Saturday, February 7, 2009

Here Comes Social Media, Part Four

So, what did I think of the book?

Generally, I agreed with Shirky's arguments and conclusions. In particular, I liked how he stressed that the tools themselves are not what are causing social change -- people are the ones doing this, just like they always have; the Web tools are facilitating this, but the users are the drivers. At one point in the book, Shirky uses the printing press and how it replaced scribes as a historical analogue for what is happening now. People always wanted to create books and share information; Gutenberg's printing press just let them do this much more easily. I think the analogue works very well.

I also appreciated Shirky's understanding of the complexity of social media interactions and why they occur. In Chapter Eleven, he stresses that there is no "magic formula" for the success of a platform and that the interplay between its users and elements can create success that is hard or impossible to replicate elsewhere. A network of people on LinkedIn may look very different from one on LiveJournal, and a viral marketing campaign using Twitter could be either more or less successful than one built around Facebook. There's much about using these to accomplish a goal that is still unknown, and Shirky acknowledges (and even embraces) this.

Really, my only criticism of the book is that Shirky at times comes across as too triumphalist regarding social media and the Web as far as improving society. In his defense, he does acknowledge that they can have a dark side, such as his brief mentions of terrorists using them to coordinate attacks or his raising the question in Chapter One of whether social media can reinforce class differences. Nevertheless, I somewhat agree with reviewer Stuart Jefferies of the Guardian who wrote that Shirky sounded "naive about the desirable social changes being unleashed in new media...these tools and these rhetorics can just as readily be co-opted by The Man." Shirky often does come across as someone with an advocacy agenda, and a more balanced view would improve the book.

I hope that Shirky writes a follow-up to Here Comes Everybody at some point in the future, if not as a full-fledged book, then at least as a long article or series of blog posts. I think that it would be very interesting to look back five years from now, for example, at what he got right and what evolved in ways he didn't predict (if in fact anyone could). Shirky is correct that social media is helping people transform society faster than they have been able to before, and, although I think he underestimates the possible negative results, I do mostly agree with him that these changes are for the better.

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