In his recently published book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky argues changes in how we communicate change how we form community. Changes in the technology of communication over the past couple of millennia brought us in the 20th Century to where we could effectively organize thousands of people to accomplish specific tasks by compensating them and by creating hierarchical management system that enabled many small face-to-face groups to integrate into a bigger entity. That birthed the classic institutions of business, government, non-government and nonprofit organizations.
Hierarchies have their drawbacks, however. All organizations have transaction costs for managing people. Organization stops at the point where transaction costs exceed the value derived from the activity. Also hierarchies tend to create control situations that stifle the motivation and creativity of people in the organization and even create dissatisfaction among those they serve. In other words, bureaucracy. At the worst, constituents begin to question whether institutions serve their interests or not.
Shirky maintains that today digital online technology has greatly changed the economics of organizing people. Email (with “Reply to all”), collaboration tools, and social networking systems have radically dropped the transaction cost. The feasible scope of participation in coordinated activity has greatly increased, and forms of concerted action not seen before are becoming commonplace. For example, thousands of photos on specific subjects are aggregated on photo-sharing websites; millions of items of knowledge have been created and edited by non-paid contributors on Wikipedia. These actions happen without formal organization. Even joint actions–the most difficult to coordinate–happen with a speed and economy that’s new.
These developments beg the question: What’s the role of advocacy institutions now? Since, in the 20th Century, it took lots of resources to organize people around a common issue they needed lots of money, lots of paid people, and lots of structure.
Shirky would maintain that’s changing dramatically now. Some people–Millennials especially–see the formality and hierarchy of traditional organizations as getting in the way of their own initiative to represent themselves. The result is that an increasing number of people are circumventing traditional organizations and expressing themselves directly to affect change.
Interestingly, an illustration of this dynamic appeared in today’s NY Times in an article titled “Gay Marriage Ban Inspires New Wave of Activists.”
“We’re doing an end run around the mainstream organizations that run our causes,” said David Craig, a movie producer who is an organizer of Wednesday’s “call in gay” protest. “And the Internet has given us the tool to create these events.”
Indeed, in much the same way a previous generation used phone trees and megaphones, Amy Balliet used Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about protests on Nov. 15 that drew tens of thousands of people in scores of cities and towns across the nation.
Ms. Balliet said the skills she used had been learned in her work at a search-engine marketing firm in Seattle. “I’m good at driving traffic to Web sites; that’s what I do,” said Ms. Balliet, 26, who with a friend, Willow Witte, founded a group called Join the Impact last month.
She added that their impatience with the status quo had played a part. “We said: ‘Why are we going to wait for the organizations to have a protest? They’re going to have to go through all their bureaucracies to get approval. Why don’t we just do it?’ ”
Shirky couldn’t have asked for a better model for his subtitle: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. And traditional organizations…you’re on notice!