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September 12, 2011

New technologies allow communities to adopt new behaviors, which lead to social change – this is the main message of Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody”. In various examples Shirky outlines how new technologies are leveraging new forms of taking collective action, by changing the underlying cost structures of forming groups. In economic terms, new technologies have significantly reduced transaction costs of setting up and sustaining groups. New technologies have simply led to the collapse of barriers to group actions. In this regard, new technologies challenge traditional institutions by allowing individuals to self-assemble without formal management structures.

The old institutional logic tells us that we need management, as it is hard to create and sustain group efforts. At a certain scale, we cannot organize ourselves without management structures. The institutional dilemma, however, is managing resources requires resources. Resources have to be devoted to keep the management structure working. Shirky also points out that complexity grows faster than the size of an organization. He refers to it as the Birthday Dilemma: “the count of any two people rises faster than the number of people”.

Furthermore, due to minimum costs of sustaining a management structure, certain group action, which might be of risky but innovative nature, might not have enough value to make them feasible within an institutional structure. New tools are obviously changing this equation, as they significantly lower the cost for coordinating group action. Similar to Chris Anderson in her Long Tail story, Shirky refers to the power law distribution to explain how new technologies allow for great imbalances in contributions to group collaborations. While imbalances in contributions destroy traditional institutions, the drive rather than damage newly formed social systems. This is true for tools and communities such as Wikipedia as well as Flickr.

New social systems are also characterized by a significantly higher tolerance for failure. According to the power law distribution and long tail theory, this is important, considering the large number of failures that are required to general a small number of successes. Platforms, such as Meetup successfully lower the cost of failure by lowering the cost of creating a group.
Similarly, open source networks reduce the cost of failure and not the likelihood of failure. They allow for the participation of as many as possible to enhance their chances of success. In open source trying something is often cheaper than making a formal decision about whether to try or not, given that fact that many users only make a single contribution. Most likely traditional institutions would be forced to ignore these people, since transaction cost would make these efforts too expensive.

Shirky generally differentiates between three different kinds of group undertakings: sharing, collaborating, and collective action. By removing barriers to public info sharing and expressions, new technologies lead to a process to which Shirky refers to as massamateurization of communication efforts, previously reserved for media professionals. Everybody with a computer and Internet access has the opportunity to publish, basically eliminating the previous distinction between broadcasting and personal communication. Everybody can become an expert – and not only in publishing. All types of specialized problem solving professions are affected. These days, even medical doctors are confronted with patients who have access to a vast number of self-diagnosis websites that provide information on all health related issues.

New tools are basically removing two main barriers to collective action: the locality of information and relatively high transaction. By doing so, they challenge the monopoly of larger institutions on large-scale coordination. The Arab Spring provides a powerful example of how these dynamics are being applied in the political arena. New tools are finally providing leverage to a range of communities to express their discontent with the socio-economic realities in these countries. In this regard, social tools don’t create collective action – they merely remove the barriers to it. Shirky is right: “revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies – it happens when society adopts new behaviors”.

Similarly Shirky claims that new tools create social capital within societies, rather than replacing social behaviors. Tools such as Meetup allow relatively small and dispersed communities with similar interests to connect and actually meet face to face. Without tools like Meetup, transaction cost would simply be too high to allow individuals to connect with each other.

So far, success and failure of groups relying on social tools can be explained by three characteristics: the promise – why somebody should participate, the tool and the goodness of fit with the purpose of the group, and the bargain – the mutual expectations among all group members.

Shirky makes it clear that we have moved beyond the question whether these new tools will reshape society or not. It is already happening. The real question is how these tools are changing today’s societies. One of the main changes refers to the shift from prevention to reaction, a tension that President Al-Assad could extensively comment on.

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