Book review: Social media, collaboration and collective action
by Clay Shirky
(Penguin Books, $17.50, pb.)
Procrastination and laziness wound up getting me connected with an audience of more than 2,100 people.
It was late afternoon. I'd just finishing pulling together a PowerPoint presentation for a talk I was giving first thing the next morning. I wanted to run the slides past some colleagues who were also part of the show. Get their blessing and some honest feedback for last-minute polishing. But the photo-heavy PowerPoint was too big to e-mail.
And I was too lazy to walk down the hall and remember how to work the fax machine, a piece of equipment I hadn't used in about nine years.
So I decided to give SlideShare a shot. I'd just discovered the website, billed as the world's largest community for sharing presentations. You can find information on pretty much any topic, courtesy of PowerPoint and Word files culled from conferences, consultants and resident experts.
I uploaded my PowerPoint presentation to SlideShare and e-mailed the web link to my colleagues. I got an e-mail later that night from the team at SlideShare, congratulating me on being chosen as one of their presentations of the day. The next morning, I discovered that, along with my colleagues, several hundred people had checked out the presentation. And the numbers have kept growing. By last week, a PowerPoint presentation I delivered in person to about 100 people has been viewed 2,170 times online by a worldwide audience. Uploading the presentation to SlideShare took five minutes and didn't cost me a cent.
Author Clay Shirky, an expert on the social and economic effects of the Internet, says social media tools such as SlideShare, Flickr, Wikipedia and Facebook are fundamentally changing the way we get together, get along and get our jobs done.
"When we change the way we communicate, we change society," says Shirky. "A revolution in human affairs is a pretty grandiose thing to attribute to a ragtag bunch of tools like e-mail 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. We now have the communication tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of co-ordinating action that take advantage of that change."
It's getting easier by the minute for like-minded folks to meet, share ideas and information, co-operate, collaborate and take collective action. And we no longer need to rely on traditional institutions and organizations to make it happen and provide managerial oversight. Social media tools are stripping out the complexity associated with managing small and large groups, driving down the costs of getting together and removing barriers to greater collaboration.
Remember life before the Internet? If there was a presentation you wanted to share with a group, you ran off photocopies. Stuffed envelopes. Wrote out addresses. Licked stamps. Walked down to the mailbox. It took a lot of time and effort. Now you can fire off an e-mail with a link to a presentation. Better yet, you can post it on the web and have 2,100 folks find you.
"Our electronic networks are enabling novel forms of collective action, enabling the creation of collaborative groups that are larger and more distributed than at any other time in history. The scope of work that can be done by noninstitutional groups is a profound challenge to the status quo," Shirky says.
The transformations won't happen overnight. But Shirky says they're coming: "The most profound effects of social tools lag their invention by years, because it isn't until they have a critical mass of adopters, adopters who take these tools for granted, that their real effects begin to appear."
So maybe we need to lay off those teens and tweens who are forever texting, tweeting and blogging. They could well be our next generation of innovators, collaborators and community-builders.
Now's also a good time for traditional institutions to start asking what will happen when customers and clients, patients and parishioners, voters, students and employees start connecting, collaborating and taking collective action with or without you. Shirky's book is well worth a very careful read.