What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Mon 26 May 08 16:07
We're pleased to welcome to the Inkwell Clay Shirky. Clay teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he concentrates on how human networks affect technological ones, and vice-versa. Prior to that, he has worked variously as a consultant, tech analyst, and CTO at various internet ventures. In the early 90's, he was vice-president for the New York chapter of EFF, during the 15-minute period when the EFF had chapters. He is the author of the recently published "Here Comes Everybody." Facilitating the conversation is Well and Inkwell veteran, Jon Lebkowsky, an author and web strategist who went digital when he saw the social potential of connected computers. That was in the late 1980s. Since then he's been involved in online community and social network development, net.activism, web development, and web strategy. He is co-founder of Social Web Strategies, a consultancy based in Austin, Texas. He blogs at http://weblogsky.com Thanks for joining us, gentlemen. What's up?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 26 May 08 20:39
Thanks, Bruce! I'm never sure what's up (complex universe we live in, hard to pin down), but I'm full of questions. Clay, you've been prolific, so there's much we could talk about, but we're here to focus on your new book _Here Comes Everybody_, which strikes me as an unusually sane and well-considered evaluation of the state and future of social technology. How did the book come together? Was it always about "organizing without organizations," or did that conceptual framework emerge as you were writing?
Clay Shirky (clayshirky) Tue 27 May 08 13:52
I've actually come to regret the "organizing without organizations" line a bit. The phrase comes from an observation in the book that we use variations on the same word to describe the state of being arranged or coordinated (organized), and as a label for well-structured groups (organizations). As a result, when we see organization in the world, we often assume that there is an organization at work. And the changes I'm pointing to are all the ways that is becoming less true. To take a recent example, when the Western press covered the upset in the Chinese blogosphere about the Olympic torch protests, they covered it as if the synchronization of the bloggers concerns must have been orchestrated by the Chinese government. What they seemed unable (or unwilling) to investigate was whether that synchronization was organic -- whether there was organization without there being *an* organization responsible, even though assuming that the bloggers actually feel that way, and are synchronizing with one another, is the more parsimonious explanation. So the basic observation is that order can arise without there being a group of people paid to put things in order, and we're seeing this in things like Meetup groups, Flickr and delicious tags, where sharing precedes community formation rather than following it, and so on. The one thing I've reconsidered (too late, alas) is the way that 'organizing without organizations' sounds like on of those "...and the State will wither away and we'll all live in a post-hierarchical paradise' arguments. I'm so far from believing that that I didn't even see the resonance til I started fielding questions from people who had read the title but not the book.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 27 May 08 14:19
So the traditional hierarchical organizations are still there, but coexisting with organizations that are loosely structured? To what extent are those more vertical hierarchies flattened? How well do they have to accommodate loose groups, both internal and external, that are relevant to them?
Clay Shirky (clayshirky) Tue 27 May 08 19:28
Well, this is the key question. None of the absolute advantages of hierarchy have changed. It's still the most parsimonious way to link N people into a visible, sensible structure, and it provides lots of visibility, accountability, career options, and so forth. However, the *relative* advantages of hierarchical organization are all weakened. There is not longer an institutional monopoly on coordinated action, and there are two big signs of this. The first is alternate, non-market modes of creation, as with Open Source or CC-licensed creations, and the second is the rise of loosely coordinated but effective protest movements, as with Voice of the Faithful, against the Catholic Church, or the anti-HSBC protest on Facebook. In my mind, the big question isn't "Which current institutions will be wholly replaced?" -- most won't -- but rather "How will institutions who have to accept non-institutional competitors react and adapt?"
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 27 May 08 21:30
Another question I've been thinking about is "How does leadership work in leaderless organizations?" Are organizations ever truly leaderless? Or is leadership just less formal, more emergent, more fluid?
Clay Shirky (clayshirky) Wed 28 May 08 07:55
There are some forms of organization that are genuinely leaderless -- the creation of a Wikipedia page after a natural disaster, or the aggregation of photos around a theme on Flickr via tags are both examples. For groups that want to accomplish things, though, leadership is critical. (Think of Linus and Linux, or Kate Hanni and the Coalition for Air Passengers Rights.) The thing that interests me about leadership in these groups is the new requirements it has. We have two canonical models of executive work -- the micromanager, and the grand visionary -- but neither of those translates well when the peoople working on a project are doing so voluntarily. The best leaders seem to me to have a facilitative bent -- they will direct the conversation or the effort, working in the middle zone between not stifling it will too much direction, while also not letting is simply go off the rails.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 28 May 08 08:42
(NOTE: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them added to this conversation by emailing them to <email@example.com> -- please be sure to put "Shirky" in the subject line, thanks!)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 28 May 08 08:45
I've been in contexts where a facilitative approach, or a consensus approach, didn't work, but the group was responsive to a more directive and decisive leader. How relevant is group context to responsiveness to facilitative leadership?
Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 28 May 08 10:19
I don't want to interrupt the conversational flow, but thought I would check in to say that I was up until 1:30 this morning finishing the book and then blogging about it, and then thinking about the ways in which the writing concretized my thoughts, not so much about organization, as about the ways in which a website such as mine fits better into the world. An older model in which I, the expert wrote; or I the expert wrote, and people commented, can't keep up even in my narrow niche of interest. But a model in which I provide tools, leadership, and some parenting means that everyone who visits my site who has information to contribute, can do so, and given appropriate affordances, many =will= do so. I resisted this model for years figuring that I provided an imprimatur and some fact-checking stubborness. I may not be the best writer, but I am good enough, and I mostly get it right (on facts--my opinions? as all over the map as anyone's). But that's like worrying about my good penmanship in an age when being a scribe isn't how information is gathered and distributed any more. My sense is that in the latter part of the book you are saying something very similar (very, very similar, I hope, as the scribe metaphor comes directly from the book).
Clay Shirky (clayshirky) Wed 28 May 08 16:58
Ari, its funny -- one of the things that happened while writing this book was that I became aware of all the books I *wasn't* writing -- books that are next door to "here comes everybody", as it were -- and one of those books was on the nature of expertise. There will always be a market for quality, for clarity, and for experience, but now it is a *competitive* market. The idea that expert work is more valuable than amateur work or crowdsourced work _per se_ is being visibly weakened by the day. The places where experts matter and flourish are places where it is expertise, rather than authority (which is to say knowledge and experience, rather than imprimatur and access to public expression) that give them their voice. So I think that getting it right will always be in fashion. However, assuming that getting it right can somehow be married to expressive scarcity, as of old, to turn expertise into authority now seems to me to be a less valid assumption by the day.
Clay Shirky (clayshirky) Wed 28 May 08 17:57
Jon, There is a huge difference between facilitation and consensus. The latter either breaks down at scale, or requires such an echo chamber that the disputes don't rise to the surface in the first place. And when I say facilitation, I don't mean some "suffering servant" model of leadership. Linus may be the best example -- when there was a move in the 90s to put video handling directly into the kernel, he said, roughly, "Over my dead body." He knew Linux was going embedded, and that bloating the kernel would kill that. Last year, when he was asked what the big deal would be for 2008, he said "Virtualization, evidently. I don't care about it, but I can see that the community does." So that in my mind is facilitation -- not "whatever you guys say", but rather "whatever is both on the community's mind *and* is in line with the better nature of the work." So there's still real judgment there.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 28 May 08 21:30
I'm not sure I agree that facilitation and consensus are far apart, though this may be a semantic argument, depending how you interpret both terms. Consensus is agreement, and facilitation can be a method for getting general agreement on something. Interesting question about the echo chamber - how much do members of a group have to be in sync in order to agree about something? I definitely agree about the issue of scale. Big issue: how do you scale the democratic conversation? How do you get from conversation to decision? Facilitation is a great word for what Linus does, and what we're seeing leaders do in communities that do effective work... "commons based peer production." They make it easier for the community and its projects to function by making critical decisions that the community is not equipped to handle... having the judgement, as you say. It's not like the emergent, transient or portable leadership we talked about earlier. Linus succeeds at "facilitation" (or as benevolent dictator, some might say) because he's Linus. If he goes away, what kind of challenge does that present to the Linux community?
