Saturday, February 7, 2009

Here Comes Social Media, Part Three

The decreased transactional costs associated with organizing, networking, and sharing using social media tools creates challenges for established institutions. Blogging platforms, for example, let users publish writings on any subject they desire. Though most blogs and LiveJournals are just used to talk about one's life and keep others informed on one's activities, some use these for chronicling current events and conducting their own version of online investigative journalism. Shirky asks the question, if anyone can be a journalist, does that mean everyone should be afforded the privileges given the established concept of a journalist (such as shield laws)? Traditionally, professions exist because of a need for skilled practitioners in a field with substantial barriers to entry, such as law or accounting. But what happens when someone can use a site such as Groklaw to find case history and precedents instead of paying for a lawyer's services? Shirky argues that the sharing enabled by social media and the Web in general will require us to redefine just who exactly a professional is.

Other examples of challenges to the existing order are Shirky's description of the birth of Wikipedia in Chapter Five and the illustration of how flash mobs were used to protest against the government of Belarus in Chapter Six. Wikipedia showed how people can be brought together by something other than a motivation for financial reward to produce something that often rivals (and sometimes exceeds) the work made by paid professionals. The protesters in Belarus show how social media works by “replacing planning with coordination” (p. 172) and the implications of institutions being unable to predict or forestall group activity, instead being only able to react to it. Improved coordination allows a smaller, weaker group to outmaneuver a larger, stronger opponent. Of course, the actions taken by these smaller groups can sometimes be destructive; Shirky uses terrorist cells as an example of the dark side of enhanced coordination. This reinforces the idea that social media and the Web are only tools, and that the end result is up to the user. Likewise, in Chapter Nine, Shirky uses the unsuccessful Howard Dean presidential campaign to show that just being connected is not enough – people need to have motivation, commitment, and drive to accomplish their goals, and just signing on to be a part of something big by itself will not get results if nobody is willing to commit to the grunt work.

Read on to Part Four to see my overall thoughts on the book and its arguments – where I think Shirky is right, and where I'm not so sure.

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