Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

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Read Clay Shirky's posts on the Penguin Blog.

A revelatory examination of how the wildfirelike spread of new forms of social interaction enabled by technology is changing the way humans form groups and exist within them, with profound long-term economic and social effects-for good and for ill
A handful of kite hobbyists scattered around the world find each other online and collaborate on the most radical improvement in kite design in decades. A...

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Read Clay Shirky's posts on the Penguin Blog.

A revelatory examination of how the wildfirelike spread of new forms of social interaction enabled by technology is changing the way humans form groups and exist within them, with profound long-term economic and social effects-for good and for ill
A handful of kite hobbyists scattered around the world find each other online and collaborate on the most radical improvement in kite design in decades. A midwestern professor of Middle Eastern history starts a blog after 9/11 that becomes essential reading for journalists covering the Iraq war. Activists use the Internet and e-mail to bring offensive comments made by Trent Lott and Don Imus to a wide public and hound them from their positions. A few people find that a world-class online encyclopedia created entirely by volunteers and open for editing by anyone, a wiki, is not an impractical idea. Jihadi groups trade inspiration and instruction and showcase terrorist atrocities to the world, entirely online. A wide group of unrelated people swarms to a Web site about the theft of a cell phone and ultimately goads the New York City police to take action, leading to the culprit's arrest.

With accelerating velocity, our age's new technologies of social networking are evolving, and evolving us, into new groups doing new things in new ways, and old and new groups alike doing the old things better and more easily. You don't have to have a MySpace page to know that the times they are a changin'. Hierarchical structures that exist to manage the work of groups are seeing their raisons d'tre swiftly eroded by the rising technological tide. Business models are being destroyed, transformed, born at dizzying speeds, and the larger social impact is profound.

One of the culture's wisest observers of the transformational power of the new forms of tech-enabled social interaction is Clay Shirky, and Here Comes Everybody is his marvelous reckoning with the ramifications of all this on what we do and who we are. Like Lawrence Lessig on the effect of new technology on regimes of cultural creation, Shirky's assessment of the impact of new technology on the nature and use of groups is marvelously broad minded, lucid, and penetrating; it integrates the views of a number of other thinkers across a broad range of disciplines with his own pioneering work to provide a holistic framework for understanding the opportunities and the threats to the existing order that these new, spontaneous networks of social interaction represent. Wikinomics, yes, but also wikigovernment, wikiculture, wikievery imaginable interest group, including the far from savory. A revolution in social organization has commenced, and Clay Shirky is its brilliant chronicler.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Clear thinking and good writing about big changes." -Stewart Brand "Clay Shirky may be the finest thinker we have on the Internet revolution, but Here Comes Everybody is more than just a technology book; it's an absorbing guide to the future of society itself. Anyone interested in the vitality and influence of groups of human beings -from knitting circles, to political movements, to multinational corporations-needs to read this book." -Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You and Emergence "How do trends emerge and opinions form? The answer used to be something vague about word of mouth, but now it's a highly measurable science, and nobody understands it better than Clay Shirky. In this delightfully readable book, practically every page has an insight that will change the way you think about the new era of social media. Highly recommended." -Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and author of The Long Tail "In story after story, Clay masterfully makes the connections as to why business, society and our lives continue to be transformed by a world of net- enabled social tools. His pattern-matching skills are second to none." -Ray Ozzie, Microsoft Chief Software Architect "Clay has long been one of my favorite thinkers on all things Internet— not only is he smart and articulate, but he's one of those people who is able to crystallize the half-formed ideas that I've been trying to piece together into glittering, brilliant insights that make me think, yes, of course, that's how it all works." —Cory Doctorow, co-editor of Boing Boing and author of Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present.
Publishers Weekly

Blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 accoutrements are revolutionizing the social order, a development that's cause for more excitement than alarm, argues interactive telecommunications professor Shirky. He contextualizes the digital networking age with philosophical, sociological, economic and statistical theories and points to its major successes and failures. Grassroots activism stands among the winners-Belarus's "flash mobs," for example, blog their way to unprecedented antiauthoritarian demonstrations. Likewise, user/contributor-managed Wikipedia raises the bar for production efficiency by throwing traditional corporate hierarchy out the window. Print journalism falters as publishing methods are transformed through the Web. Shirky is at his best deconstructing Web failures like "Wikitorial," the Los Angeles Times's attempt to facilitate group op-ed writing. Readers will appreciate the Gladwellesque lucidity of his assessments on what makes or breaks group efforts online: "Every story in this book relies on the successful fusion of a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users." The sum of Shirky's incisive exploration, like the Web itself, is greater than its parts. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
With newfangled technology like cell-phone photography and Internet bloggery, the course of human events is entering a new epoch, a networking guru informs us. Today, active groups can form where such formations were once impossible, declares Shirky (Interactive Telecommunications Group/NYU). Such modern configurations of power based on the free exchange of information can change society. So toss out all those old organization charts: The Internet, according to the author's facts, figures and theories, offers organization without management, networking without hierarchy. There is no institutional overhead, no cost in failure. Now we can publish before editing, Wikipedia being the prime example. In this new modality, victims of an abusive priest find redress together, stay-at-home moms consult communally, networking terrorists plot evil and anorexic teens confer on ways to starve. Collective action is almost effortless, and evanescent flash-mob events are easy to organize, often to the consternation of authorities. Viral networking can spread like the flu, distant conversation is as simple as pecking on a keyboard and everyone can be a journalist, a publisher, an encyclopedia editor. Shirky, with his illustrative anecdotes, provides back stories for latter-day groupies who log onto Flickr, Meetup, Groklaw and those sometimes fleeting wikis. He clearly applies the theories of power-law distribution and collective action, though as the discussion turns to Coasean Theory or the thoughts of Vilfredo Pareto it leans a bit toward the didactic. All that's needed, says the author, is the promise of a useful outcome, appropriate tools and agreement of participants to afford a platform fornetworking groups, like Archimedes, to move the world. Some wise observations amidst a predominantly old-news text.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Ever since Stewart Brand identified computer technology a revolutionary new tool of social change in the 1960s, pundits have sought to chart the evolving cyber-landscape and its dramatic, often unpredictable effects on society and culture. In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization, Clay Shirky examines recent innovations that enhance, transform, and sometimes even harm networking and group dynamics. Ranging from the distant technological past -- the organization of railroads and the birth of institutional hierarchies -- to the eve-of-publication present (Twitter, one of his prime suspects, was only born during the composition of his study), Shirky builds a strong and exhilarating case for a true sea change in how people now relate to each other and pool their efforts. Anecdotal yet closely reasoned, the book maps how spontaneous assemblies -- from Flickr photo-sharing groups to Wikipedia's collaborations -- are capable of achieving their goals in ways more efficient and egalitarian than provided by old institutions. Without minimizing the potential for pain in the process (?It's not a revolution if nobody loses?), Shirky reaffirms his oft-quoted belief that ?the Internet runs on love? and makes the case that this primal emotion lies at the center of many new Internet phenomena, which are otherwise unexplainable. The author overlooks some developments supportive of his arguments (MUDs, geocaching, and SETI@home all come to mind); moreover, he focuses exclusively on the use of these tools by ordinary citizens. But what happens when the cops or a dictator embraces Twitter? On this, Shirky is lamentably silent. Perhaps he feels the very revolution he so knowledgably limns will self-correctingly deal with such outcomes. --Paul DiFilippo
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143114949
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/24/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 225,123
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Clay Shirky teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he researches the interrelated effects of our social and technological networks. He has consulted with a variety of Fortune 500 companies working on network design, including Nokia, Lego, the BBC, Newscorp, Microsoft, as well as the Library of Congress, the U.S. Navy, and the Libyan government. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, Harvard Business Review, Business 2.0, and Wired, and he is a regular keynote speaker at tech conferences. Mr. Shirky lives in Brooklyn.

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Read an Excerpt

New Leverage for Old Behaviors

Human beings are social creatures—not occasionally or by accident but always. Sociability is one of our lives as both cause and effect. Society is not just the product of its individual members; it is also the product of its constituent groups. The aggregate relations among individuals and groups, among individuals within groups, and among groups forms a network of astonishing complexity. We have always relied on group effort for survival; even before the invention of agriculture, hunting and gathering required coordinate work and division of labor. You can see an echo of our talent for sociability in the language we have for groups; like a real-world version of the mythical seventeen Eskimo words for snow, we use incredibly rich language in describing human association. We can make refined distinctions between a corporation and a congregation, a clique and a club, a crowd and a cabal. We readily understand the difference between transitive labels like "my wife's friend's son" and "my son's friend's wife, " and this relational subtlety permeates our lives. Our social nature even shows up in a negation. One of the most severe punishments that can be meted out to a prisoner is solitary confinement; even in a social environment as harsh and attenuated as prison, complete removal from human contract is harsher still.

Our social life is literally primal, in the sense that chimpanzees and gorillas, our closest relatives among the primates, are also social. (Indeed, among people who design software for group use, human social instincts are sometimes jokingly referred to as the monkey mind.) But humans go further than any of our primate cousins: our groups are larger, more complex, more ordered, and longer lived, and critically, they extend beyond family ties to include categories like friends, neighbors, colleagues, and sometimes even strangers. Our social abilities are also accompanied by high individual intelligence. Even cults, the high-water mark of surrender of individuality to a group, can't hold a candle to a beehive in terms of absolute social integration; this makes us different from creatures whose sociability is more enveloping than ours.

This combination of personal smarts and social intuition makes us the undisputed champions of the animal kingdom in flexibility of collective membership. We act in concert everywhere, from simple tasks like organizing a birthday party 9itself a surprisingly complicated task) to running an organization with thousands or even millions of members. This skill allows groups to tackle tasks that are bigger, more complex, more dispersed, and of longer duration than any person could tackle alone. Building an airplane or a cathedral, performing a symphony or heart surgery, raising a barn or razing a fortress, all require the distribution, specialization, and coordination of many tasks among many individuals, sometimes unfolding over years or decades and sometimes spanning continents.

We are so natively good at group effort that we often factor groups out of our thinking about the world. Many jobs that we regard as the province of a single mind actually require a crowd. Michelangelo had assistants paint part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Thomas Edison, who had over a thousand patents in his name, managed a staff or two dozen. Even writing a book, a famously solitary pursuit, involves the work of editors, publishers, and designers; getting this particular book into your hands involved additional coordination among printers, warehouse managers, truck drivers, and a host of others in the network between me and you. Even if we exclude groups that are just labels for shared characteristics (tall people, redheads), almost everyone belongs to multiple groups based on family, friends, work, religious affiliation, on and on. The centrality of group effort to human life means that anything that changes the way groups function will have profound ramifications for everything from commerce and government to media and religion.

One obvious lesson is that new technology enables new kinds of group-forming. The tools Evan Guttman availed himself of were quite simple—the phone itself, e-mail, a webpage, a discussion forum—but without them the phone would have stayed lost. Every step of the way he was able to escape the usual limitations of private life and to avail himself of capabilities from various professional classes to the general public is epochal, built on what the publisher Tim O'Reilly calls 'an architecture of participation."

When we change the way we communicate, we change society. The tools that a society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life. Though the hive is not part of any individual bee, it is part of the colony, both shaped by and shaping the lives of its inhabitants. The hive is a social device, a piece of bee information technology that provides a platform, literally, for the communication and coordination that keeps the colony or from their shared, co-created environment. So it is with human networks; bee hives, we make mobile phones.

But mere tools aren't enough. The tools are simply a way of channeling existing motivation. Evan was driven, resourceful, and unfortunately for Sasha, very angry. Had he presented his mission in completely self-interested terms ("Help my friend save 4300!") or in unattainably general ones ("Let's fight theft everywhere!"), the tools he chose wouldn't have mattered. What he did was to work out a message framed in big enough terms to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence. (This sweet spot is what Eric Raymond, the theorist of open source software, calls "a plausible promise.") Without a plausible promise, all the technology in the world would be nothing more than all the technology in the world.

As we saw in the saga of the lost Sidekick, getting the free and ready participation of a large, distributed group with a variety of skills—detective work, legal advice, insider information from the police to the army—has gone from impossible to simple. There are many small reasons for this, both technological and social, but they all add up to one big change; forming groups has gotten a lot easier. To put it in economic terms, the costs incurred by creating a new group or joining an existing one have fallen in recent years, and not just by a little bit. They have collapsed. ("Cost" here is used in the economist's sense of anything expended—money, but also time, effort, or attention.) One of the few uncontentious tenets of economics is that people respond to incentives. If you give them more of a reason to do something, they will do more of it, and if you make it easier to do more of something they are already inclined to do, they will also do more of it.

Why do the economics matter, though? In theory, since humans have a gift for mutually beneficial cooperation, we should be able to assemble as needed to take on tasks too big for one person. If this were true, anything that required shared effort—whether policing, road construction, or garbage collection—would simply arise out of the motivations of the individual members. In practice, the difficulties of coordination prevent that from happening. (Why this is so is the subject of the next chapter.)

But there are large groups. Microsoft, the U.S. Army, and the catholic Church are all huge, functioning institutions. The difference between an ad hoc group and a company like Microsoft is management. Rather than waiting for a group to self-assemble to create software, Microsoft manages the labor of its employees. The employees trade freedom for a paycheck, and Microsoft takes the cost of directing and monitoring their output. In addition to the payroll, it pays for everything from communicating between senior management and the workers (one of the raisons d'etre for middle management) to staffing the human resources department to buying desks and chairs. Why does Microsoft, or indeed any institution, tolerate these costs?

They tolerate them because they have to; the alternative is institutional collapse. If you want to organize the work of even dozens of individuals, you have to manage them. As organizations grow into the hundreds or thousands, you also have to manage the managers, and eventually to manage the managers' managers. Simply to exist at that size, an organization has to take on the costs of all that management. Organizations have many ways to offset those costs—Microsoft uses revenues, the army uses taxes, the church uses donations—but they cannot avoid them. In a way, every institution lives in a kind of contradiction: it exists to take advantage of group effort, but some of its resources are drained away by directing that effort. Call this the institutional dilemma—because an institution expends resources to manage resources, there is a gap between what those institutions are capable of in theory and in practice, and the larger the institution, the greater those costs.

Here's where our native talent for group action meets our new tools. Tools that provide simple ways of creating groups lead to new groups, lots of new groups, and not just more groups but more kinds of groups. We've already seen this effect in the tools that Evan used—a webpage for communicating with the world, instant messages and e-mails by the thousands among his readers, and the phone itself, increasingly capable of sending messages and pictures to groups of people, not just to a single recipient (the historical pattern of phone use).

If we're so good at social life and shared effort, what advantages are these tools creating? A revolution in human affairs is a pretty grandiose thing to attribute to a ragtag bunch of tools like email and mobile phones. E-mail is nice, but how big a deal can it be in the grand scheme of things? The answer is, "Not such a big deal, considered by itself." The trick is not to consider it by itself. All the technologies we see in the story of Ivanna's phone, the phones and computers, the e-mail and instant messages, and the web pages, are manifestations of a more fundamental shift. We now have communications tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change. These communications tools have been given many names, all variations on a theme: "social software," "social media," "social computing," and so on. Though there are some distinctions between these labels, the core idea is the same: we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations. Though many of these social tools were first adopted by computer scientists and workers in high-tech industries, they have spread beyond academic and corporate settings. The effects are going to be far more widespread and momentous than just recovering lost phones.

By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management (and its attendant overhead), these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort (the limits that created the institutional dilemma in the first place). They haven't removed them entirely—issues of complexity still loom large, as we will see—but the new tools enable alternate strategies for keeping that complexity under control. And as we would expect, when desire is high and costs have collapsed, the number of such groups is skyrocketing, and the kinds of effects they are having on the world are spreading.

The Tectonic Shift

For most of modern life, our strong talents and desires for group effort have been filtered through relatively rigid institutional structures because of the complexity of managing groups. We haven't had all the groups we've wanted, we've simply had all the groups we could afford. The old limits of what unmanaged and unpaid groups can do are no longer in operation; the difficulties that kept self-assembled groups from working together are shrinking, meaning that the number and kinds of things groups can get done without financial motivation or managerial oversight are growing. The current change, in one sentence, is this: most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without those barriers, we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done.

George W.S. Trow, writing about the social effects of television in Within the Context of No Context, described a world of simultaneous continuity and discontinuity:

Everyone knows, or ought to know, that there has happened under us a Tectonic Plate Shift […;] the political parties still have the same names; we still have a CBS, and NBC, and a New York Times; but we are not the same nation that had those things before.

Something similar is happening today, with newer tools. Most of the institutions we had last year we will have next year. In the past the hold of those institutions on public life was irreplaceable, in part because there was no alternative to managing large-scale effort. Now that there is competition to traditional institutional forms for getting things done, those institutions will continue to exist, but their purchase on modern life will weaken as novel alternatives for group action arise.

This is not to say that corporations and governments are going to wither away. Though some of the early utopianism around new communications tools suggested that we were heading into some sort of post-hierarchical paradise, that's not what's happening now, and it's not what's going to happen. None of the absolute advantages of institutions like businesses or schools or governments have disappeared. Instead, what has happened is that most of the relative advantages of those institutions have disappeared—relative, that is, to the direct effort of the people they represent. We can see signs of this in many places: the music industry, for one, is still reeling from the discovery that the reproduction and distribution of music, previously a valuable service, is now something their customers can do for themselves. The Belarusian government is trying to figure out how to keep its young people from generating spontaneous political protests. The catholic Church is facing its first prolonged challenge from self-organized lay groups in its history. But these stories and countless others aren't just about something happening to particular business or governments or religions. They are also about something happening to the world.

Group action gives human society its particular character, and anything that changes the way groups get things done will affect society as a whole. This change will not be limited to any particular set of institutions or functions. For any given organization, the important questions are 'When will the change happen?" and "What will change?" The only two answers we can rule out are never, and nothing. The ways in which any given institution will find its situation transformed will vary, but the various local changes are manifestations of a single deep source: newly capable groups are assembling, and they are working without the managerial imperative and outside the previous strictures that bounded their effectiveness. These changes will transform the world everywhere groups of people come together to accomplish something, which is to say everywhere.

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Interviews & Essays

According to media columnist Michael Wolff, the name Clay Shirky is "now uttered in technology circles with the kind of reverence with which left-wingers used to say, ?Herbert Marcuse'."Wolff is right. Shirky has emerged as a luminary of the new digital intelligentsia, a daringly eclectic thinker as comfortable discussing 15th-century publishing technology as he is making political sense of 21st-century social media.

In his 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody, Shirky imagined a world without traditional economic or political organizations. Two years later and Shirky has a new book, Cognitive Surplus, which imagines something even more daring-a world without television. To celebrate the appearance of the revered futurist's latest volume, we're delighted to share a February discussion between Shirky, Barnes & Noble Review Editor-in-Chief James Mustich, and BNR contributor Andrew Keen. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation about the future of the book, of the reader and the writer, and, most intriguingly, the future of intimacy.

James Mustich: Clay, I was very taken with that post you wrote about the early days of the Gutenberg revolution.

Clay Shirky: Oh, yes. Eisenstein's book.

JM: Right. It had a very insightful historical perspective that's generally lacking in conversations about today's publishing turmoil. You also had an interesting piece at recently, about how publishing is the new literacy. You said, "It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race-a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity."

Andrew Keen: This idea of publishing as "the new literacy" sounds like a sexy, kind of Twitter remark, but what actually does that mean?

CS: We have this whole complex of words, "publish," "publisher," "publicity," "publicist," that all refer to either jobs or the work of making things public. Because it used to be incredibly difficult, complicated, and expensive to simply put material into the public sphere, and now it's not. So I'm comparing it to literacy-literacy used to be reserved for a specialist class prior to the printing press, and, much more importantly, prior to the spread of publishers and the rise of a real publishing industry.

AK: What do you mean by "reserved"?

CS: That it was reserved for a professional class. There was no point in educating people to read and write who weren't also going to have access to books, and the people who had access to books were generally in centers of learning or churches. You couldn't have mass literacy without also mass availability of things to read, which didn't happen until after Gutenberg. So literacy went through this curious transition where it became more critical to society, and you could no longer make a living just by the ability to read and write.So when I say "publishing is the new literacy," I don't mean there's no role for curation, for improving material, for editing material, for fact-checking material. I mean literally, the act of putting something out in public used to be reserved in the same way. You used to have to own a radio tower or television tower or printing press. Now all you have to have is access to an internet caf? or a public library, and you can put your thoughts out in public. So what happened to literacy in the 1600, 1700 and 1800s is that it went from being reserved for a specialist class to being a general feature of the middle class. The same thing is happening to publishing-the ability to put something out in public is becoming more important to society, but the delta between "I can put something out in public" and "I can't put something out in public" is no longer so great that you can automatically make money simply by having access to the means of publication.

AK: Is that change technological or cultural?

CS: Well, it's a technological change whose ramifications are mostly cultural, and culture is I think lagging the technology, as it often does, because the raw capability isn't what changes society. As I put it in Here Comes Everybody, "society doesn't change when people adopt new tools; it changes when people adopt new behaviors." So in the 1990s, we had a population of some tens of millions of people in this country who had access to online material, but that wasn't yet the majority of the popularity. More importantly, those people hadn't yet fully formed behaviors around what was possible digitally. Now, having gone through the first decade in which digital freedom was a normal part of life for more than half the country, we're seeing the cultural change that comes about as a result of the technological change. So the ability to publish, the ability to put things in public no matter who you are, as long as you have access to, again, a public library or an internet caf?-that's a technological change. But the change in perception and reaction to what gets published and why, that's the cultural change.

