Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Analysis Without Analysis. Review of Clay Shirky's "Here Comes
Felix Stalder on Mon, 11 Aug 2008 21:56:56 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Analysis Without Analysis. Review of Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody"

Analysis Without Analysis 
Monday, 28 July, 2008 - 11:47

By Felix Stalder

Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody is reputed to be the best book ever 
written on Web 2.0. By why the strange silence on questions of copyright, 
privacy and ownership? Felix Stalder delves beneath the slick prose and 
upbeat message.

‘Communication tools don't get socially interesting until they get 
technologically boring.’ If a single sentence can represent the entire 
book, it must be this one. For one, it's great writing. Precise, condensed, 
clear. Shirky's book is full of it. It shifts attention to the right level, 
away from the tools and to what people do with them. It also contains the 
dilemma that the entire book grapples with: how to write about technology 
once that technology has become mundane? Lastly, it leaves a lot of things 
out. How do technologies become mundane? Which ones are legitimate and 
which ones are not? Why are some providers of ‘boring technologies’ worth 
billions (e.g. YouTube) while others subject to high-pressure litigation 
(e.g. ThePirateBay)? But Shirky doesn't want to go there, he prefers to 
keep the message safe and positive.

But let's start at the beginning. Shirky's core argument is a riff on an 
old theme. There are limits to the scale particular forms of organisation 
can handle efficiently. Ever since the publication of Roland Coase's 
seminal article ‘The Nature of the Firm’ in 1937, economists and 
organisational theorists have been analysing the ‘Coasian ceiling’. It 
indicates the maximum size an organisation can grow to before the costs of 
managing its internal complexity rise beyond the gains the increased size 
can offer. At that point, it becomes more efficient to acquire a resource 
externally (e.g. to buy it) than to produce it internally. This has to do 
with the relative transaction costs generated by each way of securing that 
resource. If these costs decline in general (e.g. due to new communication 
technologies and management techniques) two things can take place. On the 
one hand, the ceiling rises, meaning large firms can grow even larger 
without becoming inefficient. On the other hand, small firms are becoming 
more competitive because they can handle the complexities of larger 
markets. This decline in transaction costs is a key element in the 
organisational transformations of the last three decades, creating today's 
environment where very large global players and relatively small companies 
can compete in global markets. Yet, a moderate decline does not affect the 
basic structure of production as being organised through firms and markets.

In 2002, Yochai Benkler was the first to argue that production was no 
longer bound to the old dichotomy between firms and markets. Rather, a 
third mode of production had emerged which he called ‘commons-based peer 
production’.1 Here, the central mode of coordination was neither command 
(as it is inside the firm) nor price (as it is in the market) but self-
assigned volunteer contributions to a common pool of resources. This new 
mode of production, Benkler points out, relies on the dramatic decline in 
transaction costs made possible by the internet. Shirky develops this idea 
into a different direction, by introducing the concept of the ‘Coasian 
floor’. Organised efforts underneath this floor are, as Shirky writes,

    ‘valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any 
institutional way, because the basic and unsheddable costs of being an 
institution in the first place make those activities not worth pursuing’.

Until recently, life underneath that floor was necessarily small scale 
because scaling up required building up an organisation and this was 
prohibitively expensive. Now, and this is Shirky's central claim, even 
large group efforts are no longer dependent on the existence of a formal 
organisation with its overheads. Or, as he memorably puts it, ‘we are used 
to a world where little things happen for love, and big things happen for 
money. ... Now, though, we can do big things for love’.

The technologies that allow love to scale are relatively old and even the 
newer ones are technologically mundane by now (from a user perspective): 
email, web forums, blogs, wikis and open publication platforms such as 
Blogger, Flickr and YouTube. But that is precisely the point. Only now that 
they are well understood and can be taken for granted are they beginning to 
unfold their full social potential. For Shirky, what distinguishes Web2.0 
from Web1.0 is not functionality but accessibility. What only geeks could 
do 10-15 years ago, (nearly) everybody can do today. The empowering 
potential of these tools is being felt now, precisely because they allow 
everyone – or more precisely – every (latent) group to organise itself 
without running into limits of scale. These newly organisable groups create 
‘post-managerial organizations’ based on ad-hoc coordination of a 
potentially large number of volunteers with very low overheads. Thus Shirky 
claims, without really substantiating it, we are seeing the erosion of the 
power differential between formally and informally organised interests.

