ADLT 641: Some final thoughts on Here Comes Everybody

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:

ADLT 641 (HCE Reflections): The impact of social technology on our social fabric

Anyone ever heard the term “shadow of the future”?  It has to do with an expectation for reciprocity based on interactions with someone.  By having a relationship with you, I can predict that you may be willing to help me at a future point in time, which will make me more willing to help you now.  For example–back in the 1960’s, my grandfather routinely allowed regular customers at his small-town grocery store to run a tab and pay when they could.  The “shadow of the future” (a term coined by Robert Axelrod) is inherent in the concept of “social capital“– norms that establish trust and goodwill among group members or between different groups.  Shirky references a book by Robert Punam called Bowling Alone.  In it, Putnam essentially asserts that community as we once knew it (i.e. the type of community that runs on face-to-face social capital and “shadow of the future”) is seeing a a major decline in this country.  Gone are the days of picnicking, league bowling, rotary clubs and ice cream socials (Shirky, p. 193).

Reading this stuff reminded me a lot of the blog post I published back in October, particularly the comments that were generated from it.  Talking to my parents and grandparents about how community functioned in past generations makes me realize just how much things have changed.  We no longer feel obligated to answer our phones, we don’t have routine neighborhood get-togethers, we don’t randomly drop in on people…we simply don’t participate as much in a physical community culture as we once did.  I believe that type of community has been replaced (or at least greatly supplemented) by online social networks, and technology has allowed us to have less F2F contact with one another.  But Shirky says that people still crave physical human interaction, and that “communication and travel are complements, not substitutes” (p. 195).  In other words, doing some physical travel to obtain the face-t0-face is still required.  And that’s partly why we saw become so popular (I’m not sure whether it still is or not).  People DO want to hang out with each other!  And they want to do it on their own terms.  Our newfound ability to self-organize and join forces around shared interests so easily seems like an amazing social opportunity.  But there can be issues.  Shirky points out that there are some opportunities for “social loss” when folks have complete freedom and ease of assembly. The most interesting (and one I’ve considered before) is the fact that this freedom is available to everyone.  Just as Stay At Home Moms can organize a meetup and plan group activities with the click of a button, so can al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organization.  It’s something to think about.

I feel that social capital definitely still exists, but perhaps in a different format than it once did.  Due to communication technology and social media, my circle of friends has expanded (not decreased) and I have a much wider network of connections.  But there’s no question that the nature of these relationships are different.  Exchanges happen mostly electronically and so I’ve had to develop a digital literacy that enables me to pick up on social cues one would normally get in a face-to-face context.  And, as we’ve discussed previously, I am guilty of various behaviors that may be a result of over-connectedness in cyberspace (see blog post referenced above). Can you think of other ways that our social fabric has been impacted by ease of assembly in an online environment, and/or ease of communication?

Here’s a short video of CS talking about how the internet can be used to enhance social capital by essentially moving from consumption to sharing.  We now have tools that allow us to collaborate in ways not possible with earlier technologies.  Check it out:

Shirky: Social capital redefined – reengagement between individuals through internet from FreedomLab on Vimeo.

ADLT 641 (HCE Reflections): Flash mobs and beyond

In chapters 6 and 7, Shirky transitions from collaborative production to collective action.  As we know first hand from tools such as email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like- the internet provides an amazing opportunity for “reader redistribution”.  Real people now have the ability to very quickly and easily disseminate information to huge audiences, giving anyone with an internet connection their own personal “freedom of the press”, so to speak.  This ease of information dispersal can ignite huge conversations around various issues and, in many cases, facilitate large-scale group efforts.  Shirky cites several examples– the founding and exponential growth of VOTF after Father John Geoghan’s sex crimes against children were revealed, flash mobs of all sorts (including those that are politically motivated, such as the smiling ice-cream eaters in Belarus– 2006) , the founding of in response to passenger outrage over Northwest Airlines’ egregious tarmac delays, and the story of how Facebook influenced the HSBC bank in the U.K. to reverse a crappy corporate decision that would impact student customers.  All of these examples show how quickly and easily groups can organize with the help of the internet.

What we have now, says Shirky, are communication tools that allow for “many to many” group interactions (vs. one to many, or many to one).  Social media websites, email, text messaging, etc. all have the capacity to work this way.  The “many-to-many” capability tears down barriers and results in the coordination of group efforts much faster than ever before.  So now, there are far fewer obstacles standing in the path of group organization and collective action.  Obviously, this has huge political implications.  From Shirky’s perspective, “any tool that improves shared awareness or group coordination can be pressed into service for political means, because the freedom to act in a group is inherently political” (p. 187).   Very true.  I’d like to further explore the impact this new ease of collective action can have on organizations, particularly from an HRD standpoint.

I’ve been involved in several academic and work groups here at VCU that relied heavily on “many-to-many” communication methods for organization and that led to actionable results.  For example, the VCU Commonwealth of Virginia Campaign is an annual campus-wide charity initiative that is publicized via email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Each academic unit has a volunteer representative (I am this year’s rep for the University College and Center for Teaching Excellence) who helps to increase awareness, disseminate information, and serve as a liaison with program administrators.  All aspects of the CVC initiative are electronic now, including donations.  Never before has it been so easy to give– employees simply click a few buttons on their computer and they’re done.  What’s even better is that they can opt to have contributions collected via payroll deduction over the course of a full year (i.e. $5 every two weeks = $120), which makes giving a pretty sizable donation relatively painless.  Through the use of widespread communication and advanced technology, VCU has succeeded in organizing employees toward a very meaningful common goal–one that brings people together and has the potential to make them feel good about themselves and/or their organization.

Does anyone have any other examples to share?


ADLT 641 (HCE reflections): Collaborative production and what this means for organizations

So.  Wikipedia.  We ADLT 641 peeps discussed collaborative learning tools during session 8, but I feel there were some questions left unexplored.  For example, do you ever wonder how Wikipedia really works?  Or rather, WHY it works?  Think about it for a moment– the site is completely open for ANYONE to add or remove content, and millions of people use it every day.  Why don’t we see more instances of sabotage, or misinformation at the very least?  How do users manage themselves and each other…with no organizational structure?  This concept is fascinating to me from a human resource development perspective.  Shirky believes that wikis work because of “spontaneous division of labor”.  So essentially, someone creates the shell for an article (called a “stub” in the wiki world– betcha didn’t know that) and other users who are interested in that particular subject spontaneously collaborate to develop it.  Sometimes thousands of people contribute to the same article over months or years and it literally never stops growing.  But why do these folks dedicate so much of their time to this effort when there are no financial rewards involved?  What gives?  Well, to start with, the percentage of contributors who expend large amounts of energy is very small, while the percentage of individuals who contribute minimally on an intermittent basis is enormous.  Shirky describes this phenomenon as a “power law distribution”.  Here’s what it looks like: A bit different from a bell curve, yes?  As you can see, the distribution of labor is quite unbalanced.  A few people are working extremely hard while the vast majority are contributing very little.  In a traditional organization, this would be a death sentence- the organization could not survive without relatively equal distribution of labor.  But on a scale of millions (as is the case with Wikipedia), it works.  There is no oversight, no set expectations for contributing, and no compensation for effort.  So nobody really cares about the disequilibrium.  In fact, Shirky suggests that “relying on nonfinancial motivations may actually make systems more tolerant of variable participation”.   For those of you who watched the TED Talk I posted a few weeks back, you may remember the example Shirky gave regarding the study of Israeli day care centers.  For those of you who didn’t, I’ll attempt to summarize it here:  As you might imagine, many day care centers struggle with parents showing up behind schedule to collect their child/children at the end of the day (due to busy jobs and other obligations– you know how it goes).  In a project related to deterrence theory, two researchers studied the impact of imposing a fine on repeat offenders to eliminate this behavior.  Four Israeli day care centers enacted a new policy whereby each instance of tardiness would result in a ten shekel fine, per child.  According to deterrence theory, this punishment should have dissuaded parents from continuing to arrive late.  But instead, they said, “Whoo-hoo!  I only have to pay ten shekels to pick my kid up late?  Sold.”  And instances of late pick-ups tripled.  In this case, money became a negative motivator.  It basically changed what was previously seen as a moral obligation to one of monetary value (which significantly DEvalued it in parents’ eyes).   Pretty interesting, huh?  Much of the research I’ve done in HRD supports this same idea that money is very much an extrinsic motivator, and usually not nearly as inherent to job satisfaction as the more intrinsic ones (i.e. feeling valued, enjoying one’s work, perceived opportunity for growth and development, etc.).

