When organising is easy

Dear colleagues,

What can we in the Arts Faculty learn from developments in social networking tools? I'd like to tell you about ideas in a recent book.

A bit of background: it's not easy to organise a group to take action. Organising a protest rally, for example, requires a lot of effort, most of it behind the scenes. People who say "Where are the protesters now?" seldom have any idea about how difficult it is to organise a protest.

But things have changed, due to new communication technology. With mobile phones, email, websites and online platforms like Facebook and Twitter, getting a group together was never easier. Using mobile phones, protests - or stunts - can be organised collectively, and very quickly, in what are called flash mobs. The result is revolutionary, according to Clay Shirky in his book Here comes everybody: the power of organizing without organizations (Penguin, 2008).

Shirky says the key change is a dramatic reduction in the cost of organising groups. He likens it to the invention of printing and the spread of literacy, which reduced barriers to communication. Innovations in communication technology mean that formal organisations - corporations, government bodies, non-government organisation - are no longer needed for many tasks.

An example is publishing. Today anyone can be a publisher, making comments on a blog, putting photos on Flickr, sharing observations on Facebook. No longer are editors and publishers needed in between authors and audiences.

But what about quality control? When publishing was expensive, filtering was needed before publishing because low quality was too risky: no one might want to buy the product. The new model, according to Shirky, is publish-then-filter: quality control comes after publishing, by selection for significance from the vast mass of dross. A few blogs are read by millions; most attract very few readers. The readers decide what's worthwhile, not publishers.

Shirky describes Wikipedia as a system of knowledge production using the publish-then-filter model. Anyone can contribute, which could be disastrous, but isn't as long as enough people care about quality to counter saboteurs.

Shirky says Wikipedia, contrary to common belief, is not a collaborative enterprise, but rather the product of argumentation. Most of the work is done by very few individuals, but the other contributors are important to monitor the result. Wikipedia is a useful product because enough people care about it; otherwise it would quickly degenerate.

In collaborative work, there's often an attempt to ensure that everyone contributes equally. Think of the Arts workload model, an elaborate attempt to ensure that all staff have similar loads in teaching or other categories. The Arts Faculty can be thought of as a group collaboration to achieve collective ends - teaching students, producing research, bringing in money - and lots of energy is devoted to coordinating everyone's work.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, a vast operation widely used by students and staff, doesn't make any attempt to equalise contributions. How can it get away with this? Because contributions are voluntary. No one is paid. That means there's little or no resentment towards those who just do a little (which is most of us). This is one of the strengths of organising work without a formal organisation.

Shirky gives example after example of the transforming impacts of easy organisation, some trivial, some significant. At the trivial end is mobilising a network of people to retrieve a stolen mobile phone that the police couldn't be bothered following up. At the more significant end is challenging repressive governments.

Shirky refers to the Coase's floor, an idea in economics: transaction costs make certain activities uneconomic. Normally it is too much trouble for anyone to form some sorts of groups, for example a group of airline passengers to protest against poor treatment on a flight. "The cost of all kinds of group activity - sharing, cooperation, and collective action - have fallen so far so fast that activities previously hidden beneath [Coase's] floor are now coming to light. We didn't notice how many things were under that floor because, prior to the current era, the alternative to institutional action was usually no action. Social tools provide a third alternative: action by loosely structured groups, operating without managerial direction and outside the profit motive" (p. 47).

It's now easier to find people with similar interests, whether about politics, leukaemia, Buffy or sexual abuse in the church: "the cost of finding like-minded people has been lowered and, more important, deprofessionalized" (p. 63).

However, this isn't an unalloyed benefit: group formation for nasty purposes is easier too. Shirky gives the examples of terrorist and pro-anorexia groups. He concludes: "when it becomes simple to form groups, we get both the good and bad ones. This is going to force society to shift from simply preventing groups from forming to actively deciding which existing ones to try to oppose, a shift that parallels the publish-then-filter pattern generally" (p. 211).

The implications of these changes for universities are potentially profound. Getting students together in classrooms is a labour-intensive way of coordinating learning. An alternative is for learning groups to form using social tools - indeed that's already happening. But few teachers are able to take advantage of the full range of communication technologies, because this would undermine the rationale for regular class attendance, subject offerings finalised months in advance, reading lists and much else. Universities keep control through one primary means: a monopoly on credentials. If alternatives to credentials emerge, higher education could become like the music industry today, fighting a rearguard action against file sharing, or like the newspaper industry, struggling in competition against online news production by amateurs. (These are my observations: Shirky doesn't discuss implications for education.)

For doing research, social tools make it possible to coordinate easily across institutions. For many types of research - especially in Arts - there is no need to bring together a research team: groups can be organised and dispersed quickly on an ad hoc basis without much regard for geography. The conventional research model is built around hiring staff to fit in with institutional research agendas, obtaining research grants, setting up formal institutional linkages and publishing in conventional journals. Following Shirky's analysis, the new model will be more oriented to facilitating initiatives from anyone at any time, shifting agendas quickly and publishing rapidly, using wikis and other tools for communication and collaboration, and working with non-academics as well as academics.

Shirky emphasises that new organising tools make it much easier to fail. That's why, for example, free software is so successful. Failures are low cost and easily ignored; successes like Linux can be touted. In contrast, organisations put a lot of effort into protecting against failure: both the failures and the protecting are costly. This means organisations are much slower to learn and innovate.

Here comes everybody is engagingly written: one story follows another, with theory introduced using a light touch.

However, the book has quite a few flaws. It treats only the impact of technology. In the field of technology studies, though, there is equal attention to the social shaping of technology, namely the impact of society on technology, or to what is called the co-production of technology and society, namely the way they interact [1]. Shirky says little about this. Technologies do have impacts, but they need to be understood within social contexts. After all, the Chinese invented printing but where was the social revolution?

Shirky refers to the "tragedy of the commons" (pp. 51-53), following the analysis by biologist Garrett Hardin, without a mention of research showing that actual commons seldom end in tragedy but are managed by users for long-term sustainability [2]. In his discussion of professions (pp. 57-59), Shirky makes no mention of research since the 1970s on professions as systems of power that maintain control over occupations, often protected through state licensing [3].

Shirky says that Sherron Watkins of Enron was referred to as a whistleblower though this label was different "from any previous definition" because "she didn't leak anything to the press" (p. 76). Actually, it is Shirky who has the wrong definition; it is standard for whistleblowers to report problems to bosses and never go near the press [4]. Shirky's analysis of the 1989 protests that helped bring down the East German government omits the changes in the political context, especially the Soviet government's refusal to intervene, and other factors that made possible a different outcome from popular protest [5].

These sorts of shortcomings raise questions about how Shirky checked his work. He acknowledges a long list of people but presumably none of them knew enough about whistleblowing research, for example, to pick up his erroneous statement. This is a worry given Shirky's advocacy of a new paradigm of production. Because his book has come out in traditional form - in print by a mainstream publisher - it is presumably supposed to operate by the old system of quality control, not the new one of publish-then-filter.

But do these flaws really matter all that much? And does it matter that social tools may be far short of revolutionary? I don't think so. Shirky's main point about the significance of easier organising is worthwhile and if he gets readers to think about it, he has succeeded.

Brian Martin
29 April 2009

[1] A classic collection is Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (eds.), The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator Got its Hum (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985).

[2] For example, Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[3] An early treatment is Terence J. Johnson, Professions and Power (London: Macmillan, 1972).

[4] A widely-cited US treatment is Marcia P. Miceli and Janet P. Near, Blowing the Whistle: The Organizational and Legal Implications for Companies and Employees (New York: Lexington Books, 1992).

[5] On activist dynamics, see Roland Bleiker, Nonviolent Struggle and the Revolution in East Germany (Cambridge, MA: Albert Einstein Institution, 1993).

I thank Helen Kilpatrick, Nicola Marks, Chris Moore, Frances Steel and Jason Wilson for useful feedback on a draft.

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