JM: What interests me in what you wrote about the printing press, and the immediate changes its advent provoked, is how unclear the effect of its influence was to those subject to it at the time. Today, in the throes of another massive technological change, we're trying to see very clearly what's happening, and part of the point of your piece is that we can't see it either, because we don't know what the behaviors are going to be that are engendered by the technology. But as a book guy, what I have often looked at is how much the book publishing industry defines the situation only in the context of its very recent history. . .

CS: Yes, right. Absolutely.

JM: . . . which makes them think of content in terms of these finished products, books; that's the only way people get information, or the only way creative work gets to people. But those products in that form are really consequences of industrial organization, or management decisions made in the very recent past. If you look back to the 19th century or before that, printed creative work was much more dynamic. It came about in pieces, then it was collected in books. Very few people were sitting down and writing books the way they do now.

CS: A whole book, right. Dickens was paid by the word in newspapers, and then Pickwick Papers came out of the assembly of that work.

JM: Exactly. It seems to me that what we're seeing is, in some ways, that technology is allowing us to go backward to a more dynamic kind of form of communication of these works. I'm wondering if you've given any thought to that, and what that thought might be.

CS: One of the problems with any kind of talking about the media landscape is that we've just been through an unusually stable period in which, for fifty years, English language media was centered in three cities-London, New York, and Los Angeles-around a very stable group of people working in a relatively stable set of media. This is the media landscape where getting your television in through a wire rather than through the air constitutes a revolution. That was a really big deal. Cable was supposed to be a huge change. And indeed it was, within the context of television, a large change. It's just that now we're actually dealing with a change that's a shock across the whole environment. I have this theory. I call it the Russia-Poland Theory. Which is: one of the reasons Poland did better than Russia after the collapse of Communism is they'd only had one generation under the Communists, so there were still people who could remember that it had been different. Whereas, under Russia, no one alive remembered what life was like in 1916. When people go through two generations of stability, it's easy enough to adopt an attitude that it has always been this way. So for somebody entering the book publishing business in, say, the year 2000, some 23-year-old just out of school, it has ALWAYS been this way. No one in the publishing industry has known anything but the postwar landscape. What you get when a situation like that happens is that one word comes to stand in for a business, a production method, a product, a cultural signifier-the whole range of it is all compacted into that single thing. You can see it really clearly with television. You go to the store to buy a television, and then you come home and you watch some television. But the television you buy isn't the television you watch, and the television you watch isn't the television you buy. We use the same word to refer to the object and the content flow, and nobody gets confused because we all know what television is. Now all of a sudden, we have video spilling out of phones and personal computers, and the question "Is that television?" becomes really complicated. To books specifically: books are a considered form of long-form writing. They're a physical product, and then, as you say as "a book guy"-there are book guys, right? There are people who live their whole lives in the context of producing this long-form writing and turning it into those physical objects. And all that stuff is coming apart.

AK: But books are Russia. Not Poland.

CS: Yes, books are Russia, no Poland. That's exactly right.

AK: Whereas you could argue television or the music business is more like Poland. They're all relatively new. Whereas the book business is much older.

CS: You're right. The book business is, in this metaphor, Russia, which is to say the stability of the book business predates the Second World War. In fact, you read all this stuff about the rise of paperbacks, mass market paperbacks in the 1950s-people were freaking out that it didn't have a hard cover. That constituted a revolution in books. But what we're dealing with now, I think, is the ramification of having long-form writing not necessarily meaning physical objects, not necessarily meaning commissioning editors and publishers in the manner of making those physical objects, and not meaning any of the sales channels or the preexisting ways of producing cultural focus. This is really clear to me as someone who writes and publishes both on a weblog and books. There are certain channels of conversation in this society that you can only get into if you have written a book. Terry Gross has never met anyone in her life who has not JUST published a book. Right?

JM: [LAUGHS] Right.

CS: It's like every judge thinking that criminals dress in blue suits all day long. Terry Gross' experience is only talking to people who have just written books.

AK: Why does Terry Gross only talk to the traditional author?

CS: I think because the cost of writing a book is very large. Someone has committed a lot of time to it. They've put a lot of their thinking into it. But also, a whole bunch of other people who have significant amounts of capital on the line have said, "This is worth publishing." They've either said it in the context of the academic press, which says, "This will redound to our credit," or they've said it in the context of the commercial press, which says, "Revenues will exceed expenses." We use the phrase "self-published author" to mean "vaguely suspect." Right? Or take painters. Anyone can be a painter, but the question is then, "Have you ever had a show; have you ever had a solo show?" People are always looking for these high-cost signals from other people that this is worthwhile. That I think is one of the big changes in book culture, that it used to be a pretty safe way to say, "I'm talking to the people who I should be talking to if I'm talking to the people who've written books about the subject," and now that is less the case for two reasons. For one, the book world is opening up-the maw of production of the book world is opening up-the iUniverses and so forth of the world. Getting a physical object no longer means somebody else took a big economic flyer on it. At the same time, more thoughtful long-form writing is happening outside of the traditional publishing industry. So the old rough-and-ready, "I'm vetting for quality by only talking to authors of books" model is suddenly up in the air. Books are less valuable as signifiers, and people who you ought to be talking to, some of them don't write books.

AK: One example of this type of new author is Andrew Sullivan. He is a classic 19th-century guy who now is in the 21st century, who has decided that the long-form world doesn't work. But he is a star of both the old and the new world. He actually proves that the arguments about elitism of the old world are in some ways just as relevant in the new world.

CS: You said to me on Twitter the other day, "Oh, you're secretly an elitist." I remember thinking I'm actually, I think, kind of openly an elitist.

AK: You've said it now. That's the end of your career (LAUGHS)

CS: That's the end, right (LAUGHS). I've always adopted the Bill Burroughs mantra, which is, "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly." Which is to say that if there is any intrinsic value in writing or expressing yourself or taking a photo, it's worth doing even if the results are mediocre. Whenever the production maw has opened more widely, whether it's cheap photography or it's weblogs, the average quality falls. The average quality of a piece of writing is now lower because the denominator has exploded. The question becomes how do you find the good stuff in this much larger group. I am not somebody who believes everyone is equally talented; talent remains unequally distributed. What's interesting now is that the old gatekeepers for identifying, anointing, and promoting talent are different in this generation than they were previously. There's an interesting natural experiment going on around this very question of elitism with Nick Denton's Gawker empire. Denton is the person who discovers Elizabeth Spiers. Denton hires Anna Marie Cox. He finds this great group of early writers, who then all get picked up by traditional media and switch jobs, because whatever else you can say about the platform for Gawker weblogs, they don't pay that well. So all of a sudden, Nick is now the recruiter for traditional media. And the question becomes: is there a large enough, an unlimited enough talent pool that Nick can do that 100 times in a row? It doesn't matter how many times mainstream media recruits these people away from him, because he can always find somebody else-or, is he going to run out of the talent pool, and end up just being a recruiter. We don't know how widely distributed the talent that he relies on is; if there are only ten writers as good as Cox, he's got a problem. If there's a hundred writers as good as that on that subject, then instead it's the mass media that has a problem. If it turns out that the medium can't employ everyone who's talented, the supply and demand equation switches, and the premium you get for talent actually turns out to be a premium for talent plus happening to have the microphone in your hand. We don't know yet. Plainly, supply is larger than the current available slots in the mass media. But we don't know if it's 10 times larger, at which point we see a rebalancing, or if it's 100 times larger, at which point we really see a restructuring.