So now back to my original question– why are the top one percenter’s putting so much time into the Wikipedia effort?  Shirky names three contributing factors (based on personal experience):  1) The desire to challenge oneself; 2) Vanity (“making one’s mark”); and 3) The desire to make a meaningful contribution that will potentially impact others on a global scale.  This last observation is particularly significant, I think.  Wikipedia is very much a community, and contributing to that community can be hugely rewarding for those who care about it.  It’s similar to what motivates employees to stay in a job.  If you believe that your work is meaningful on a spectrum that reaches beyond yourself, you are more likely to glean personal satisfaction from it and thus more likely to do it well.  You may also feel less need for financial reward.

I am very interested in further exploring how compensation influences job satisfaction and will continue to do so as an HRD professional.   Money is certainly important– there’s no question about that.  But are there ways to decrease employees’ perceived need for financial rewards in the workplace (i.e. make it less tied to performance)?  How might organizational culture and/or supervision structure factor into that?  What are some non-monetary rewards that motivate you in your own work environments?  I’d love to hear your perspectives on this.

ADLT 641 (HCE reflections): Journalism in the modern world

Hi everyone!  Sorry it’s been awhile since my last Here Comes Everybody reflection.  Time is getting away from me!  I’d like to focus this entry around Shirky’s notion that “everyone is a media outlet”.  Chapter three is prefaced with the following quote:  “Our social tools remove older obstacles to public expression, and thus remove the bottlenecks that characterized mass media.  The result is the mass amateurization of efforts previously reserved for media professionals.”  Mass-amateurization.  A very interesting concept, and one that immediately made me think of venues such as Flickr and Instagram (for widespread dissemination of images by amateur photographers).  Later in the book, Shirky does mention how photography has become a deprofessionalized practice in many cases.  But his main focus is on the major changes we’re seeing in the spread of the written word.  What does it mean to be a journalist?  It used to mean that one had been specially trained in their field, endorsed by a publishing firm, and given the means of documentation in a public arena (usually newspapers, radio, or television).  Now, the blogosphere has created a whole new playing field for people to self-publish and be journalists, essentially.  Shirky makes a very interesting observation that I’d like to share: “The Web didn’t introduce a new competitor into the old ecosystem  [of journalism]…The Web created a new ecosystem.”  YES!  He uses the invention of the printing press as similar example.  Over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the printing press led to an increase in literacy among the masses and made the work of scribes obsolete.  Talk about a change in ecosystem!

Shirky also points out that breaking news sometimes appears in the blogosphere before it ever reaches traditional press.  It’s happening more and more these days (in fact, many “official” news stories actually break as a result of the news agency seeing the story on someone’s blog).  Do any of you remember the Trent Lott/Strom Thurmond publicity fiasco from 2002 that led to Lott’s resignation?  If not, here’s an article that does a pretty good job of outlining what happened.  Essentially, Lott made a controversial statement (one that suggested the condoning of racism) at a birthday party being thrown for Thurmond. No news agencies picked up on it, but some bloggers did.  And as a result of their blogging, a man named Ed Sebesta came out of the woodwork and provided an interview from the early 1980’s in which Lott had revealed some racist tendencies.  (Here’s the story on that, if you’re interested).  Once this thing had exploded in the blogging community, Lott issued a formal apology.  NOW it was news, and the news companies immediately started to bite.  Ultimately, Lott was forced to resign.

Shirky uses the Lott story as an example of “amateurs” becoming journalists in very important ways.  He also points out that “mass amateurization of publishing undoes the limitations inherent in having a small number of traditional press outlets”.  In other words, information can be made immediately available to the public without having to slog through the traditional publishing process.  And not only that– blogs allows for multiple views to be expressed.  News companies often communicate a bias, whether they realize it or not.  But hundreds of people blogging about the same story creates a landscape in which all sides of an issues are more than likely going to be revealed (and commented on and torn apart and reconstructed).

