‘Here Comes Everybody’

In “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” Clay Shirky’s hindsight is even sharper than 20/20. Though the book doesn’t explicitly target journalists, his ability to parse the opportunities we’ve missed or misunderstood reads like gospel in these tumultuous times.

Because we have spent so much time ignoring or poorly imitating the rapidly changing landscape it is therapeutic, at least for this young journalist, to view Shirky’s book as a potential catalyst for the industry’s grieving process: First comes numbness, then disorganization and, finally, reorganization.

It’s unfortunate that, amid the doom and gloom pervading industry conversation these days, there hasn’t been much, if any, mention of “Here Comes Everybody” – because the book’s journalistic enlightenment is two-fold.

First: Shirky vividly outlines the tectonic shifts of media production and consumption that are rattling the industry — the totality of which is easy to overlook, especially when we mock Wikipedia and dismiss sites such as Craigslist, Blogger, Facebook, et al. as somehow alien.

The culprit of these earthquakes? Because the barriers to participation in the media ecosystem are so low – free, in fact – everyone will participate.

“Free” has multiple but equally important definitions in this context, and by their confluence we find ourselves in this turbulence:

  • Publishing = free*
  • Consuming = free*
  • Sharing = free*
  • Participation = free*
  • Community = free*

Obviously “free” isn’t precisely $0.00 but, as Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson has said, the price of breathing digitally – namely processing power, storage and bandwidth — is effectively free. “The moment a company’s primary expenses become things based in silicon, free becomes not just an option but the inevitable destination.”1

And, as Shirky hammers home: Free changes everything.

“Free” turns latent groups into actual ones because they’re so easy to form (e.g. from Facebook’s “I Use my Cell Phone to See in the Dark” group — with 495,801 members — to Daily Kos or pagan meetups). These groups, as Shirky explains, previously existed only “in potentia, and too much effort would have been required to turn [them] into real ones by conventional means.”

“Free” also means it is more efficient to publish first and filter later. This is a 180° shift from traditional media, which has always prized its ability to separate the good from the mediocre before publication. Mostly, this is because there was no alternative vehicle for the leftovers. As Jerry Seinfeld noted, “It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.”

But now, the world has switched from a mentality of “Why publish this” to “Why not?” As Shirky notes, “the mass amateurization of publishing makes mass amateurization of filtering a forced move,” and “such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact.”

The second piece of enlightenment: Understanding the diagnosis is the only escape from our industry’s impasse. Until we collectively wrap our heads around the present, there’s no chance of moving forward in any sustainable, push-the-needle-forward kind of way.

Look around — music and books don’t come from stores, long-distance conversations don’t require telephones, encyclopedias don’t need professionals, and news isn’t bound to newsprint. The extent and speed of this change is barely comprehensible.

“The future belongs to those who take the present for granted,” Shirky proclaims. And, to illustrate the imperative, he categorizes technologies into two camps of varying inevitability.

In one category: Technologies that society can, for the most part, make decisions about. For example, suppose we’re driving the “car” of atomic energy or space travel. Governments and citizens can rather effectively hit the brakes, add fuel and steer its progress.

On the other hand, Shirky continues, our control over the social tools unleashed by the Web is more analogous to steering a kayak:

“We are being pushed rapidly down a route largely determined by the technological environment. We have a small degree of control over the spread of these tools, but that control does not extend to our being able to reverse, stop or even radically alter the direction we’re moving in. Our principal challenge is not to decide where we want to go but rather to stay upright as we go there.”

So, how do we avoid drowning in this epochal change? It’s foolish to pretend any specific strategy is guaranteed, and Shirky wisely refrains from such proselytizing. We may drown, we will certainly change and we won’t know whether or when the turbulence will end — just as we failed to recognize the Web’s importance, even when it knocked on our doors.2

So, what conclusions might a journalist glean from the book?

  1. The only kids at the ‘Internet party’ scared of failure are the major news organizations. That mentality leads to a doomed strategy of cyclical hesitation and hedging that will not produce dividends online.3

  2. New technologies don’t force the extinction of previous habits. Shirky reminds us that communication companies have been selling the idea that travel can be replaced with technology since the age of the telegraph.

    Cheap long distance and teleconferencing didn’t diminish the number of flights people took — the number actually increased. “Assuming that videophones or e-mail or virtual reality will reduce the overall amount of travel is like assuming that liquor stores will kill bars, since liquor stores sell drinks much more cheaply than bars do.” There’s room at the table for everyone.

  3. The crowd is not the enemy. Professional journalists must adapt to this expanded ecosystem full of transient and nontraditional journalists.4 What once was binary (journalists vs. non-journalists) is now a spectrum. As James Poniewozik said in Time magazine, “the boundary between new and old media has become porous.”5

Shirky’s most poignant advice for journalists came in a blog post he wrote after the book was published: “There is a guarantee, however, that if we don’t experiment with new forms of journalism like society depended on it, we will end up with something worse.”

These ideas and conclusions aren’t necessarily new, nor are they prescriptions for a cure, but they are necessary steps toward one.  There are some incredibly smart people in this industry; success can not be that difficult once we shed the mental molasses and self-pity.

Tyson Evans is the editor of Update and design editor at the Las Vegas Sun.

Footnotes:

  1. Chris Anderson’s Wired cover story, “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business,” has a powerful conclusion: “It took decades to shake off the assumption that computing was supposed to be rationed for the few, and we’re only now starting to liberate bandwidth and storage from the same poverty of imagination. But a generation raised on the free Web is coming of age, and they will find entirely new ways to embrace waste, transforming the world in the process. Because free is what you want — and free, increasingly, is what you’re going to get.” 

  2. Just how long ago did our industry miss the boat? At least 12 years ago, when the founder of Sun Microsystems, Vinod Khosla, gathered newspaper C.E.O.’s in a room to prod them along and received blank stares in return. “They couldn’t convince themselves that a Google, a Yahoo, or an eBay would be important, or that eBay could ever replace classified advertising.” (From Vanity Fair’s oral history of the Internet, “How the Web Was Won.”) 

  3. See Suw Charman’s essay, “The importance of pigheadedness,” where she points out: “Generally speaking, people don’t much like change. They don’t even like choice all that much, although they’ll tell you that they do. They certainly don’t like failure, or anything that looks even remotely like it. And they don’t like trying again when things do go a bit wobbly. … Iterate. Change things. Experiment. Try again. After all, it’s only failure if you give up.” 

  4. Shirky’s has a terrific tangent on the potential of the unflexed collective muscle of transient journalists and other non-professional groups in another post, “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.” Jay Rosen has a good recap at PressThink.

  5. via The Beltway-Blog Battle