Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
One Sentence Summary
‘Here Comes Everybody‘ is about the impact new technologies ( internet, mobile, etc.) have on group dynamics.
What Is The Main Argument?
Shirky’s main argument is that social tools have made it easier for groups to share, cooperate and act together without the hindrances of traditional organizational structures.
Key Themes + Lessons (summary)
- Groups can be formed more easily today than in the past
- New social tools allow for mass amateurization
- Group activity is a product of the 80/20 rule
- Average participation is NOT representative of the group
- Real-time coordination can replace planning
- Social capital is the invisible glue that makes societies stick
- Groups are held together and guided by ‘connectors‘
- Low barriers mean higher rates of both success and failure
- Group activities always have the elements of a Promise, Tool and Bargain
Key Themes + Lessons (detailed)
1. Groups can be formed more easily today than in the past. Why? Every organization has to expend their limited resources of time, attention and money to remain viable. These ‘transaction costs’ are a necessary part of doing business, however, the endless meetings, paperwork and similar activities prohibit any organization from pursuing its mission 100%. Apple might be focused on creating the world’s best tech products, but at the same time it needs to spend a considerable amount of time, attention and money managing the Apple business.
Social tools (internet, mobile, IM, social media, etc.) have reduced these transaction costs dramatically. Meetup.com is an example of a non-traditional organization that uses social tools to allow people to come together in groups much more easily than before, from the common (Stay At Home Moms) to the niche (Wiccans).
One way to look at groups are as a ladder of activities that are enabled by social tools. As you move up the ladder, the level of difficulty in getting the group to do anything increases. Sharing is the least demanding rung. Cooperation is more difficult because it involves changing behavior to sync with people who are changing their own behavior to match up with yours. Collective action means everyone in the group commits to work together and achieve a particular task.
For example, sharing a Facebook post about the Lance Armstrong doping scandal is easy, while getting a million people to sign a petition to ban performance enhancing drugs is very difficult.
2. New social tools allow for mass amateurization. Today, anyone can create, publish and filter content. Professionals have traditionally acted as gatekeepers (Ex: news organizations like CNN), however, new social tools (like blogging) are letting non-professionals find like-minded people and publish their own content with ease.
This change isn’t from one kind of news institution to another (like spectators replacing seasoned journalists), but rather in the way we define news. Nowadays, we’re no longer dependent on formal organizations to tell us what’s happening in the world. Instead, they’re part of a larger pie of news sources that include informal collectives (like a small team of bloggers) and individuals (like people who share breaking news on Twitter).
“The distinction between communications and broadcast media was always a function of technology rather than a deep truth about human nature.”
Historically, the different forms of media have acted as filters of information. Talking on the phone used to be one of the main forms of communications because technologically, it was what was available, not because it was a natural way for us to talk to someone. Over time, the way we communicate has evolved from a one-to-one to one-to-many to many-to-many pattern.
Traditionally, media was created by a small group of professionals, then delivered to a large group of consumers, in the form of a funnel where the few provided information to the many. Today, people aren’t just consumers. They’re also producers and sharers, so when marketers talk about ‘Consumers,’ they’re really just referring to a temporary behavior, not a permanent identity.
3. Group activity is a product of the 80/20 rule, where the majority of effort and output comes from a smaller, more active group. The image below is an example of a Power Law Distribution, which illustrates the imbalance of participation across various forms of group activity, including social media. For example:
- A small percentage of the world’s blogs account for the bulk of blog traffic
- Most of the photos on Flickr or Facebook come from a small number of highly active users
- Political revolutions (like the recent uprising in Egypt) are fueled by a highly active minority, etc.
4. This imbalance is critical for another reason: average participation is not representative of the group because power law distributions tend to describe systems of INTERACTING elements, rather than just collections of VARIABLE elements.
- The most active participants are so much more active than the median participants that any measure of “average” participation becomes meaningless. A representative contributor simply DOES NOT EXIST, so you have to focus on the behavior of the collective instead of the individual users
- Surprisingly, most participants are below average
- As networks get bigger, the imbalance between the few and the many gets even larger (not smaller)
To me, this seems like a common marketers make when they’re creating consumer profiles (personas). Sarah is 25-44 years, makes 25-75K a year, is very optimistic about her future, etc. etc. Sound familiar?
The problem is we’re assuming ‘Sarah’ represents all her peers – she doesn’t. No one does. Instead of focusing on her, the individual user, we need to focus on the “behavior of the collective.” So 1) we need to isolate the most active participants, and 2) we need to analyze how the group acts as a whole.
“Conspiracies are punished separately from single-offender criminal acts, and often as severely even if the conspiracy fails to achieve its aim, because a group having some illegal purpose is more dangerous than an individual who has the same purpose.” — Judge Richard Posner
5. Collective action is harder to start than individual action (because of the difficulty in coordinating individuals and their interactions), but also harder to stop once it gets going because potential users will be more skeptical that enough users will join to make it worth their while. The increasing speed of new social tools mean groups can form and act faster than before.
The key takeaway is that the ubiquity of communication methods means real-time coordination can replace planning. During Hurricane Sandy the affected residents didn’t need to wait for the government to organize a response. Instead, within hours and days people were able to coordinate and help each other, distributing much needed supplies through social tools.
6. ‘Social capital’ is the invisible glue that makes societies stick: people trust and help each other, exchanging favors without expecting anything in return. Basically, it’s a belief in good karma.
