Clay Shirky Here Comes Everybody

The fictional religion Bokononism featured in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, describes an interesting theory of social relations. In this worldview, there are two types of organizations, granfalloons, which are artificially imposed relationships, big bureaucracies such as political parties (because they are big tents) or corporate organization, and karassi, which are naturally-emergent social networks.

Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody

Clay Shirky does not use these terms in his book Here Comes Everybody, but these are concepts he touches on in his exploration of how the Information Age has revolutionized the way people organize. An example of a grandfalloon he references is fans of Everybody Loves Raymond, a show pushed on consumers so that the people who share the experience of watching it will probably have little else in common, because the sample-size is so large and artificial.

On the other hand, a niche interest, like anime, where fans must proactively seek out media (going so far as to import it from Japan and subtitle it themselves), is an idiosyncratic enough hobby that two fans who meet will often have a great deal in common. Two strangers who discover a shared interest in anime are much more likely to form a permanent social connection than two Everybody Loves Raymond fans (Shirkey, 199).

The Internet connects people, not just across immense distances and language barriers, but across time as well, allowing us to maintain asynchronous conversations via e-mail, blogs, and forums. As a result, previously tiny karass-style clubs with interests like Mathematical Knitting, speaking an artificial unambiguous language, or SteamPunk Fashion are forming meganiches (Shirkey, 102), a word that sounds like a total contradiction in a non-WWW context.

This newfound ease of organization is a double-edged sword, however. Before the World Wide Web, I hosted a Bulletin Board System (BBS) on my Commodore 64. People would call my computer with their computer, post messages, trade software, play games, and chat with me or whoever was hanging out in my bedroom. BBSers were a niche, people with widely diverse interests, but united with this common computing hobby, and small enough a group to meet at BBQs and local events, as few users were willing to accept long-distance charges to call computers in other area codes.

Then SysOps (System Operators) started adding “echo” functionality to their boards in the early 1990s. Everything posted to one BBS got copied out to BBSes across the country, and vice versa. Suddenly, conversation threads previously comprising a few dozen users became a cacophony of hundreds.

It was the same information overload most people experience today, and one Merlin Mann describes best:

Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can’t handle that one tiny thing. “What ‘pile’? It’s just a pebble!” (Shirkey, 94)

“Fame is simply an imbalance between inbound and outbound attention,” Shirkey notes (Shirkey, 91), and the Age of Communication has made interpersonal relationship imbalance the standard. Internet “fame” doesn’t always translate into effective results, as we saw with Howard Dean’s 2004 Presidential Campaign. Internet popularity is easy, translating that into a grassroots effort is what’s hard (Shirkey, 222). This is the difference between bridging versus bonding relationships, quantity versus quality.

Traditional media, like newspapers and television, provided quality control for us. The Internet has no built-in content control. The onus is now on us to filter, not on traditional media to filter for us. Spam filters, RSS feeds, and human aggregators assist us, but we still have to figure out who is the human contacting us and who is the bot, what source is factually accurate and which is BS.

Aside from some new anecdotes on flash mobs, the importance of radio in German blitzkriegs, and the formation of controversial online groups such as pro-ana (pro-anorexia), there’s not much new here, and much old territory belabored. I will definitely continue following Shirkey’s brilliant blog and look forward to his future books and observations, but it feels as though Here Comes Everybody was written a few years ago, when these observations would be more ground-breaking, but are now taken for granted. Ironically enough, this period where we take Information Technology for granted, when it becomes a seamless part of us, that is when Shirkey predicts the real revolution will happen.

Related: 2004 ideonexus beta article on Karassi and Grandfalloons in politics.