I just wanted to share a few final tid-bits before concluding my blog series on Here Comes Everybody. First, let’s talk about “failure for free” (also the title of Chapter 10). An interesting concept, yes? Shirky essentially posits that because open source initiatives allow for failure at a drastically reduced or non-existent cost for developers/contributors, the risks they can take are much greater. And big risks can lead to big ideas– even revolution! Here’s a cool quote: “Open source is a profound threat, not because the open source ecosystem is outsucceeding commercial efforts but because it is outfailing them” (p. 245). Any system that can fail without penalty is going to take chances, and sometimes those chances result in HUGE successes (think Wikipedia). In most cases, open source initiatives also depend on the efforts of contributors who have some kind of meaningful motivation to participate (vs. an employee of a major corporation who only goes to work for the paycheck). Combine these two things and you put a pretty powerful force into motion.
Shirky says that when open source organizations fail, they fail quickly (unlike major companies that tend to erode over time). And many more fail than succeed. But that’s the beauty of open source, I think– large failures beget large successes. When one goes down, another springs up, learning from the failures of the one(s) that came before. Shirky suggests that there are three components which dictate the success or failure of any social system: a promise, a tool, and a bargain. The promise gets users hooked– gives them some kind of enticing rationale for joining a particular group. And it has to outdo the promises being made by similar groups already in existence if it wants to be competitive. For example, Wikipedia’s promise is not, “Help us create articles that will be reviewed by experts before posting to the internet”. It’s more like, “Work together on a global scale to collaboratively create content with almost no administrative oversight.” The promise is sort of like the marketing strategy that gets the idea moving. Next comes the tool, about which Shirky comments- “There is no such thing as a generically good tool; there are only tools good for particular jobs” (p. 265). In other words, the tool has to fit the situation and be relevant in the environment where it’s being used. For example, I feel that Wiki’s are generally preferable to Blackboard when it comes to collaborative learning initiatives– it was essential for me in conducting my ADLT 636 capstone project with a group. But Blackboard is perhaps a more preferable tool in the context of straight-up information distribution. So, it all depends. The final “bargain” is the deal that is made between group and user– what will we each gain through your participation with this initiative? For instance, Facebook gives me the opportunity to interact with my friends and colleagues for free and with no time or data limitations. The trade off is that I am exposed to numerous advertisements. But I think that’s a pretty fair trade, so I continue to use the system. Essentially, groups have to have strong (and relevant) promises, tools, and bargains in order to thrive.
Before signing off, I would just like to assert my belief that anyone with even a mild interest in how digital media is impacting our world should read this book. Shirky really put things into perspective, especially when it comes to organizational development (which is an area of particular academic and practical interest for me). Much of what I’ve learned in the HRD track of the Adult Learning program centers around the idea that adults need meaningful connections, the ability to make decisions, internal motivators, etc. Open source platforms support these needs, in many cases. Really, any organization or group that is self-reliant and given the freedom to explore new ideas without micro-management from above is a wonderful example of andragogical principles at work. As a population, we are trained to believe that traditional organization structures work best– like, how could there be no HIERARCHY??! But Shirky topples this notion (in many respects) by pointing out all the amazing systems which run on a totally equal, collaborative, user-generated playing field. Moving forward, I’d like to further explore how this kind of structure could potentially work in real, physical organizations. In most existing organizations, I believe the extant culture and history would make a flat organizational system pretty much impossible (think Capital One or VCU, for instance). But perhaps we will see more flat org structures emerging with the rise of new technological tools and the growing popularity of open source systems. I am really excited to see how this all play out!
This video is a bit lengthy, but it will give you a good sense of what Shirky is trying to say with this book, especially when it comes to group-forming and organizations: