Here Comes Everybody

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Book: by Clay Shirky. Here Comes Everybody. (2008)


From Wikipedia:

"Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations is a book by Clay Shirky published by Penguin Press in 2008, which evaluates the effect of the Internet on modern group dynamics. The author considers examples such as Wikipedia and MySpace in his analysis. This is the author's sixth book.

The author says the book is about "what happens when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structures".[1]

In the book, Shirky recounts how social tools such as blogging software like WordPress and Twitter, file sharing platforms like Flickr, and online collaboration platforms like Wikipedia support group conversation and group action in a way that previously could only be achieved through institutions. In the same way the printing press increased individual expression, and the telephone increased communications between individuals, Shirky argues that with the advent of online social tools, groups can form without the previous restrictions of time and cost. Shirky observes that:

- "[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."[3]

Online social tools, Shirky argues, allow groups to form around activities 'whose costs are higher than the potential value,'[4] for institutions. Shirky further argues that the successful creation of online groups relies on successful fusion of a, 'plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain for the user.'[5] However, Shirky warns that this system should not be interpreted as a recipe for the successful use of social tools as the interaction between the components is too complex.

Shirky also discusses the possibility of "mass amateurization" that the internet allows.[6] With blogging and photo-sharing websites, anyone can publish an article or photo that they have created. This creates a mass amateurization of journalism and photography, requiring a new definition of what credentials make someone a journalist, photographer, or news reporter. This mass amateurization threatens to change the way news is spread throughout different media outlets." (


Clay Shirky:

"The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be. The linking of symmetrical participation and amateur production makes this period of change remarkable. Symmetrical participation means that once people have the capacity to receive information, they have the capability to send it as well. Owing a television does not give you the ability to make TV shows, but owning a computer means that you can create as well as receive many kinds of content, from the written word through sound and images. Amateur production, the result of all this new capability, means that the category of 'consumer' is now a temporary behavior rather than a permanent identity."—(Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, 107-108) [1]

Other quotes:

  • Page 49: You can think of group undertaking as a kind of ladder of activities, activities that are enabled or improved by social tools. The rungs on the ladder, in order of difficulty, are sharing, cooperation, and collective action. Sharing is one of the three activities that is enhanced through social tools. Sharing creates the fewest demands on the participants.
  • Page 102: Every webpage is a latent community. Each page collects the attention of people interested in its contents, and those people might well be interested in conversing with one another too. In almost all cases the community will remain latent, either because the potential ties are too weak, or because the people looking at the page are separated by too wide a gulf of time, and so on.
  • Page 105: Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring... It's when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen.
  • Page 124-125: Given that everyone now has the tools to contribute equally, you might expect a huge increase in equality of participation. You’d be wrong… There are two big surprises here. The first is that the imbalance is the same shape across a huge number of different kinds of behaviors... The second surprise is that the imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them.
  • Page 215: Small World networks have two characteristics that, when balanced properly, let messages move through the network effectively. The first is that small groups are densely populated… The second… is that large groups are sparsely connected.
  • Page 297: Arguments about whether new forms of sharing or collaboration are, on balance, good or bad reveal more about the speaker than the subject... Society before and after revolution are too different to be readily compared; it’s simple to say that society was transformed by the printing press or the telegraph, but harder to claim that it was made better."


Pat Kane:

"In Clay Shirky's account, the power of the web is that its networks make it "ridiculously easy" to form groups. In the UK, this might sound familiar: the "little platoons" of civil society, as outlined by Smith, Ferguson and Burke in the 18th century. The cheaply printed and distributed pamphlet or journal drove "gentlemen of ideas" to coffee-houses in Edinburgh and London, as a blog forum can enable devotees of a cause to turn up in a front room in Hampstead or Halifax.

What Shirky is claiming as revolutionary is the combination of power and cheapness that social software offers – greatly amplifying our natural desire to create associations. If traditional organisations want to get large groups acting together, they usually need a costly hierarchy of management to orchestrate their thousands, or tens of thousands, of employees. And organisations, particularly commercial ones, will only do those (profitable) things that justify the expense of all that managerial structure.

