of daily reports and checks, that will not embarrass principal officers nor lessen their influence with their subordinates.” No wonder the head so often seems disconnected from the hands and feet in the organisation!

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Vindication and Unintentional Plagiarism [en]

Vindication and Unintentional Plagiarism [en]

[fr] Je retrouve dans Here Comes Everybody plein d'idées "à moi". Sont-ce vraiment les miennes? D'où viennent-elles? Peu importe, au final. Un livre dont je recommande chaudement la lecture.

I’m reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. I should have read it a long time ago, like most unread books on my bookshelf. It’s about the behavioural and social change brought about by social tools. Each chapter is making me go “yes, wow!” and I get a sense of vindication, because so much of what Shirky so clearly explains is stuff that I’ve been saying for years. It feels like “he agrees with me”.

The truth is certainly more complex. These “theories” that I’ve come up with over the years to explain the online connected world to outsiders, and which feel like mine, well, I didn’t conjure them out of thin air. We all know about unintentional plagiarism, don’t we? Maybe I even read them on Shirky’s blog, once upon a time. Or heard them from somebody who read the book, or knows him.

Though Clay Shirky and I have never met, we have many friends and acquaintances in common. The Acknowledgements section at the end of his book is so full of people I’ve met and spoken with (when they’re not simply friends) that it’s a little surreal. I’m offline, or I’d check on Facebook and see how many contacts we have in common. Fair to say that we’re part of a tightly connected area of the network. (One notable difference, amongst others, though: Shirky took the trouble to write a book :-))

Another possibility is that these are “ambient ideas”. I’ve forgotten the reference for this (but Scott Berkun‘s book The Myths of Innovation almost certainly talks about it), but innovation is generally not an isolated event. The climate is ripe, and it is not rare that more than one person comes up with a new idea around the same time. These are possibly the “collective theories” in certain circles we are part of. It’s at the same time fascinating and frustrating that it is not possible to trace precisely how ideas travel through the network.

It doesn’t really matter, though. It feels good to see in print what I’ve been thinking and saying for years, even if I don’t remember how I came to these conclusions. Allow me to risk basking in the warm fuzzy glow of confirmation bias for a while.

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