For Shirky organising without organisations has become much easier for 
three main reasons, all connected to the internet. First, failure is cheap. 
If all it takes is five minutes to start a new blog, there is little risk 
involved in setting one up. Indeed, it's often easier to try something out 
than to evaluate it beforehand. This invites experimentations which 
sometimes pay off. If a project does take off, there is no hard limit to 
how large in can grow. There is little difference between a blog read by 10 
or 10,000 people. Second, since everyone can publish their own stuff, it's 
comparatively easy for people with common interests to find and trust each 
other. Perhaps most importantly, it takes only a relatively small number of 
highly committed people to create a context where large number of people 
who care only a little can act efficiently, be it that they file a single 
bug report, do a small edit on a wiki, or donate a small sum to the 

So far so good. For those who followed Web2.0 discussions there is not 
terribly much new here, though Shirky's talent for crisp writing brings 
many aspects into sharper relief than they were before. All of this makes 
it probably the best Web2.0 book published so far. Yet, being just a book 
about Web2.0 is also its greatest weakness. Despite pronouncing that 
technology has become boring, it remains squarely focused on it. Beyond 
technology, we get not much more than a number of journalistic case 
studies, some of them well known (Wikipedia, open source software) others 
more interesting. For example, the Bishop of Boston could more or less 
ignore the paedophilia cases in 1992, but not in 2002. The reason, Shirky 
explains, is that the early '90s the Bishop still controlled the means of 
organisation, the church institutions, so he could make it hard for the 
outraged parishioners to act. Ten years later the Bishop no longer had a 
monopoly on the means of organisation. Now, the parishioners could organise 
outside the institution with ease and their protest, instead of fizzling 
out quickly, gathered force and changed the church.

For a book that claims to analyse a revolution that ‘cannot be contained in 
the institutional structure of society’. we get extremely little on 
politics or power. But, if we are witnessing the largest increase in 
expressive capabilities in human history, can it really be that the main 
consequence is an explosion of disjointed volunteer projects? This lack of 
depth is the result of the single most problematic aspect of the book. It 
focuses almost exclusively on aspects that are entirely uncontroversial. 
Parishioners organising against the cover-up of priestly paedophilia? Who 
could be against that! Sharing photos of the Mermaid Parade on Flickr? How 

Yet, there are a lot of things that are less cute about the newly boring 
technologies which Shirky chooses to ignore. Shirky stresses the 
decentralised, ad-hoc mode of new organisations, yet they are based on very 
complex infrastructures that are highly centralised and that create near 
infinite potential to manipulate the social interactions that take place 
through them. These are not neutral enabling devices. For example, Flickr 
recently deleted a picture by the Dutch photographer Maartin Dors that 
showed a Romanian street kid . Why? Because it violated a previously 
unknown, unpublished rule against depicting children smoking! What's the 
rational of this rule? As a spokesperson explained, Flickr and Yahoo! ‘must 
craft and enforce guidelines that go beyond legal requirements to protect 
their brands and foster safe, enjoyable communities’. Jonathan Zittrain 
points out that the ‘ever-increasing usability [of Web 2.0]has been 
accompanied by the deliberalising of user rights’.2 Of course, users can 
revolt against overt manipulation as they did when the aggregation site 
digg.com tried to suppress postings with the code to crack HD DVD 
encryption in May 2007. The management had to reverse its policy, though I 
wonder if they would have had they been a subsidiary of a large 

Thus, there is a tension at the core of the Web2.0 phenomenon created by 
the uneasy (mis)match of the commercial interests of the companies and 
social interests of their users. All this social interaction takes place 
within privately owned spaces so that users are basically faced with a 
take-it-or-leave-it decision that few of them are really aware of. There is 
a structural imbalance between the service providers who have a tangible 
incentive to expand their manipulative capacities and the average users who 
will barely notice what's going on, since it would require a lot of effort 
to find out. To believe that competitive pressures will lead providers to 
offer more freedoms is like expecting the commercialisation of news to 
improve the quality of reporting.