I think Shirky’s main point is that the nature of media as we know it has changed dramatically, and we have to be able to navigate this new world. It “cannot be undone”.  Even emails are a form of self-publishing, he says.  Just think about how many emails have gone public and become the center of some national news story.  You know?  Here’s an example that I blogged about several years back.  Definitely something to think about.

BTW– does anyone know who caught Mitt Romney’s 47% gaff on video?  My assumption is that this person was not a reporter, but rather someone who happened to be in the room and also had the means of capturing footage with a personal device.  Again, a case of news being documented and reported by real people in real time.  Everyone is a media outlet.

Here’s a great video of Shirky talking about the evolution of journalism and where we’re headed:

ADLT 641 (HCE reflections): Community in the digital age

Shirky begins chapter two with a hypothetical question: “Imagine you are standing in line with 35 other people, and to pass the time, the guy in front of you proposes a wager.  He’s willing to bet $50 that no two people in line share a birthday.  Would you take that bet?”  In your response, I invite you to share why you would or would not risk the $50.  I’ll give you a hint:

*This diagram (which appears in the book) shows the many connections that people share with one another in a group.  It totally made me think of Wally’s blog post.  🙂

Chapter two excited me because there’s a lot about organizational structure in here (HRD, BABY- YEAH!).  Shirky brings up some really interesting points.  He begins by talking about the hierarchical nature of most all organizations (i.e. managerial layers) and references a paper written by Ronald Coase in 1937 (this dude’s still alive!).   Back then, Coase argued that although a free market with no organizational oversight has the potential to function, it will never be as successful as an organization governed by a solid managerial framework.  This, he said, has to do with increased “transaction costs” inherent in a disorganized group.  His assumption was that central control is best because it allows decisions to be made more quickly/efficiently and reduces fiscal impact. Shirky argues against this notion and points out that new modes of communication are altering how groups come together and take action at no cost.  He uses Flikr as an example.  I’d never thought about it before, but Flickr really is a great demonstration of how multiple independent users build communities around shared content and organize themselves.   If you’re not familiar with Flickr, it’s a site where people can upload photos, tag their photos, and see what other people are posting under the same tags.  Shirky says that tools like Flickr “reverse the old order of group activity, transforming ‘gather, then share’ into ‘share, then gather'”.  I love that quote.  It’s so true!  “Share, then gather” perfectly describes the trend we’re now seeing toward organic group development online. Twitter, Facebook, and blogging/commenting communities are other prime examples.   Shirky’s point is that people now have the capacity to “self-synchronize” in a way that’s never been known before, and that certainly wasn’t an option in 1937.

This chapter also includes a bit of a history lesson on the emergence of the traditional org chart.   Apparently, it all started with railroad companies in the 1800’s.  After some issues with safety arose, a superintendent for one company realized that he needed sub-mangers to oversee different sections of track.  And there you have it, folks– middle-management was born. The problem was that with this new form of organization came a level of limited communication.  Shirky quotes a document from that era stating that information”[was] to be obtained through a system of daily reports and checks, [and should not] embarrass principal officers nor lessen their influence with their subordinates”.  Um…WHAT?  Sounds like a pretty inauthentic protocol to me.  And, as adult learners, we all know that adults function best in an authentic environment.  Honestly, I feel that this kind of thinking still exists today.  Even if not clearly stated in policy, upper management generally tries to protect its reputation…sometimes through less than desirable means.  But I think there’s a lot more being done in terms of 360-degree evaluations and increased accountability for supervisors.  There are also good-hearted HRD professionals out there trying to change workplace cultures that foster misuse of power, deceptive practices, etc.

Shirky believes that the ease with which people can now come together has created a fundamental shift in transactional behavior.  No longer do we need to worry about transaction costs, he says–it’s free!  He goes on to talk about the three “rungs” of group activities: 1) sharing; 2) cooperation; and 3) collective action.  Just consider all the kinds of collective actions that have taken place online in self-established groups.  For example–I’ve publicly signed political petitions, donated to various causes, co-organized events, etc. all via Facebook.  Collective action!  Independent!  No overhead costs!

I guess my concerns are these:  How do organizations abandon the hierarchical structure?  Can it really be done?  SHOULD it be done?  Can people really self-organize in every situation, and can social media be used as a tool for this?

My experience in HRD tells me that this will be a long road to travel for anyone hoping to change the core of traditional management practices.   What do you think?


ADLT 641 (HCE reflections): The case of the stolen cell phone– where do you stand?

So far, Shirky’s book is definitely reeling me in.  He begins our adventure by describing a real-life example of how the internet can very quickly align huge numbers of people behind a common cause.  Has anyone ever heard of Evan Guttman, or the website he created in 2006 to help retrieve his best friend’s stolen cell phone?  Apparently this was a national news story when it happened, but I’d not heard about it until now.  If you don’t have time to visit these links, I’ll make a long story short:

Mr. Guttman’s best friend Ivanna left an expensive cell phone in the back of a NYC cab.  She asked Guttman (a computer programmer) to help her get it back by generating a message that would display on the phone offering a reward for its return.  After not hearing anything for a few days, she went ahead and purchased another one.  When the cellular company transferred all of her old data (which had been backed up on their servers) over to her new phone, she discovered multiple photos, emails, and text messages by a teenage girl in Queens named Sasha Gomez.  Guttman (who had taken on the retrieval of his friend’s phone as a personal mission) immediately emailed the girl, explaining that she was in possession of a stolen device and requesting its return.  He was met with an obstinate refusal, a few racial slurs, and even suggested violence.  They went back and forth through email several times, and each time Sasha became more and more hostile.  The police didn’t seem very interested in his case, so Guttman decided to make the story available to others in a very public way.  He created a website (here’s the original) revealing every single detail of the situation and exposing Sasha as a thief.  The site generated TONS of attention.  It spread across the internet like wildfire, being linked on various social media pages and emailed from person to person.  Guttman’s inbox became flooded with messages from followers offering to help, sharing frustration over their own similar experiences, etc.  Sasha refused to budge, so Guttman continued to chronicle the account of the stolen cell phone online, blow by blow .  Sasha’s MySpace account became plastered with angry comments from people following the story.  Several even figured out where she lived and repeatedly drove by her home, yelling “THIEF!!” at her house.  Her reputation was ruined and she was eventually arrested by NYC police.

When I first started reading about this story, I thought- “Huh!  What a genius way to garner interest and support toward a shared goal.”  Especially since Sasha does not seem like a very endearing kind of person.  As the saga progressed, however, I realized how incredibly invasive this all must have been for her and her family.  No, she shouldn’t have taken a cell phone and refused to give it back.  And no, she shouldn’t have exhibited such a antagonistic attitude when asked to return it.  But did she deserve public humiliation?  Did she deserve harassment?  It seems there are divided camps on this issue– some people believe that Sasha got what she had coming to her and that Guttman was exercising his basic rights as a citizen and an internet user.  Others feel he crossed a line.

Before I share my own opinion, what do you think?

ADLT 641: Here Comes Everybody


As my ADLT 641 colleagues know, I am currently reading Clay Shirky’s “fascinating survey of the digital age”- Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.  I was initially attracted to this book for a few reasons.  First, Shirky’s website describes his work in one succinct (but awesome) sentence:  “I study the effects of the internet on society”.  For those of you who have been following my previous blog posts, you’re probably aware that this is an area of keen interest for me.  The digital age is absolutely changing how we think, behave, and interact with one another, and I want to explore this phenomenon.  Second, I was intrigued by the subtitle.  As an HRD masters student pretty well-versed in organizational development and change, this is a concept I feel I need to learn more about.  How do we organize without organizations?  Finally, Shirky has a lot to say about group behavior and how people come together to work toward common goals.  Understanding group dynamics and collaboration is extremely important to me as an HRD practitioner and adult learning specialist.


SO!  I would like to use my blog as a means of reflecting on what I’m reading.  I hope to make connections between Shirky’s work and my own experiences, particularly in the field of human resource development.  I also want to encourage dialogue around these blogs, as I am very interested in hearing your own thoughts and connections.  I hope that we will be able to engage in a rich conversation about how digital media is changing the world as we know it.


Stay tuned for more to come…  🙂  And, in the meantime, please enjoy this TED talk featuring Shirky discussing the implications of “cognitive surplus”.