Ari Davidow (ari) Thu 29 May 08 06:45
I wonder if one of the differences between facilitation and consensus is that the former implies an active process, actively shepherded by someone. Poor facilitators won't get everything bubbled up, or won't have the skills to cut the knot when things are tangled or wrong, etc. But consensus? Consensus can be as meaningless as a giant group "whatever." In some circles consensus is regarded as some advanced way of ensuring that voices get heard, but I've been in political groups where it was clearly just a hipper "robert's rules of order" that could be manipulated as well as anything, and through which those on the wrong side could be reduced to tears, and absolutely frustrated. But a good facilitator will not only bubble up diverse ideas and input, but will get people to accept decisions, whether or not they were actively consensual. That's key, because in the open source world, nothing is forcing people to participate in, or to stick with a project. (Nor is anything ensuring that great projects get the facilitators OR the programmers that they need. It's not only okay to fail often and fail early, but not all failures are based strictly on merit and that has to be okay.)
Clay Shirky (clayshirky) Thu 29 May 08 07:43
Ari, I think that's the key issue. One of the things we talk about in my social software classes is the requirements of voting systems -- everyone understands that voting is a way to canvas everyone for input, to arrive at a decision amid disagreement, and (ideally) to arrive at a better decision than any individual could make. What they often don't see is that voting is also a way of legitimating a decision -- in any environment with strong opinions, at least some members of the group won't get their way some of the time, and there needs to be some way to convince losers to regard the decision as binding (or every decision point would also fork the group.) I sometimes call governance issues 'rules for losing' for this reason, and voting is one good way to get people to regard decisions they disagree with as valid. So, to get into the semantics of consensus and facilitation, I'd say the issue with consensus is the one Ari has raised, namely that in a consensus group, issues that never reach agreement never get settled. Facilitation, on the other hand, is usually conducted with one member of the group being deferred to for judgement-call issues, summing up 'sense of the meeting' feelings and in some cases even deciding when to put things to a vote. The meta-question is _quis custodiet ipsos custodes_ - who will manage the managers? For this reason, a lot of net-based groups have something akin to the BFDL (Benevolent Dictator for Life) role that Guido fills for Python or Linus for Linux. The founder simply starts with more legitimacy to make faciliation-style decisions. The interesting question for a lot of those groups (none of whom are even 40 years old, by definition) is what happens in the succession crisis?
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 29 May 08 08:45
Loved the book and I'm putting some of it into effect, most notably the Twitter part, which I'd always thought of as a ridiculous application but I'm interested in the political aspects (because I'm running for office). I was part of the Howard Dean generation that got in via Meetup and I was very sad when Meetup started charging.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 29 May 08 13:15
Clay, good points about the advantages of facilitation, but I've rarely been in a context where there was consensus without facilitation, formal or informal. And even with everyone deferring to the judgement of a facilitator, wouldn't unsettled issues remain unsettled? Is the psychology behind that deference so strong that it would be a complete resolution, eliminating all opposition or contention? Do you have thoughts about what happens in the succession crisis? One example comes to mind, in the example of Howard Rheingold's Electric Minds (nicknamed Eminds), which was a for-profit online community in the 1990s. Howard sold Eminds to Durand Communications with the understanding that the community already established there could be self-governing. As the site was moved to the Durand platform, there was much discussion of how this would work. Howard wasn't looking to be BFDL, so there was a more or less official move to create a governing council to make decisions (like deciding whether to kick disruptors out). Quite a bit of political wrangling - the council failed, Howard left, others stepped in. Some version of the community still exists, evidently operating by consensus, and with Harry Pike facilitating. As Howard attempted to step back, there was a period of instability that required his continued presence and intervention to prevent meltdown as an alternative emerged. Many people left; the community was transformed by the experience. Sharon brings up Howard Dean's campaign. You wrote about the Dean campaign's collapse in "Exiting Deanspace" in 2004, and reference the campaign in the book. How did your thinking about the Dean campaign's use of technology evolve in the interim?