This tension between commercial and social interests points to another 
dimension of Web2.0 that is completely missing from Shirky's book: the new 
division of labour, this time between paid and unpaid. He rightly points 
out that we are witnessing a ‘mass amateurisation’, and explains this by 
way of an example. Racing car driving is difficult, so we have 
professionals for whom driving is not a means but an end. However, driving 
a normal car is so easy that amateurs can do it while trying to achieve 
other things (like arriving at work on time). So, through a combination of 
new technological tools and new cooperative strategies certain professions 
– photography, publishing, journalism, etc. – are becoming amateurised and 
their professional products find themselves in competition with ‘user 
generated content’. Is this pointing the way to a 'post-capitalist' 
society, as envisioned by the Oekonux project? You might think so, given 
the total absence of economic dimensions in this book. But, I suspect that 
Shirky would laugh at such a notion all the way to be bank. As a consultant 
to many media companies he must be keenly aware of the strategies to 
extract, concentrate and appropriate value from all this user generated 
content. I would love to hear more about it – and I'm sure Shirky knows a 
lot about it but, unfortunately, he is not telling us.

If he were to, he might have to mention another aspect that is deeply 
troubling, even though he'd say that this is inevitable (and I would 
probably agree): the loss of privacy. Or, to be more precise, the gathering 
of a lot of data on individual actions and interactions in the hands of a 
very small number of old school organisations which can process and turn it 
into actionable knowledge. What kind of activities they are going to derive 
from the data we don't know. Commercial manipulation (the shaping of 
services to be more advertiser-friendly) is a given. Strong interest from 
governments' security apparatus should be expected, as should all kinds of 
random abuses. Frequent scandals about lost data, strategic leaks and 
corporate snooping indicate the tip of an iceberg.

Depending how the current tussle over copyright evolves, we can expect much 
more, and more repressive use of all of this information.Viacom recently 
managed to force Google to hand over all user data relating to all the 
videos ever published on YouTube. Tussle over copyright? Reading Shirky, 
you wouldn't know there is one. This is probably the most glaring absence. 
Number of entries for copyright in the index of the book? 0! In my view, 
this is inexcusable because it cuts right to the core of why 'boring 
technologies' are currently so ‘socially interesting’. File sharing, in 
particular, demonstrates most clearly the power of ‘organizing without 
organization’ so radical that, for the moment, nobody knows how to contain 
it within current institutional structures. Number of entries on p2p or 
file sharing in the index? Again, 0!

Of course, Shirky knows about it, so the omission must be deliberate. To 
me, this is an indication of how constrained discourse has become, 
particularly in the US and particularly for the set of activist academics 
who like to think of themselves as progressives yet covet their positions 
as consultants to conservative business and government. To them, p2p poses 
an ugly challenge. It is clearly one of the most potent mass movements 
driving the deep transformation of the media industry and contributing 
considerably to the fabled increase in individuals' expressive capacities. 
But coming out against file sharing makes you sound like a dork on the 
payroll of the mafia. Very unprogressive. Yet, the media conglomerates and 
their surrogates have succeeded in establishing such a climate of copyright 
maximalism that even appearing in favour of copyright infringement removes 
you from the mainstream. Thus, if you want to play it both ways – be part 
of the revolution and earn money as a consultant – you better avoid the 
whole issue. That, at least, would explain why neither Shirky nor anyone 
else in the US mainstream even dares to talk about file sharing anymore, 
with the exception of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Self-censorship 
at work.

The total absence of controversial issues creates the narrow scope typical 
of books written by consultants. This is unfortunate since Shirky is 
clearly very bright. If you want to glean some of his many insights, you 
could do worse than simply watching his lecture on the book's main themes.4 
In just 42 minutes you get a good sense of what he has to offer.

Felix Stalder is lecturer in theory of the media society at the Zurich 
University of the Arts and one of the moderators of the mailing list 
nettime. He lives in Vienna, travels abroad and archives his public output 
at http://felix.openflows.com

Info: Clay Shirky. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without 
Organizations, New York: Penguin Press, February, 2008


1 Yochai Benkler, 'Coase's Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm', 
Yale Law Journal. No. 112, 2002, http://www.benkler.com

2 http://reason.com/blog/show/127444.html

3 http://blog.digg.com/?p=74

4 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_0FgRKsqqU

--- http://felix.openflows.com ----------------------------- out now:
*|Mediale Kunst/Media Arts Zurich.13 Positions.Scheidegger&Spiess2008
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org