What the fecund social chaos of the net reveals is that so much group activity can easily happen, if the "transactional costs" of organising it (as the jargon has it) are brought close to zero. Which is exactly what Web 2.0 does. Take the exemplar of this new world, Wikipedia. This extraordinary resource exists because the web allows it: those who have an idealism about education and knowledge (remember the Enlightenment?) can easily come together, mutually monitoring their contributions to a global encyclopedia. They can take their own time, too: when there are no institutional overheads, "you don't have to be efficient, just effective".

However, when the LA Times turned its op-eds into "wikitorials" in 2005 – open to emendation by all – it was an abuse-ridden disaster. Many suppressed voices finally got their chance to rail at editorial pomposity. Wikis work "when people are committed to the outcomes... when they augment community, not replace it". Our social tools, says Shirky without a hint of a blush, "are turning love and care into a renewable building material". If people stopped believing in the Wikipedian ideal, and used its tools for vandalism, "it's unlikely the whole enterprise would survive a week".

Shirky attempts to be as usable as the technology he writes about. He provides the clearest explanation I have yet read of why Microsoft is being challenged by open-source software communities like Linux. In an echo of Beckett's "fail again, fail better", it turns out that the costs of perpetual innovation in open-source are amazingly low. It might look an uneven and erratic process from a Microsoft manager's perspective, but all this perpetual tinkering ("more like accreting a coral reef, than building a car") is enough to produce an operating system immensely cheaper but just as robust as Bill Gates's offering.

Here Comes Everybody has a refreshing interest in activism, rather than yet more digital pabulum for worried CEOs. Shirky is interested in how social software can help human-rights protesters in Belarus, the Philippines or Egypt raise a stink; how it can allow Catholics to protest against Church corruption, or help frequently-stranded flyers demand a bill of consumer rights from aviation behemoths.

He evinces a Tom-Paine-ish belief in the power of informed grassroots democracy, but effectively throws his hands up faced with the flipside of US politics – how these social tools can also "increase the resilience of networked terrorist groups". The spread of the web is like "steering a kayak" in an unstoppable technological stream. "Our principle challenge is not to decide where we want to go but rather to stay upright as we go there." (

Here also a lengthy review by Dave Pollard, at


The Key Argument of the Book

Felix Stalder:

" There are limits to the scale particular forms of organisation can handle efficiently. Ever since the publication of Roland Coase's seminal article ‘The Nature of the Firm’ in 1937, economists and organisational theorists have been analysing the ‘Coasian ceiling’. It indicates the maximum size an organisation can grow to before the costs of managing its internal complexity rise beyond the gains the increased size can offer. At that point, it becomes more efficient to acquire a resource externally (e.g. to buy it) than to produce it internally. This has to do with the relative transaction costs generated by each way of securing that resource. If these costs decline in general (e.g. due to new communication technologies and management techniques) two things can take place. On the one hand, the ceiling rises, meaning large firms can grow even larger without becoming inefficient. On the other hand, small firms are becoming more competitive because they can handle the complexities of larger markets. This decline in transaction costs is a key element in the organisational transformations of the last three decades, creating today's environment where very large global players and relatively small companies can compete in global markets. Yet, a moderate decline does not affect the basic structure of production as being organised through firms and markets.

In 2002, Yochai Benkler was the first to argue that production was no longer bound to the old dichotomy between firms and markets. Rather, a third mode of production had emerged which he called ‘commons-based peer production’.1 Here, the central mode of coordination was neither command (as it is inside the firm) nor price (as it is in the market) but self-assigned volunteer contributions to a common pool of resources. This new mode of production, Benkler points out, relies on the dramatic decline in transaction costs made possible by the internet. Shirky develops this idea into a different direction, by introducing the concept of the ‘Coasian floor’.

Organised efforts underneath this floor are, as Shirky writes,

‘valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way, because the basic and unsheddable costs of being an institution in the first place make those activities not worth pursuing’.

