Review: Here Comes Everybody!

I officially cannot imagine my life without social networking. I use Facebook as a kind of mini-journal to weave my lives as a mom and an advocate together, and also to stay connected with work colleagues past and present, former students, and the few totally personal friends that I have managed to maintain as part of my life. I share links on Twitter and follow experts in the fields of nonprofit management, various social justice causes, and social media–it’s a fantastic way to survey what’s important and to prioritize my own reading and thinking.

And, of course, I use this blog to share my thoughts about organizing and advocacy and nonprofits and technology and fundraising and the other things I love to think about. I get a huge kick out of students’ comments both here and on the Facebook feed of the blog, and it has cut down on my Post-it note usage, since I no longer have to try to remember all of the little things that pop into my head, demanding more attention. It has kept me disciplined in my reading and thinking these past 9 months, and I believe that it will be part of my practice perpetually.

But, still…I have found myself wondering lately if social media are really such a revolution after all, or rather different ways of doing the same kinds of communicating that we’ve always done. I mean, email is certainly faster and cheaper than earlier methods of person-to-person communication, but emailing my mom rather than calling or writing to her isn’t exactly revolutionary. Using email to collect contact information from millions of supporters and target them with specific messages designed to elicit action, like the Obama for America team did…well, that can obviously change the world. But it’s certainly not a foregone conclusion that the technology will have much of an impact.

I read Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody largely to explore these questions more: are these new social technologies inherently revolutionary? How can they be applied in ways that are more likely to add significant value to our work? What do we need to understand about human nature, and the nature of organizations, to figure out how social media can further our mission?

It’s a supremely readable book, full of interesting case studies, and I like the fact that it doesn’t gush or glorify any of the social media applications, but, rather, takes a rather skeptical view that ultimately concludes that they have huge promise for good, considerable potential for harm, and significant inertia towards the mundane and trivial. Which, when I look at data for how many people are taking action or making donations on Facebook compared to how many are taking quizzes about which Hogwarts instructor they are most like, makes a lot of sense–we’re still the same people, after all, in these new applications (until organizing and consciousness-raising change our lives!).

One of the promising aspects of social media, and really any postmodern technology, is in the ability to reduce transaction costs so that we can do what we would already be doing (organizing folks, raising money, mobilizing supporters) more easily–not revolutionary, at all, but a better hammer, so to speak–an improved tool for accomplishing the work that comprises the core of any social action. If we think about Facebook and Twitter and Flickr like that–tools at our disposal–rather than as gods to be served or fads to be followed, then I think we’ll find tremendous value.

The most important piece of this book for nonprofit folks, I think, is Shirky’s insistence that we recognize that our messages are already uncontrollable, that the very nature of these technologies is to resist centralization in favor of diffusion, and that what we’ll get is not the same content distributed in a different way but fundamentally different types of information–that which stems authentically from the diverse experiences of the many (hence the title) rather than uniformly from the annointed.

For pro-democracy types, this should be good news (Shirky includes examples from Belarus and Spain and the Thai military coup that are inspirational), but, more commonly, it’s a gut check for social justice advocates who also happen to work within hierarchical institutions. For all we talk about ‘power to the people’, we still get nervous sometimes when everyone’s not ‘on the same page’, and we have to recognize that loss of control over message is the price we pay for people taking authentic ownership of our cause. Unfortunately, many nonprofits and social justice causes try to use these new communication venues in the same old way–1:many–when they’re made for many:many. What you get, then, are people who feel ignored and shouted at, rather than engaged and respected.

Some of the facets of social media I distilled into some advice for nonprofits and social justice causes:

  • Be careful not to solicit more interaction than you can keep up with, because you don’t want to burn your supporters
  • Remember that the Power Law means that the gap between those few superstars of social media and the rest of our organizations (with relatively few connections) will grow, not diminish
  • Invest in the technologies that are most widely adopted now (websites, email, mobile phones)
  • Focus on behavioral change, not the latest shiny toy
  • Counter-organize: remember that the falling transaction costs apply not just to those groups of which we approve but also those that we find dangerous and offensive
  • Use new technology to reduce the cost of failure, so that your nonprofit organization no longer has to paralyze itself trying to avoid the inevitability of failure
  • Remember that everyone else KNOWS that the transaction cost has been reduced, so that may mean that you need more transactions (or different kinds) to have the same effect–he uses the example of emails to Congress to illustrate this (man after my own heart!).

    Finally, Shirky uses the phrase ‘ridiculously easy group forming’ to describe what social media makes possible. And that made me think: since groups are so easy to form now, will we see a corresponding ‘shallowing out’ of these group connections (when the cost of joining is so low, joining may not mean much to me)? I think from my own experience that this is true. Even a rather hard-core activist like me finds myself sometimes joining Facebook groups just because someone asked me to, even if I don’t intend to really contribute much of anything. Would I do the same thing if the ‘cost’ of joining was higher? Probably not. So, then, what that means for organizers is that we have to find ways to deepen the connections that people form through these modalities, to create different layers of participation and leadership, and to strengthen the human relationships that transform nominal membership into transformational belonging. If we can do that, we’ll have both breadth and depth…and then we’ll be unstoppable.

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