Here Comes Everybody
This reviewer has noticed a tendency for books about the second-generation internet to veer towards "everything about it is great" or "everything about it is terrible", with most falling into the first category. The excluded middle is much less popular; perhaps less profitable. She looks forward to "Net 3.0—Just One of Those Things, y'know".
On the cover at least, Clay Shirky’s book appears to attempt to be not completely about various uses of the internet, but more abstractly about social revolution, the future of involvement, and group action truly becoming a reality. First, this is overdone, and second, it is really about things people have done with computers or mobile phones all connected together. An updated new chapter (for a work first published in 2008) is even required to be appended which partly relates new apps that have taken off since the book was begun not long before. The other thing about the epilogue is that it is there where the author takes the story about a collective action revolution careening off the tracks.
The opening story—an entertaining one about serendipitous online organisation of a surprisingly large pocket of interest to locate a lost/stolen phone, and thus right an injustice—rather shows this up straight away, if only the author would admit it sooner. The truth that "a few years ago [Evan Guttman] wouldn’t have been able to get the story heard" leaves out an obvious addition: ". . . and the next time it happened, nobody was interested any more". This is—of course—a good thing, given a moment's thought about how a world with trigger-happy instant flash mobs, viral web campaigns, and explosive cascades of unverifiable 2.0 content presumed to be true would feel like to live in. This reviewer thinks there would be a lot more caution in tweeting, blogging, wiki-ing and everything else. Anonymity, privacy, and apathy towards the overwhelmingly totally uninteresting, likely go hand in glove.
Nonetheless there are some useful learning points explored. Dredging up Coase's theorem is one of those. Firms, Coase said, spontaneously organise themselves in order to lower transaction costs—because the costs of organisation are lower than the savings made taking certain bargains off the market and internalising them. But "distributed participation" (one phrase used for web2.0-ification) takes an axe to the formerly non-trivial market costs. This results in a host of transactions which were below the Coasean floor (not worth firms doing) becoming feasible outside them (thus avoiding the costs of organising formally as well). This explanation seems to lie at the heart of most successes of the open-source ilk, and of the organisation of mass assemblies via twitter and other techniques. Birthday paradox maths (the naturally occurring structure of human networks, with most people knowing a few others, and some knowing hundreds—such that long distance connections can be made readily and severed only with difficulty) is invoked to help these spontaneous sub-Coasean deals to proliferate. This is real enough and grounded well enough in first principles, that the effects are worth knowing about.
What Shirky seems to pretty much miss is the other, equally first-principles-based, opposing force to group action, this being the incentive to free-ride (AKA not bother) unless any individual can extract more utility for herself than the effort she puts in. And yet this is staring the reader in the face when she gets to the part about the failure of the White Bicycle program tried in Amsterdam, just as it is in chapter one regarding Evan Guttman's personal (mostly non-market) motivation to bring the captor of the missing Sidekick to account. This reviewer suspects that in only a tiny minority of cases is there enough individual will to put collective action into the happy sweet spot of not requiring equitable cost-sharing. Power laws—which are another handy outreach to well-worn theory—kind of point to this being true, via reasoning she won't go into here. But the jump from the power (as it were) of power-law distributions, to the conclusion that incidence of them circumventing collective action problems is very rare, is not made, Of course, if the web2.0 tide has swept enough of the Coasean floor away, then that can still be a whole bunch of stuff, and the manifestations of success (linux, various wikis, and other stories) are worth a celebration or two. But revolution? That may be an acquired taste.