The Efficiency of Collective Action

Reading the better part of half of Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody has provided an interesting number of communication ideas and theories.  Throughout the book, he provides numerous examples that illustrate his points about how the new landscape of communication is changing the game.  There are a couple points that I found particularly compelling.  First, I will discuss the uniqueness of the example from the opening chapter, involving a stolen cellphone.  Secondly, I’ll discuss the idea of collaborative production and the speed at which it and collective action are now taking place.

In the opening chapter of the book, Shirky gives an example of the loss and recovery of an individual’s cellphone.  In summary, a woman left her cell phone in a taxi and an individual picked it up and gave it to his relative.  Eventually, the original owner discovered who had her phone and sent an email requesting it be returned.  After several exchanges, often hostile, it became clear the phone would not be returned.  The original owner’s brother setup a website asking for help.  One thing led to another and it became national news, culminating in the arrest of a 16-year-old girl.  In the end, no charges were pressed and the phone was returned.  The example raises a plethora of questions and ideas.  Initially, we observe the efficiency and power of the “new” Internet communication age.  The swift mobilization provided through new social tools got the NYPD involved and an entire community to recover this phone.  This chapter shows the power to collective action with the new social tools, but also raises some concerns about the future of communication.  Was it fair to the 16-year-old, even though she used poor judgement?  What about people who can’t afford to create a website that mobilizes the masses?  There is still a lot to uncover about the power of the new Internet communication age, and Shirky does an excellent job bringing them to the forefront.

Shirky describes the power of collective action in the opening chapter, but in chapter seven he discusses the increasing speed at which it is happening.  My favorite example is with flash mob protests in Belarus.  Due to the repressive nature of the government, they threatened to crush the protests with force.  What did the people of Belarus do?  They ate ice cream, read books, and smiled.  With the social tools now available, the citizens were able to amass large groups to show up to protest by eating ice cream, reading books, and smiling.  Since the actions are all seemingly harmless, the success is predicated on communicating the purpose of the actions and doing them on a large scale.  When one person is eating ice cream, someone is no longer having a bad day.  When 5,000 people are eating ice cream, a government is having a bad day.  The protests were able to draw large crowds in an extremely short amount of time.  This is a great example of the efficiency and power of new social tools, now we just need to make sure we use them the right way.


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