AK: Can we go back to the book? It occurs to me that one of the reasons the traditional book lasted so long-one of the reasons it was Russia-is that the form and the function went very well together, and the book was a great way of tracking talent. Take the birth of the 19th-century novel, which is the classic way of putting together a finished product, which then the Industrial Revolution was able to polish and distribute. So when Poland went, it wasn't so dramatic. But when Russia goes, it's going to be really dramatic. We haven't even seen the beginning in the book revolution, have we?

CS: I think we are literally just seeing the beginning now. Just yesterday, Google says "Our negotiating position vis-?-vis the publishers has changed dramatically in the last 30 days." Google has been doing this stuff quietly, one way or another, since 2005-Google Scholar, Google Books, digitization, negotiating digital rights, and so forth. It was because they were essentially going to be the second entrant in a monopolistic environment largely dominated by Amazon. The rise of the iPad and the at least not completely accidental renegotiation of the MacMillan-Amazon relationship at the same time has meant that supply and demand are more nearly balanced now, and that the publishers have greater leverage to use that platform. That is a two-edged sword, which is to say that the ability to engage in price competition with one another cuts both ways in a digital environment because the marginal cost of distribution is still zero. But I think that the last 60 days are the beginning of the real change. I've got a book coming out in June. The first one, I signed -- I started the proposal in 2005, started to work on it in 2006, finished it in 2007, it came out at the beginning of 2008. So I'm sitting down at the beginning of 2010, almost two years to the day since the previous one came out...well, it's actually 2? years since I was having these kinds of conversations, and in that 2? years the eBook has gone from being an afterthought, "let's try it if we can," to an absolutely normal part of the process.

AK: What is the book, and who is publishing it?

CS: Oh, it's Penguin Group. It's currently called Cognitive Surplus, and it's about being able to treat people's free time as an aggregate rather than as a series of individual silos.

AK: Ok. But digitalizing a book doesn't change anything about it in grand historical terms, does it?

CS: I think it does, because it puts it into an ecosystem where more people have access to more books. The digitizing of a book adds to searchability, it adds to portability, it adds to...

AK: Searchability?

CS: Search is essentially the current model of information-finding, where the old model of was you go to the library and they tell you that you have to know what database you're looking in before you look. That's fine when there are 500 databases, maybe, and someone can help me decide. But when there's an unlimited number of data sources, search becomes the intellectual model of the age. I remember knowing when I'd switched over to thinking digitally when I picked up a copy of Naked Lunch, and I wanted to find a little passage called "Hauser and O'Brien," about two cops in New York City. I realized, "I can't search for that." I had to remember that it was about three-quarters of the way through the book, and I can kind of vaguely remember it was midway on the right-hand page or something. That experience of not being able to recapture what you've done before is one of the great infelicities of the book world, and I think it's especially frustrating to people with nonfiction when there is a particular point they want to go back to. The other thing it does, though-which is good or bad, depending on your taste-is it encourages the ability to skip ahead to the parts they want to read. I mean, nonfiction books are going to be transformed, I think, much more dramatically than fiction, precisely because their utility means that people are going to essentially disassemble them mentally even if they're sold as a single package. So to your point about Dickens being assembled in the book after having been created in this disassembled way, we may potentially be seeing something like that on the demand side, which is: I'd like to be able to take this nonfiction book and take it apart again, and preserve or flag the parts I'm going to refer to continually.

JM: That's an interesting idea for me, because we're not just talking about the object, Because the book shaped our model of knowledge: when the index was invented in the 12th century, that made a book a certain kind or ordered thing, and it led to three centuries of Scholasticism-the whole university system where knowledge was contained in these ordered things and could be found in these books by looking a certain way. And all the content to come was shaped by this intellectual etiquette, if you will. What's important about digitalization, when the model is search instead of an alphabetical index, is that it changes what one's model of knowledge is.

CS: Right.

JM: Which is really the subtext of Here Comes Everybody-that there is a different way of apprehending the world now because of this.

CS: Yes. I think one of the ways of apprehending the world that's actually showing up already in the academy is the so-called "one-box search," where you don't have to say, "This is the database I'm looking in." One-box search privileges interdisciplinary work. Because if I search for a particular string or phrase, I am suddenly getting back results from psychology, sociology, economics, political science-all in the same search query. Disciplinary boundaries are just assaulted, rather than doubled down; if I have to know the database before I search it, then to become a good political scientist I have to know which journals are relevant.

AK: Do you think that that's one of the reasons why you've been intellectually successful, because you cross boundaries so naturally? You started life as a creative artist. You've been a technologist, a theorist...

CS: I'm not sure that I've gotten to the level of theory. In the academy, there's a pretty rigid definition.

AK: But, in a recent Vanity Fair piece, Michael Wolff referred to you as the Marcuse of the early 21st century.

CS: [LAUGHS] That's on my to-read list. I haven't read it yet.

AK: So you're in high company now. You're the Frankfurt School 2.0.

CS: I will tell my wife, who is a political philosopher. She'll be tickled. But certainly, there are revolutions in which people's principal skill is not being afraid of what they don't understand. These people do well in revolutionary times. I jumped into this not because I was good at it, but because I didn't have much to lose. That will give way-in fact, it even is giving way now. I started doing this in a day when you had to understand something about how the Internet works just to use it. Literally. There was no web, there was no graphic interface or anything like that. You had to understand something about the plumbing just to go to the bathroom. It's like having to know how your car started to own a car. Those days are long gone. In fact, some of the interesting commentary on the iPad considers it as a new model for how little you have to know about your computer in order to get it to do what you want to do.

AK: Which is why the techies don't like it.

CS: Exactly! But I do think that early on in any revolution, people who are comfortable operating without strong disciplinary boundaries are liable to do well, just because nobody knows where the next good idea is going to come from. Louis Menand just put four of his essays in a very interesting book on higher education. It's clear that disciplinary boundaries are a response to the profusion of knowledge; that response says, "This is where psychology ends and sociology begins, and if you cross the hall, you're operating in their discipline and not ours, and they have different choices." These kinds of boundaries become really significant in two different areas. They become significant intellectually, and they also become significant for the development of things like tenure. So the really mundane-"This is how the profession works, recognizes quality and promotes itself"-and also-"This is the intellectual output that's consumed by society and shapes people's ideas" and so forth-all get bound together tightly, and nobody inside the system can really imagine a change. I think one of the other questions right now arises because we've plainly lowered the threshold of disciplinary boundaries in the early days of this change, because there are so many inputs. There are people who are willing to dive in and try stuff and are getting things done. But as people get better at things, we are starting to see the return of some kind of discipline-people specializing in different aspects of the service. At Google there are people who do nothing but optimize the file system all day long. So it's not just service side and client side. It's really, really specialized. But are the disciplinary models of the new medium going to be more like a network or are they going to be more like a series of silos? I'm going to bet on the network model, which is to say it's likelier that disciplines in the world we're entering are going to have not so much a canon that says, "This is the edge of what's important," so much as, "This is the core of what we're interested in wherever the currents come from." There is still going to be a strong difference between psychology and sociology at the center of those two professions-a concentration on individual thinking versus a concentration on group dynamics. But I think there's going to be less of a sharp edge between them, and I think there will be more people-or really, probably, more pairs or groups of people-who are doing and publishing research that crosses that boundary back and forth.

AK: When it comes to books, though, one of the big traditional boundaries is between fiction and nonfiction. Do you think that that's done away with?

CS: Ah. The James Frey problem.

AK: Yes. But as the book becomes alive, and the novelists can write more factually...

JM: I'm not sure that this concern isn't a very recent development as well, created by the industry to shelve books in bookstores and to disseminate books in the trade, and then inflated to another kind of discussion?

CS: Look at the difference between how a library shelves books, how serious fiction as a category exists in bookstores but not in libraries.

JM: If we go back to Dickens again, there's a combination journalistic and storytelling impulses. Our obsession with whether a memoir is true or a novel is based on real events-in any interview you hear with a novelist, the interviewer is general asking again and again the same question of the author: "Did this really happen to you?" We don't-we can't-observe those boundaries in our imaginative lives as clearly as the industry or the media does, or wants to.

CS: There was this moment when Oprah got called out on the James Frey thing-in what must in retrospect have been a moment of absent-mindedness, she told her audience the truth, and she said something like, Look, if it's out in the public eye, it's been massaged. Anyone telling a story is telling a story. There is no such thing as unmediated expression, there is no direct access to truth. Those weren't the words she used, but that was the message, in which she said, essentially, the Frey made you feel something, and your feelings were real, and don't get so hung up on this. Her audience went berserk. And because they went berserk in an age where they could amplify one another's anger using all the tools we're used to, there was a public relations shitstorm-she was called to task for possibly the only time in her career, or certainly for the most public time in her whole career. If I want to talk about the border between fiction and nonfiction getting erased, I point to Oprah's audience. For the mass of the population, I don't think that we are going to quickly enter a new world in which the truth or falsehood of an assertion is ever thought of in complicated and subtle ways. This may be truer here than it is in Europe. The U.S. is unusual in a lot of cultural ways. People want to know if this really happened to the author. The radio interviewers ask that question over and over again, because the demand for there to be an uncomplicated answer to that question is in no way assuaged by telling them that there isn't an uncomplicated answer.

AK: It's no coincidence that technology enables this kind of intimacy.

CS: Yes, exactly. The ability to invent a persona whose signature can be so managed is possible because there's less face-to-face contact on the Internet, and even less telephone contact, much more digital traces of leaving websites. People didn't just love the Frey memoir because they thought it was true. They loved his memoir because it seemed impossible that it was true, and they were still being told it was true. Augusten Burroughs, same thing. For as long as memoir culture is in its current mode, there's always going to be a premium on a kind of faking it, because those are the books that sell well. It's the stuff that's right on the edge. I remember years ago, a guy I worked with in the theater found a ten-year-old bottle of moonshine in his basement in North Carolina. He said, "I don't know if I should drink this or not." So he called up a friend of his who knew a little bit more about moonshine than he did, and he said, "I found this moonshine; can I drink this?" His friend said, "I'll tell you what. Just pour out a little capsule of it and set it on fire, and if it burns blue, it's fine-drink it. If it burns yellow, don't drink it. If it burns blue with a yellow tip, I'll pay you ten dollars for a glass." That's the memoir, right? If it burns blue with a yellow tip... You can't even believe it's true, but also it's just barely palatable to consume. That's what James Frey and J.T. Leroy and Augusten Burroughs write, these impossible crushing circumstances of their life, after which they acquire a kind of literary ability to tell it as a story. The demand for that is going to remain there. So I think while the line between fiction and nonfiction may be increasingly blurred in practice, I think the public's demand to be told there's a sharp line is unlikely to shift quickly.

AK: Actually, I don't agree with what you said earlier, Clay. I think technology has caught up with culture, rather than the other way around. In this sense, technology now is feeding our appetite for intimacy.

CS: Yeah, that's right. I will agree with Andrew here.

AK: Not for the first time.

CS: Not for the first time. [LAUGHS] One of the things that freaks me out about the music scene is that hip-hop preceded the digital encoding of music. They were doing sampling and remixing and intercutting and mashups-call it whatever you want-with turntables and a microphone. When you hear what Kool DJ Herc or Double Dee and Steinski were doing-insane! Insane stuff you would never try and do with only analog equipment, except that that was all they had. So when digital music came on, it was like gasoline on the fire, because all of a sudden, all the stuff that they'd just barely been able to hold together with two tables and a microphone turned into something that was able to be cut-and-pasted. I guess what I'm saying about technology preceding culture versus culture preceding technology is: when there's deep change, it takes a long time for the culture to catch up. But deep changes never happen without some precursor. Take, for example, the early history of the book. Scholastic culture arose around the book as an object, and it was the automation of the production of that object that Gutenberg was responsible for, not the fact of the original intuition that folded and cut pages were better than rolled parchments. TV, weirdly, created a grid of intimacy among 10 million. You would not think that a medium that reaches 10 million people would have intimacy as its core virtue.

AK: That's why the most valuable TV guys were the late-night talk show hosts whose whole premise, whose whole value was building intimacy with their audience.

CS: There's was a really interesting article in the Atlantic about George Noory, the guy who does a late night show called Coast to Coast, and about exactly this-that late night is when you're reaching people. QVC-Quality Value Convenience-I think that was the original home shopping network. QVC has this long training course to be a phone sales person, because you don't get on, make the sale, and get off. You get on, you talk to the person, you compliment the person. Because what do you know about the caller? That this is a person who is sitting alone at 3:00am. So it's very clear what the value of a phone call is at that point, and it's not just reflected in the transactional value. So I think that Andrew is right in that the desire for intimacy in a largely dissociated environment, coinciding with the decline of social capital, created a demand that made the Internet, again, like gasoline on the fire.

AK: We've talked a little bit about what new books are or might be, but to me a more interesting question is who or what the new author is. Do you want to say something about that?

CS: This is the literacy question again.

JM: It circles back to why it's important that publishing is the new literacy. What strikes me is that, if you look at other periods of great cross-disciplinary ferment, the early years the Enlightenment, say, you had people who found ways to communicate across disciplines effectively-through pamphlets and international newsletters then, rather than the Internet.

CS: Right.

JM: Your piece, for instance, on Eisenstein, which we got on the web, because you could publish it there easily, is not that different from what Diderot or Melchior Grimm were doing in sending these newsletters back and forth between Germany and France. It's just easier now, and everybody can do it. That's what I was trying to say before about writing being free of the book for a long time before the modern commodity of the book contained it. I'm not talking about the history of the codex and Gutenberg, but of the act of setting something on paper and sending it out into the world without imprisoning it in the book. Self-publishing-publishing as the new literacy-allows that on a massive scale.

CS: Yes. Putting something on paper used to be a way of increasing the number of copies in circulation, and now it's a way of decreasing the number of copies in circulation, by comparison to the digital media. It's interesting. From my point of view, I am a writer but not an author, which is to say I am a person who writes. My introduction to this medium was on Usenet, a medium with no graphic capabilities, and so to have a presence, literally to be there at all, was to write all the time. And I write in a very conversational style. It's not the same style as an essay style. But nevertheless, it's where I learned to write. I should have learned it in college, but alas, instead I learned it on Usenet. There are still people in this city-I went to school with many of them-for whom the kind of Algonquin Club energy of authorship and being a writer and so forth is the aspiration. My sense is there are fewer of them now, fewer 23-year-olds.

AK: You went to Yale, right?

CS: I went to Yale.

AK: Are you saying that you didn't learn to write at Yale? You did theater studies at Yale, right?

CS: Yes.

AK: [LAUGHING] You must have been semi-literate to get in.

CS: [LAUGHS] I was not illiterate prior to applying.

AK: So what do you mean when you say you learned to write on Usenet, having been a Yale grad?

CS: What I mean is that what I wrote at Yale was for an audience of a single person, my professor, and that it was intended to convince him that I knew what I was talking about so he would give me a good grade, rather than being intended to communicate something to him that would convince them to change him mind, or trying to give him a framework for thinking about something. In a way, writing a college paper in its current structure is almost custom-designed to crush in the student the idea of writing as a communicative act, because it feels like a long, highly structured interoffice memo rather than an address to the world. I'll tell you two things I've done here at NYU with the writing my students do for me. One, I assign them write for each other. So they think, "My peers are going to read this and also my professor is going to read this." You'd think they'd be more concerned about me reading it, but the quality goes up when they know their friends are going to read it. The other thing I do, with some of their stuff, is publish it online. I took a whole bunch of papers by my students from a class we did on the effect of the Internet on the 2008 Presidential election, and I just put them in a big folder and put them online. People's reaction to this was: "Oh, I may actually be communicating something; I'd better get it together here." I never had that experience at Yale, not because Yale was not good at teaching writing. In fact, famously, the Daily Themes course is a boot camp for writers essentially. But in my ordinary classes, my experience of writing was that it wasn't a communicative act to people I didn't know.

AK: You're basically saying that the disappearance of privacy might be a good thing for writers. Although I think Proust or certain other confessional writers might disagree with what you say.

CS: Right. The Saint Augustines of the world are always going to need to remove themselves from this. But writing is a big tent. The kind of writing I do has always been designed either to elicit a conversation or to provide some framework for thinking about a problem, and you do that better if you're dealing with people whom you don't know in advance and who may not be inclined to agree with you. Usenet is a much better environment for that, frankly, than the Yale campus.

AK: Let's say some of these kids at NYU grow up to be 21st-century professional authors. Given the kind of training they're getting and the media they're growing up surrounded by, why would they be different as authors from you or me?

CS: First of all, I think we will see fewer authors and more writers. There's this long, long, lonely gap between the 8,000-word New Yorker article and the 80,000-word book. And there are a bunch of interesting things that are about 20,000 words long. In fact, it's gotten to the point where, if you're reviewing a nonfiction book, it's commonplace, if you like it, to assure the readers of the review that this is not just a magazine article inflated to 80,000 words so that it can be sold on the shelves at the bookstore. Which, in a way, is saying there's a bunch of stuff that actually would be better at 20,000 or 25,000 words than at 80,000 words. If that stretch opens up, then I think one of the things we'll see is that an enormous amount of long-form writing that was kind of just pushed past the finish line of 80,000 words is going to revert to 40,000, or 20,000. If I could read an 80,000-word essay by a science writer about a particular branch of science, or a series of 20,000-word essays from scientists working in different disciplines, for anybody except for the best science writers-the people who are actually adding their own thoughts to the mix rather than just concatenating-I'd rather read the essays. The big question for me isn't so much what happens to writers (although I think it's an interesting question), but rather, what happens to the support writers typically get from the publisher? The hard question, I think, is: long-form writing benefits enormously from a second set of eyes, or a second-third-fourth-fifth-sixth set of eyes-a copy editor, proofreader, etc. When I do a book manuscript and hand it over to Penguin, the amount it improves after I'm nominally done with it is astonishing. I can handle a process of going over it and over it and over it to get a 2,500-word essay, like the Eisenstein one, into that sort of form. I can't do it for a book-length manuscript. Yet, once the book moves away from the bottleneck that allows the publisher to charge for the scarcity, which is where the copy editor's fee comes from in the first place, I don't know how writers of the future, at whatever length, take advantage of those capabilities. People often ask me, "Why are you writing a book, given that it gets folded between the pages of dead trees?" And so on. My response to this has been, from the beginning, that I'm not getting edited and copy-edited and fact-checked and legally checked as the price I pay for having my name on the spine of the book-that has really never been a goal of mine. I didn't grow up with that sort of Algonquin Club energy. It's the other way around. Right now, the way you get other people to look at your book and comb through it for inconsistencies and talk about more felicitous phrasing is to agree to publish it. If there was some way to support that ecosystem-the ecosystem of "we are going to make long-form writing better by treating the question of quality and accuracy and felicity as a group effort"-that would work for weblogs, I'd be all over it. I think a lot of people would. One of the things I noticed doing the first book is that you learn a lot of things doing a book that are lessons you can only apply to doing another book. They are really specialized things you do that aren't about the argument you're making, but about being part of the publishing industry. In a way, the notion of authorship retains it power in part because that hazing ritual is still high enough that, once you're on the far side of it, doing another book is the most cost-effective use of your time, because you've already mastered these somewhat arcane skills. To the degree that writing-long-form writing in particular-becomes more broadly produced, I think the question will be reversed: how can we make the skills that publishers have mastered now flow outwards to new forms of long-form writing? That requires new business models that are yet to be on the horizon. And I'm not the business model guy. That to me is the interesting part-not so much what the writers of tomorrow will be like, but rather, what's the ecosystem for improving writing going to be like? Because right now, you're basically either self-published and there's no ecosystem, or you're published by a publisher, and then you get copy-edited and legally edited, and all the rest of it. It's that second set of values that are, in fact, more at risk than the writing itself in the current environment.

AK: Tell us about the new book, Cognitive Surplus. What's it about?

CS: It's about the idea of treating people's free time as an aggregate resource that's used for joint collaborative projects, Wikipedia and Open Source being the two most famous ones. But I'm also interested in things like environmental groups, ride-sharing, the responsible citizens who are a group of kids in Pakistan cleaning up market streets to try to create a broader civic culture-all of these ways of trying to use our new tools to create collective and not just personal value. Whereas the last book, Here Comes Everybody, was just "How did we get here?", Cognitive Surplus is: "We've got this set of capabilities, where are we going?" What's different I think about Cognitive Surplus is saying that the cultural norms that we set now will determine the difference between how much of what we're doing online is essentially self-amusement (mutually created value, and so you get something funny to look at on your coffee break or whatever) versus stuff that really throws off a lot of significant public and civic value. I like lol-cats as much as the next guy, and actually maybe more. But the precious end of the scale, and the end of the scale that's hardest to get going, is the civic value. The book is essentially about why that civic value matters and how to foster it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2014

    After reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, I can say

    After reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky, I can say that Shirky delivered both relatable and informative to readers. One of Shirky’s objectives in writing the book, was to demonstrate the power that technology and motivation have on the organization of groups of people. Every day it’s becoming easier to form connections with mass amounts of people; this is because we have technology at our fingertips that make it cheap, quick and easy to send information and communicate with others. This, in turn, increases our desire to form certain groups based on the type of information we are relaying. Another objective, was to show that there are also dilemmas and problems that groups are faced with when forming. Overall, though, Skirky wanted to illustrate that groups can do a lot of good for the world and ultimately make a difference.
    The readers that this book appeal to are not solely those of a small audience or specialized group. The book reaches out to companies, both big and small, that seek to connect people and the clusters they fall into. It also appeals to journalists, both professional and citizen, who rely on technology to relay news to others. Finally, I believe the book can cater to anyone who has used technology as a social media tool because chances are, they will find much of the content in this book to be not only useful, but familiar. That is why I believe this book will undoubtedly open the eyes of many readers to the power that functioning groups have already had in their own lives.
    Shirky relies heavily on real-life and historical examples to bolster his arguments. One of his main arguments is that in the technology-fueled world we live in today, it’s now easier than ever to self-assemble groups and contribute to a common goal. This argument is supported well by Shirky in the first chapter as he tells the story of a lost Sidekick phone. Through the use of social media, contacts and motivation, Evan was able to retrieve the Sidekick. His situation reached people all over the web who were willing to offer legal advice, detective work and support to ultimately get the phone back to the rightful owner. Shirky is successful in his support of the argument because he stresses how, although a lost or stolen phone is a common occurrence, there are certain factors that make this story unique and ultimately one that works out in the favor of the Sidekick’s owner, Ivanna. Evan was relentless and steadfast in setting up a webpage for the lost phone, opening up a forum for people to discuss the incident and updating his audience along the way. All of this ultimately gave people an incentive to spread the story to others until eventually, it aired on major news networks. This ultimately lead to the NYPD getting involved in retrieving the phone. This story is a prime example of how “We are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations,” (Shirky, 20-21).
    Another main argument of Shirky’s, was that the undertaking of a group can be seen as a three-rung ladder, the rungs being: sharing, collection and cooperative action. All the rungs are “enabled or improved by social activities” (Shirky, 49). Shirky does well to explain the metaphorical example further to show how the rungs are set in order of difficultly. Sharing is the easiest because it requires minimal effort and few demands on those participating. Shirky uses the site Flickr as an example of how people can easily share photos with other people. The next rung on the ladder, collection, is harder than sharing because it takes into account other people’s behaviors. Synchronization must happen with the people in the group. The example that Shirky uses is when there are conversations in the comments section of a YouTube video; many times users will comment negatively towards each other and often veer off topic. This is something any of us YouTube users can relate to first-hand as we scroll through comments that are often eye-roll worthy. The last rung is collaboration and it’s the most difficult because it involves every member of the group to agree and commit to a course of action. This is especially difficult since members will all have individual concerns of their own, yet what will make the group succeed is when everyone comes together in unison and agreement. Overall, Shirky’s use of a simple ladder metaphor makes his ideas easy to comprehend.
    A last argument of Shirky’s, was that all groups will undoubtedly face social dilemmas but in order to succeed, a group must have a promise, a tool and a bargain. The promise is what can be gained by the participants if they engage in whatever activity is being asked of them. “The promise creates the basic desire to participate” (Skirky, 261). Shirky uses the example of Wikipedia, a successful site - much of which is due to the effectiveness of its promise, which is for participants to get the opportunity to contribute something to an article and have it last for others to read. This is an effective example because anyone can browse the Wikipedia site and see firsthand how they, too, can directly contribute to an article.The next step in maintaining a functioning group is to pick the right tool to use. Skirky stresses how technology as a tool in general isn’t enough - it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ deal since there are different tools effective for different jobs. In figuring out which tools should be used for the group of people you are supporting, Shirky states that two questions must be asked, “ ‘Does the group need to be small or large?’ and ‘Does it need to be short-lived or long-lived?’ “(Shirky, 266). Once there is a promise and the right tools, Shirky states that the last step is the bargain. The bargain is difficult because it is “the least explicit aspect and in part because it is the one that users have the biggest hand in creating” (Shirky, 270). An example of a one-sided bargain that Shirky gives, would be when there is a flash mob; the bargain is, if a group of people show up to a designated place at a specific time doing what they are are told to do, then they will receive the desired reaction from the crowd. His use of the flash mob example is effective because it makes us as readers realize that the type of social tool used depends on the purpose and intent of the group being formed.
    Based on Shirky’s arguments and the success of the support he uses for these arguments, I definitely appreciated this book and the messages it conveyed about the power and function of groups today. It wasn’t a dry or mundane read and it kept me interested with the multiple uses of real life examples, current events and anecdotes. In this way, readers of different demographics would definitely be able to make the connection between the ideals presented in the book and the actions they carry out in their own lives. The book also definitely convinced me that the power of groups will only continue to grow since new social tools are being invented continually.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    How social media is revolutionizing everything

    Clay Shirky has a very good grasp of how the internet, and particularly social media, is changing society. It is a revolution no less seismic than the invention of the printing press and it portends a period of chaos as we re-shift to this new reality. Shirky describes the collapsed cost of organization with the additional challenges to any managed organization - business, government or religious. He details the rise of Wikipedia, Blogging, Twitter, Meet-up and other social media and gives examples of how they have changed our collective response to our perceived injustices - from priest sexual abuse to bad airline service. Ultimately, the book is unfinished as the final chapters will not be written for many years yet. Highly recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    Everybody should read it

    Unless you've been living under a rock over the past few years, you would have noticed an explosion in ways that people interact, collaborate and exchange information online. We are probably undergoing the greatest technological shift since the advent of e-mail, and it'd probably hard to grasp all the ramifications that profound new change is heralding. Every year now, or sometimes every month, several new information terms and products enter our collective consciousness, terms like blog, Twitter, Digg, Facebook, MySpace, collaborative filtering, crowdsourcing, online social networking, and many, many others. It becomes harder and harder to keep track of what each one of them means, little less of how to use it or whether to use it at all. Many of them may just be passing fads, but it is hard to deny that put together they are part of some larger trend. However, it may not be so obvious what this trend is all about and one often can't see the forest from all the trees. From that point, Clay Shirky's book "Here Comes Everybody" can be best understood as a field guide that will take you on a guided tour of this new forest and explain its immediate implications for how we live our lives, work or play. It is a very well written book, written in an easy-going journalistic style. It brings forth many real-life stories and case analyses that help with explaining these recent trends. The book is informative without being bogged down in technical jargon. It is also a very gripping read, and once one starts reading it is hard to put down. I would recommend it to everyone who is interested in getting a big picture of where we are headed in terms of collaborative technologies.

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  • Posted January 31, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Everybody should read it

    Unless you've been living under a rock over the past few years, you would have noticed an explosion in ways that people interact, collaborate and exchange information online. We are probably undergoing the greatest technological shift since the advent of e-mail, and it'd probably hard to grasp all the ramifications that profound new change is heralding. Every year now, or sometimes every month, several new information terms and products enter our collective consciousness, terms like blog, Twitter, Digg, Facebook, MySpace, collaborative filtering, crowdsourcing, online social networking, and many, many others. It becomes harder and harder to keep track of what each one of them means, little less of how to use it or whether to use it at all. Many of them may just be passing fads, but it is hard to deny that put together they are part of some larger trend. However, it may not be so obvious what this trend is all about and one often can't see the forest from all the trees. From that point, Clay Shirky's book "Here Comes Everybody" can be best understood as a field guide that will take you on a guided tour of this new forest and explain its immediate implications for how we live our lives, work or play. It is a very well written book, written in an easy-going journalistic style. It brings forth many real-life stories and case analyses that help with explaining these recent trends. The book is informative without being bogged down in technical jargon. It is also a very gripping read, and once one starts reading it is hard to put down. I would recommend it to everyone who is interested in getting a big picture of where we are headed in terms of collaborative technologies.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted December 26, 2009

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