I found this book on a sidewalk in Park Slope about four years ago and I just
now got to reading it. I’ve seen Shirky quoted in tech media for many years and
loved his talk on how the disruption of mass-urbanization during the 19th
century occasioned the proliferation of gin-carts and kiosks that characterized
the gin-swilling era we see humorously portrayed in “My Fair Lady.”
In any case, I’m sure this book was much more revolutionary closer to its
publication date, but I appreciate that several of the central theses held up.
Before getting to the content, I want to raise one frustration about the book’s
Non-fiction / pop-technical book are meant to be read and, in my experience,
ought give their jewels away quickly so that the audience benefits and can
decide when to go deeper (and how deep to go). This is the heart behind the
inspectional reading technique: the belief that writers in this genre tell you
what they’ll tell you before they tell it, so that you can track the arc before
having made the first formal step.
While many parts of the book didn’t need a deeper read by me (someone within
the industry), it’s structure left me guessing as to whether there was some
important facet within the next paragraph. There was no real benefit in
structuring the chapters like 19th century potboiler serials. The unveiling of
the structure at the beginning is perfectly fine. To put it cynically, we’ve
already bought the book, now it’s about our payoff, not the author’s.
To the content, though.
Shirky, to his credit, never got too-terribly “Ooh” and “Aah” about insurgent
technologies or the people behind them. A few of the technical sites used as
examples have not aged well (poor Flicker, Dodgeball, etc.), but this is not a
tarnish to Shirky’s observations in the least.
Ultimately, the argument that social technology will make it easier for groups
to form and do work that could-not and would-not have been done within
organizations like corporations and businesses has been borne out. Previously,
to do something big, you needed to make sure that the outcome justified the
overhead and synchronization costs. The Catholic Church or the US Army are
examples of this. But if the costs of collaboration and group-forming don’t
just drop, but fall to zero, people can choose to participate in “big things”
for reasons like curiosity or interest. That’s the big idea, and it’s correct.
Linux remains strong, the open source ethos has flourished, Wikipedia continues
Dangerous Possibilities for Collaboration
Shirky even points out that forms of undesirable collaboration were blossoming.
While he mentions it at only a superficial depth, he’s diagnosing a lump that
wound up metastisizing in the Russian interference with the 2016 election.
[media personality that mobilized a horde of collaborators to name, shame,
and undermine someone] benefited from having generated the attention, he was
not entirely in control of it – the bargain he crafted with his users had
him performing the story they wanted to see.
Boy, that sent shivers up my spine. Consider the manufactured outrage through
tools like Facebook.
“Do we also want a world where, whenever someone with this kind of leverage
gets riled up, they can unilaterally reset the priorities of the local
Consider the “SWAT-ing” and “doxxing” operations that hijack the tools of civic
order to harass and abuse.
Lastly, Shirky warns that the resiliency that social software offers also means
that bad memes (Flat Earth, extermism) can find, organize, and deploy
uninformed actors (in addition to bad actors) to create disinformation that can
be used to undermine legitimate facts, institutions, and science.
It was a good read. A few highlights are below: