For my Internet Advocacy class (one of two final summer classes in my program) with Alan Rosenblatt, I have to blog about the reading assignments every week. This second post’s reading is Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.
In last month’s Dining Organizer’s dinner we discussed the future of organizations and organizing. Someone mentioned the mermaid story in Shirky’s book. Every year Hipsters dress up as mermaids and parade Coney Island. Obviously there are pictures taken, but only since Flickr introduced tagging, all of those pictures could be shared at once. Before the Internet, Shirky argues sharing did exist, but one had to find a group of people with similar interests and then the sharing took place. Now, the process is reversed: First, you put a to-be-shared object up and then people who share your interests gather around it and share their objects. But what can a Mermaid Parade do for the progressive cause, one of the Dining Organizers asked. Not much, but what if he Mermaid Parade is a LGBT Parade and the kid in Kansas City stumbles upon its tag? In pre-internet days, even if the kid in KC had seen the LGBT Parade in the Kansas City star (which is unlikely in the first place), s/he wouldn’t have had a chance to connect with others. Now, the media is not anymore just a source of information, but a platform for action, says Shirky.
So sharing is the first element of Shirky’s model. (Although I’m hesitant calling it a “model”, so maybe “features of the Internet” might be a better term…I don’t know.) The second feature is conversation. As sharing, it has been part of organizing before the Internet – but technology made it easier to talk to strangers with a common interest (see also Rosenblatt’s third dimension in last week’s post). Collaboration is the next – and I believe that is one of the most fascinating – feature of the net. People get together and more often than not without any monetary interest produce wealth – be it Wikipedia or weird Anime translation.
The last and only feature that did not exist pre-Internet: collective action. Flash Mobs (that were invented as I found out as a critique to hipster culture), for example are organized through technology (Rheingold would argue they are organized not necessarily through the Internet but rather mobile phones) and can become a subversive force. By being a platform and a source for information the same time, people can use information to call to action. Freedom of Speech, of Assembly and of press are now the same freedom, Shirky says.
An interesting side thought in the book: the tools are used very differently in high freedom and low freedom contexts. While flash mobs in New York are mostly used for fun, in Belarus or Iran they are used to protest regimes.