Until recently, life underneath that floor was necessarily small scale because scaling up required building up an organisation and this was prohibitively expensive. Now, and this is Shirky's central claim, even large group efforts are no longer dependent on the existence of a formal organisation with its overheads. Or, as he memorably puts it, ‘we are used to a world where little things happen for love, and big things happen for money. ... Now, though, we can do big things for love’. (

Jean Lievens on the P2P Revolution in Media

Jean Lievens: (quoting extensively from Shirky: for a fuller account see the page Jean Lievens on the P2P Revolution in Media)

"The Internet as a “new” medium is not an extension or an extra platform of the traditional media; it is qualitatively different because it turns the passive media consumer (the couch potato) into an active contributor. People not only like to consume, they also like to contribute and share. The Internet makes this possible. Therefore, we are dealing with a completely new ball game, making former Marxists analyses and demands in relation to this subject quite obsolete.

Parts of these thoughts are literally taken from two books by Clay Shirky’s: “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus’. To avoid too many quotes, I left some of the references out. I mention this here, because I don’t want to appear cleverer than I am. On this subject, Shirky rules...

The Future (or the end) of Journalism (as we know it)

The Web didn’t introduce a new competitor into the old ecosystem; it created a whole new ecosystem. Its future is the mass amateurization of publishing and a shift from ‘why publishing?’ to ‘why not?” This represents a revolution. In the same way that the printing press made the profession of scribes obsolete, the Internet starts to undermine the profession of journalism. The Protestant Reformation was not caused by the invention of the movable type, but it is also true that it was only possible after its invention. In Marxists terms you could argue that technology in and of itself does not provoke social change, but social change becomes only possible if the material conditions, including technology, are in place. The social effects lag behind, sometimes by many decades. Or is Shirky puts it: “Revolution can be a long drawn-out and chaotic process during which the old systems are decaying and get broken, long before new ones become stable.” In that sense, one could easily argue that the revolution started decades ago.

Let’s return to the question of professional journalism. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a journalist is “a person who writes for newspapers or magazines or prepares news to be broadcast on radio or television.” In this version, journalists aren’t journalists unless they work for publishers, and publishers aren’t publishers unless they own the means of production. This definition does not apply to ‘civil journalists’ and bloggers. They are not protected in the same way as professional journalists, who are organized in professional associations and have for instance the formal right to protect their sources. On the other hand, anyone in the world can publish anything anytime on the Web, and the instant it is published, it is globally available and readily findable (thanks to tagging). If anyone can be a publisher, then anyone can be a ‘journalist’. And if anyone can be a journalist, then journalist privilege suddenly becomes a loophole too large to be borne by society (Shirky). Journalistic privilege was based on the scarcity of publishing. Now that scarcity is gone. Just as the printing press threatened the power of the scribes and by extension undermined the monopoly of the Catholic Church in Europe, the Internet is threatening not only the traditional media, but also a lot of the core institutions of capitalist society. Therefore, again, the media battle is shifting to the control over the Internet, as reflected in the fight against SOPA, PIPA and ACTA.

Revolution and Co-evolution

According to Clay Shirky, “communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. The invention of a tool doesn’t create change; it has to have been around long enough that most of society is using it. It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen, and for young people today, our new social tools have passed normal and are heading to ubiquitous, and invisible is coming. We are living in the middle of the largest expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past, and the size and speed of this increase, from under one million participants to over one billion in one generation, makes the change unprecedented, even considered against the background of previous revolutions in communication tools”: the printing press and movable type, the telegraph and telephone, recorded content and the harnessing of radio signals. “Each of those represented a real break with the continuity of the past, because any radical change in our ability to communicate with one another changes society.”

“The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are altered, replaced or destroyed. We are plainly witnessing a restructuring of the media businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences – employees and the world. The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complicated the change will be.”

Finally, the Internet empowers people not only to bypass government and corporations in favour of taking on problems directly, but also bureaucratic labour organisations. To a certain degree, we see this already happening in the Occupy movement." (

More Information

  1. Video presentation by the author: Clay Shirky on Here Comes Everybody
  2. Key concept: Coasean Floor and Ceiling