Saturday, February 7, 2009

Here Comes Social Media, Part Two

Shirky's central argument in Here Comes Everybody is that social media tools by themselves are not going to change the world or drive significant changes. Rather, they enhance forces and behaviors that already exist in society by enabling the ease of coordination, and as a result, the speed of social change and the ability of small groups of people to influence it are greatly increased. As Shirky states in the book's first chapter, “The tools are simply a way of channeling existing motivation.” (p.17)

Shirky begins by providing examples of how events that have been happening long before the advent of social media tools (ranging from someone in Manhattan losing a cell phone to the 2006 coup in Thailand) can be dramatically changed by them. The tools enable people to communicate with others about their plight, connect with those in the same situation or who are sympathetic to them, and solicit advice and ideas from others to assist them with their situation. Additionally, they help with the sharing of information to those who otherwise might not know about it, raising public sympathy and even driving established institutions to action (such as causing the New York Police Department to treat the missing phone as a theft, or compelling the media, NGOs, and government bodies to pay attention to the coup by means of posting photos on Flickr). The people in these situations could have tried to do these things before the tools were around, but their chances of success were significantly enhanced by using them. Like Timothy B. Lee wrote in his review of Here Comes Everybody on Ars Technica, “Building an organization with thousands of members is an expensive and cumbersome process when your communications tools are the telephone and the US Postal Service. It's much easier and faster when members can sign up on a web site and communicate with one another via e-mail.”

A point that Shirky first makes in the second chapter and returns to throughout the book is that social media is enabling this phenomenon by lowering transactional costs. For example, it used to be that someone looking for a model railroad club to join near where they lived would have to find a physical directory of such organizations, ask around, look for announcements on bulletin boards or in local media, and generally expend significant time and energy to locate such a club (and that's assuming its presence was well-known or publicized). Not surprisingly, many people would think this was a lot of work, get discouraged, and give up. Yet with tools such as Meetup, Facebook, and others, finding the model railroad club would be just a matter of typing some words into a website. Furthermore, if a club didn't exist, these tools would make it very easy to start one and recruit members.

When one considers that these tools can also be used for activities with much greater effect on society, such as political organizing or issue advocacy, one can see how lowered transactional costs enables people to take collective action in unprecedented ways. Here Comes Everybody discusses this at length, which will be the subect of the third post in this series.

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