Weekly Reading Insights–Week 6

For this week’s readings we once again turn to the writing of Clay Shirky, who, in the final chapters of his book, takes on the overarching principles important to consider with the evolutionary and cultural change being brought on by social interaction online. Shirky digs down into the deepest psychology of cultural reality and functionality in an online world in these chapters, summarizing what he sees as the fundamental realities of the digital world we now live in. I can easily grasp this cultural shift that Shirky evaluates just by being in same generation.  Having gone to college and been in the work force for even a few years before the advent of the internet, it’s easily tangible to discern how society has changed–a far cry from the perception of the so-called ‘digital natives‘ of ensuing generations who have only known internet-driven life. Thus, Shirky’s insights offer current and almost prophetic advice in these final chapters.

Perhaps as importantly as any of the concepts discussed by Shirky in this last part of his book is the concept of failure. As with any new startup possibility now and throughout history, the possibility of failure is incumbent.  In offline settings, this reality can be a function of poor planning, financial impropriety, faulty organizational tactics or a combination thereof. While these flaws remain constant for forming organizations in an online setting, Shirky aptly points out that to fail online is, at once, far cheaper.  Due to the far-reaching capabilities of open sourcing and crowd-sourcing in the development of anything from new software to social group formation in the digital realm, the online community (or as Shirky calls it, the ‘ecosystem’) provides for this handily due to its very communicative nature.  Propose an idea online and call for help, and typically at least a few interested people will respond.  If enough interested people participate, the idea can flourish.  That initial idea or momentum may not come to fruition for multiple reasons–and with limited financial investment.  Nonetheless, the online collaboration and the legwork and creativity formed around the idea still exists and can be mutated and applied to other situations.  All the while, the work and the investment has been at minimal cost.  This failure, Shirky contends, is not only necessary, but conducive. Failure equals research.

According to Shirky, there are some primary reasons for failure in this new digital community, especially in the arena of group formation and social interaction online.  If a group’s identity is suggested as too broad, too specific, or too boring, the endeavor can likely only fail.  Conversely, when a purpose for a social tool in the digital realm is user-determined and serves an immediate need for a component of society, the likelihood that users will congregate under its umbrella increases.  I found it particularly interesting where Shirky contends that willingness to start on any given project is more likely in collaboration than if the work is individual and ‘from scratch.’  This functionality, coupled with the less-expensive concern of failure, is easily accomplished on the internet.

With open source development of software as his example, Shirky explains how the internet makes failure cheaper:

  1. the endeavor doesn’t have any literal ’employees’
  2. there is no notable financial investment
  3. there are no actual business decisions involved

In this setting, online open-source style development “doesn’t handicap the likelihood of success.” (p. 246).  It is in this ecosystem of collaboration and creation, where every participant claims ownership in the process, that new ideas/groups/startups and indeed an evolved culture can flourish.

Shirky illustrates how our culture is migrating in this direction by contending that when a company or organization finds something that ‘works,’ that organization is more likely to stick with that process and attempt to advance in that area rather than invest too many resources in the development of newer, untested programs. Although this does create a tolerance for the status quo, it’s a cheaper route for most organizations. However, in the new digital realm where communication and cooperation are easier, cheaper and far less likely to fail, evolution is occurring to flesh out new practices, programs and endeavors that previously might’ve been left by the wayside. This is clearly a foundational cultural advancement.

Shirky finally sets out to explain the basic functionality of what he sees as best practices for new social media outlets available in contemporary society.   He details the required components as being a promise, appropriate tools, and the bargain.  Regarding promise, social media must lay out what it will offer potential users. This offer has to be better or more valuable than what people already have available for their lives. The suggested promise of what the outlet will offer has to be accurate and not too specific or sweeping and it must create a sense of value and shared ownership of participation.  The tools available for using the media in question must fit be as easy as possible. The tools must be limited or they may overextend what is promised. These tools must also be based on the number of people involved and the duration of interaction. Last, the implied bargain between users of social media tools is important, in that it clarifies what people can expect from each other. This bargain requires users to mutually guard the terms of the scenario so that its functionality and usefulness is not undermined. And all users who participate must agree to the implied bargain for participation to be beneficial.

This basic skeleton for how social media applications best operate as laid out by Shirky  in the final parts of his book relies on the main component of any of this online interaction: the human element. Online social interaction for any purpose is in and of itself a social bargain.  The internet is a social setting, and breakdown in advancement will occur when the human element doesn’t play by the proverbial rules.  Indeed, governance is still required, as Shirky points out in the cases of the White Bicycles in Amsterdam and regarding failures in the early days of Ebay activity.  While the internet and social media provides the most profound arena for cultural change and evidence of that change, when users continue to misuse or abuse the technologies and opportunities presented is where breakdown occurs.

And while part of the failure Shirky speaks about is because of misuse, inevitably some of it is also from human attempt to play catch-up, as he puts it. Technology and cultural momentum changes as rapidly via the internet as those of us who are ‘digital immigrants‘ can keep up with.  The future of how the digital social world will evolve is as much our responsibility to accommodate as it is the responsibility of newer generations to drive it forward. As Marc Prensky points out, it’s all a process of advancing our collective ‘digital wisdom.’

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One thought on “Weekly Reading Insights–Week 6

  1. Carrie Brown says:

    Good, Barry, above and beyond in terms of the level of detail here. I especially think this is a key insight for understanding why organizations struggle with change: “Shirky illustrates how our culture is migrating in this direction by contending that when a company or organization finds something that ‘works,’ that organization is more likely to stick with that process and attempt to advance in that area rather than invest too many resources in the development of newer, untested programs.”

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