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he first chapter of Clay Shirky's compelling new book, Here Comes Everybody, tells the story of a woman named Ivanna who left her cell phone in a cab. She and her friend, Evan, discovered it had been found by a girl who was using it to take pictures, after these photographs automatically showed up in Ivanna's new phone. They emailed the girl and asked for the phone back; she laughed and told them to go to hell. So Evan created a webpage, titled StolenSideKick, and starting blogging about their efforts to get it back. "Everyone who has ever lost something feels a diffuse sense of anger at whoever found and kept it," writes Shirky. Because of this relatable outrage, soon people were emailing the blog to their friends. Suddenly millions were reading it, and Evan was receiving ten emails a minute from strangers who wanted to help find the phone. The media picked up the story — a stolen phone isn't news, but a million people looking for a phone is — and before long, all the attention had forced the NYPD to reluctantly get involved. They tracked down the sixteen-year-old girl who'd found the Sidekick, and Ivanna got her phone back.
This anecdote reflects what Here Comes Everybody is all about. Only a decade ago, it would have been virtually impossible for the average person — with no money, staff or resources — to make something huge like this happen. Today, almost anyone can. Shirky argues that the internet is more and more frequently being used to create such societal groundswells, mobilizing millions to make big things happen — not for profit, but for passion (or, as Shirky calls it, "for love.") He spoke to Nerve about the decline of hierarchy, the rise of mass mobilization, and why anarchy still doesn't work. — Will Doig
I got my first review this morning. It was Twittered.
Was it a good Twitter?
It was. That's where the review form is going, just like everything else. 160 characters or less.
A lot of people feel that communications technology has alienated us from each other and made us lonelier. You don't feel that way.
No. I used to be one of those people who believe that we're all going to eventually be floating video heads in a 3-D virtual world.
But what I came to see from watching my own students at NYU is that when the social density is high enough — which is to say, when everybody you know is online — suddenly the internet becomes a way of coordinating real life rather than replacing it.
It's funny, because the internet is still portrayed in telecommunications ads as being something that allows a Taiwanese fisherman to close a deal with business executives in Manhattan, not something that brings people physically together.
Yeah, it's always about the faraway, in part because these companies can charge more for distance. But it's also because there's still this outdated "don't smudge the chrome" attitude about the internet, that connecting through the internet is "cool."
One of the most fascinating things you write about is how, in the past, you could do small things for love, but to do big things, you had to do them for money, and now for the first time, people can do big things for love. For instance, the Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights came about because Kate Hanni, a woman stuck on a delayed American Airlines flight, formed an online group for outraged airline passengers. Since this includes so many people, it exploded in size and created a sense of public outrage, which led to Congress getting involved, and the airlines were forced revamp their standards for what happens to passengers on delayed planes.
Right, this thing came out of the blue. It was nobody's job to make it happen, including Kate Hanni's. There was no money involved, no big lobbying staff, no office on K Street. And the ability to do something like that comes at a cost to some of society's most cherished institutions, like newspapers. Nevertheless, the ability to do that is everywhere and it's growing.
Does this sort of thing prove that anarchy could conceivably work as a system? Wikipedia, for another example, seems to show that a few bad apples will be overwhelmed by the majority.
Much as I would love to believe that idea, I think the problem is that a majority can win out over the bad apples only when they're given the tools and the structure to do so. Wikipedia has actually become a considerably more bureaucratic and process-oriented environment as the nature of the challenges increase — being able to ban a user, being able to lock a page during an edit war. I don't think we'll ever get away from the governance problem.
What about Scrabulous? It's a simple, free Facebook application created by two kids in India, and Hasbro, the multi-million-dollar corporation that owns the rights to Scrabble, seems powerless to shut it down.
Yes. The mechanism by which we enforced all that stuff [like copyright laws] worked on the assumption that since everybody involved was a professional, all you had to do was threaten the long-term viability of their livelihood, and they would snap into line. But with someone who only wants to do one thing, like run a not-for-profit online game, you can't bargain with that person because there's nothing to trade off with.
You know, my students' ages remain roughly the same, whereas my age grows at the alarming rate of one year per year, and I've gotten to the point where I have to teach my own childhood as ancient history. Because if I want my students to understand what's changed, I have to get them to understand what it's changed from. So I say things like, "There used to be three TV channels, and at six o'clock three different white men would tell you the same news," and stuff like that. But it turns out that that's not the hardest thing to explain. The hardest thing to explain, the biggest sea change, is that as recently as the early '90s, if you had something to say in public, you couldn't.
You couldn't! It's true.
The biggest sea change is that as recently as the early '90s, if you had something to say in public, you couldn't.
Period! There was no mechanism by which you could, of your own volition, make publicly available something you wanted to say. You had to go through a professional gatekeeper-managed media outlet. And all of copyright law is based on the idea that you can deal with just a few professionals by creating an iterated game of Prisoner's Dilemma, in which they don't defect because you could punish them later. And that world is over. Up at the media level, that battle has been fought and lost.
It also seems like it's lost in the sense that now anyone can form a group. You talk in the book about the Pro-Ana girls, an online support-group for girls who are anorexic and want to stay that way. Lots of people would like to stop this, but no one can.
Yeah, one of my students was the online board monitor for YM magazine, this place where fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-year-old girls can talk about things that matter to them. And my student came in one day and said, "We're shutting down the health and beauty boards. We can't get these Pro-Ana girls to shut up." They were using the boards to trade anorexia tips. Methods for getting dangerously thin. Stuff like, "If you feel like eating, clean your toilet. It'll kill your appetite." And, "Take Tums, it'll kill the acid in your stomach when you stop eating." But of course, the fact that YM shut it down didn't stop the girls, they just moved to weblogs. For me personally, learning about that was one of the big moments where that sense of cyber-utopianism ended. I realized that everything I've been talking about all these years — how much easier it is for groups to get things done — all of that is the same thing that's allowing the Pro-Ana girls to thrive. Because now, society doesn't get to say which groups get to form or not, and who gets to talk to each other, because it's easy and free. That's a big, big social change, and one that, it seems to me, we're manifestly unready to take on.
©2008 Nerve.com and Will Doig