Over time, social capital started decreasing in the U.S., especially in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Bowling leagues and ice cream socials have become nostalgic memories of how America used to be. One cause for this decline was an increase in the difficulty of getting people together due to:
- smaller households
- delayed marriage
- two-worker families
- spread of television
- suburbanization (which created a shift in social capital activities, moving them from the neighborhood to the workplace)
It’s important to understand that behaviorally, most people like being around other people, which is why communications tools like email and Skype haven’t replaced travel.
The role of the internet is to augment social life –
NOT provide an alternative to it.
The thing to remember is that people don’t use social tools just for the sake of using social tools. They use them for much desired social capital, like building and maintaining relationships.
7. Groups are held together and guided by ‘connectors.’ As an example of the 80/20 rule, social networks are held together by the few, NOT the many. Malcolm Gladwell calls these people connectors. Think of the social butterflies among your group of friends. Those people who have a ridiculous number of friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter. They’re online influencers who command attention.
Researchers Duncan Watts and Steve Strogatz explain how networks are held together through a pattern they call the “Small World network.” The two main characteristics are that:
- Small groups are DENSELY connected
- Large groups are SPARSELY connected
The first image illustrates a sample network progression. It quickly becomes complex, sparsely connected and very difficult to scale. In a small group, it’s not that difficult for 5 people to know and interact with each other, but as the group grows much larger, 15 people interacting each other is increasingly unsustainable, especially over a long period of time.
The second image illustrates a network of dense clusters where they are held together by the “connectors” in the group, so everyone isn’t interacting with everyone else. Instead, the groups are held together a few highly active individuals in behalf of everyone else in their respective groups.
Shirky suggests adopting both dense and sparse connections strategies at different scales: “You let the small groups connect tightly, and then you connect the groups. But you can’t really connect groups - you connect people within groups.”
“More people will remember you saying yes to a failure than saying no to a radical, but promising idea.” – Clay Shirky
8. Low barriers mean higher rates of success and failure. People will participate despite high failure rates if the barriers (transaction costs) are low enough (Ex: 4chan, crowdsourcing, Instagram, Kickstarter, Pepsi Refresh Project, Wikipedia, etc.). As Jinal Shah wrote in a recent Fast Company article (emphasis mine),
“Also important are the mechanisms allotted for encouraging users to send their invitations. Notifications, email newsletters, and social sharing aren’t just a consideration anymore–these are the absolute must-haves alongside simple, one-step sign-ups. Skillshare, a community marketplace for online learning, allows users to explore the site’s offerings and only requires sign-up if and when you want to follow or enroll in a class. Is your marketing campaign easy to engage with? Because it should be.”
From an organizational perspective, most companies try to reduce the effect of failure by reducing its likelihood. They will hire a “steady performer” over “brilliant, but erratic” because the latter is seen as too risky and less prolific. But who knows? You might be turning away the next big game-changing idea. See “50 Famously Successful People Who Failed At First.”
Clients and agencies love to talk about innovation, even though for the vast majority, it simply isn’t in their DNA. It is the acceptance of failure that allows open source models (like Wikipedia and Linux), social change platforms (Ex: Change.org) and a distributed process like crowdsourcing to find success – they’re not tied up by the same prohibitive transaction costs (like time sheets, office politics and unproductive meetings).
9. Group activity can be seen through the lens of a Promise, a Tool and a Bargain. These should be thought of as basic elements and not a recipe for success.
The promise needs to convince individuals that it will offer value, but also that others will find value. In other words, you’re not going to join a book club or a running club to be the only member. You join largely because you think a lot of other people will do it too (remember, people crave the company of other people). It’s the same reason you want to go to the busy restaurant with an hour wait – we just naturally want to be around other people.
“Any new claim on someone’s time must obviously offer some value, but most important, it must offer some value HIGHER than something else she already does, or she won’t free up the time.” — Clay Shirky
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all tool. They’re dependent on context and what you’re trying to accomplish, but they must also help people do something they actually WANT to do (“If you designed a better shovel, people would not rush out to dig more ditches” — Clay Shirky). Social tools don’t create groups – they simply remove the obstacles to group formation (like every time Facebook makes a change to their service and people go crazy).
Instead, the focus should be on the kinds of tools the groups are expected to support, NOT the individual tools themselves. Two of the most important questions to ask are:
- Does the group need to be small or large? (remember that size is relative)
- Does it need to be short-lived or long-lived?
For example, it can be argued that a small, but passionate group of fans were the reason that a cult hit like Arrested Development (which ended in 2006) is coming back on Netflix with new episodes, and possibly, a movie (small group, long-lived), while a large group of people unhappy with the new Instagram TOS have caused the service to lose half of its active users in less than two months, from 40 million to 17 million users (large group, short-lived).
The bargain is the last piece of the puzzle. It only matters if the Promise and the Tool have been satisfied. The most important element of the Bargain is that the users have to agree to it. It can’t be forced on people (like the Instagram TOS, the relaunch of Delicious where everyone’s bookmarks disappeared or Flickr’s attempts to force people to merge their accounts with a Yahoo log-in).
BUY, BORROW OR SKIP?
If you’re interested in learning more about group dynamics, ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ will be a great addition to your personal library. It’s full of great insights that I think are especially applicable to digital marketers, although at 321 pages I think it could have been maybe 50 pages shorter.