Clay Shirky (clayshirky) Thu 29 May 08 15:09
Jon, you never get rid of all disagreement. What good facilitation does (as with the Eminds example) is to give people a rationale for both losing and staying in the community anyway. The issue with consensus is that if no consensus is reached, no decision is reached, which makes even procedural issues a potentially blocking ones. So the advantage of strong facilitation is not that everyone is happy, but that unhappiness does not sidetrack the community or its goals. I'm less interested in Dean (whose flaws as a candidate were more important than any aspect of the movement) than in Sharon's comment about Meetup charging. I wonder why that made you sad? Because on the Meetup side (I'm an advisor), I can tell you that while the number of Meetups initially shrank after that decision, the user satisfaction with the remaining Meetups grew.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 29 May 08 21:19
Glad it worked for them.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 29 May 08 22:32
Getting back to _Here Comes Everybody_, you start with the story of a cellphone that a woman named Ivanna leaves in a cab in New York City. Ivanna's friend Evan Guttman offers a reward for its return, there's no response, so she buys a new one. The phone company has all her data backed up (kinda scary, that, when you think of it), and when she buys a new phone she can see photos taken by a young girl who's got hold of it. Evan manages to track down the girl, who refuses to return the phone. He builds a web site, gets massive response, and through a series of net-mediated twists and turns eventually gets the phone back. It's a great story, and I wondered as I read it whether it was an inspiration for the rest of the book, or something you came up with later in the writing process? Had you followed the story as it happened, or did you stumble onto it later?
Clay Shirky (clayshirky) Fri 30 May 08 05:06
Well, Meetup is a business -- what works for them is not necessarily aligned with what works for the users. So I meant my question literally -- what made you sad about the change? Was it just an economic calculation, or something about the nature of the service itself? And Jon, the phone story actually came quite late -- I've been tracking social aspects of electronic networks for 15 years, and I'd decided the time was ripe to do a book for the general public, and I'd already worked on the proposal for about 9 months when the phone story broke. I used it as the opening story because it illustrated so many of the book's themes, but those themes were already worked out. I suppose if if hadn't dropped in my lap, I would have to have spent some time looking around for some other similarly accessible opening.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 30 May 08 05:51
How would you summarize those themes? Were there other potential openers you considered?
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 30 May 08 07:35
Somewhat parallel question--people I told the story to were impressed by the fact that it wasn't really "good guys vs. bad guys"--Ivanna does get her phone back, but the cost to the person who had received it and refused to return it was significantly out of scale (or was it? we felt so, and my reading of the book indicated that you weren't so sure the best outcome had been reached appropriately). So, this isn't a utopian book--you aren't documenting how technology makes life better; rather you are documenting a revolution, some of whose effects are good, but some of whose effects are decidedly bad.
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Fri 30 May 08 08:57
The phone story is a great lead for the book, because it illustrates both how new technologies facilitate and amplify collective action as well as the importance of them ultimately intersecting with meatspace effects. It's also just edgy enough, makes us just apprehensive enough, that we're unsure to what extent we should cheer these developments and to what extent we should fear them.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 30 May 08 09:21
I agree. (Hi Clay!) The story was riveting in part because of the class difference between the clueless and boorish "finders-keepers" family and the intelligent and righteously indignant web response from Ivan, Evan and a thousands of new pals and onlookers online. If a literal vigilante response had been organized rather than pressure brought to bear on the NYPD, it could have easily been another saga. Another interesting facet is that "old media" was instrumental as a leverage point in this story. Quite a lot of the impression we seem to get and disseminate of radical power shifts ignores that professional and even dead-trees media so often is either the original source of information that the blogosphere and its kin run with, or the tipping point towards having an effect on real world institutions. Is this a transitional phase, an illusion, or the likely way that disorganized and organized information are likely to work together? (Since I'm already rudely asking you to be a pundit and prognasticator, I'll add: For the next three years? For the next dozen?)
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 30 May 08 09:22
Make that disorganized and organized information desemination cultures, not the info itself.
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