Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky

<em class="BookTitle">Here Comes Everybody,</em> Clay Shirky

Penguin, 2009 updated re-edition of 2008 original, 344 pages, C$17.50 tp, ISBN 978-0-14-311494-9

Hang around Web 2.0 circles long enough and you will meet them. The social media gurus who gravely intone that Here Comes Everybody was “deeply influential” to their thinking. (Then they make a pause, steeple their fingers and gravely repeat for emphasis: “Deeply influential”.) Never mind that the book is not much more than a year old: Web 2.0 moves so fast (“That tweet is, like, a week old, man!”) that actual books published in 2008 might as well carry the historical gravitas of stone tablets and brass statues of the founding fathers.

Books about “Web 2.0” social media naturally lend themselves to a number of pre-emptive criticisms: What makes them worth their weight in paper? What can they tell us that a trawl through boingboing’s archives won’t grep? Who is Shirky, where’s his RSS feed and how can he expect his book to remain interesting as it visibly curdles on the way from the printing plant to the bookstore shelves?

Fortunately, Shirky’s book lives up to most of the hype. What it brings to the discussion that a swarm of blog posts can’t deliver is perspective. What, Shirky asks, is fundamentally different about the web’ s social innovations? Is sending email such a basic change in the way our species communicates?

As it happens: yes, it is. The fundamental change is not that we can send email. The change is that the costs of communicating between ourselves are being lowered to, essentially, nothing. Never mind the technology: Once people understand that they can exchange with anyone around the planet with very little costs, quantity becomes a quality of its own. Shirky goes back to the invention of the printing press to bolster his argument that what’s happening nowadays is, in fact, new. That it presents mode of interaction and organization that have no clear analogues in history. That we are currently making up the rules (social as well as legislative) that will govern all of us and our descendants for the rest of history. Whew! Who knew Twitter could actually mean something?

Like most skilled pop-culture writers, Shirky knows how to go from the specific to the generic: in presenting examples of specific incidents and movements, he’s able to make his way to more sweeping conclusions that can be applied to other groups. Here Comes Everybody is particularly good at providing principles and hypotheses that can be applied to existing social groups. I was amused, for instance, to find out that Shirky’s theories dovetailed into my own observations about the changing nature of SF fandom over the past decade.

(OK, here’s an applied instance of Shirky’s theory in one short paragraph: The internet has driven down the price of interaction about Science-Fiction and Fantasy to practically nothing. In doing so, it has pretty much killed what was known as the “general local SF convention” which did nothing more than bring together “people who read the same kind of stuff”: SF fans can now visit countless blogs and forums to meet other people with the same interests, regardless of where they live. But at the same time, we’ve seen a bewildering splintering of interests, to the point where some Harry Potter fans can spend all of their time in Potter fandom. Ironically, this has led to the strengthening of the specialized-convention model in which people travel from all over the world to specialized events that cater to very specific, but very intense interests. These highly targeted conventions couldn’t be possible without the “humming background noise” of shallow interests provided by the Internet, creating the pool in which the really hard-core fans can be drawn with little effort. Aren’t new models of social interaction wonderful?)

Shirky has quite a bit more historical and organizational background than the average blogger, and so his book represents a solid bridge between social, historical and organizational theories as they can be applied to the web. Here Comes Everybody has depth, and it’s one of those books that can be re-read for refreshed insights every so often. It’s a pleasure to read (no dry theory here), it manages to unearth sub-pockets of the Internet that had escaped most people’s attention, and proves to be deeply inspirational in the way it suggests that the future is happening now.

If that sounds like Shirky’s book was deeply influential, just wait a while: the value of those books is always more obvious a while later, after we get to see what sticks in mind and what disappears. Time will tell whether it’s right. Somehow, though, Here Comes Everybody at least satisfies the initial test: It’s worth reading at least once, right now. At the end of it, you‘ll know at least as much as your local social media guru. Regardless of whether he’s been deeply influenced.

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