Democracy in Internetia

Reviewed by Marshall Poe

The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today’s User-Generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values
by Andrew Keen
Doubleday, 2007, 256 pages.

Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations
by Clay Shirky
Penguin, 2008, 336 pages.

In 1988, I bought a book called High Weirdness by Mail: A Directory of the Fringe—Mad Prophets, Crackpots, Kooks and True Visionaries. The book was something of a cult object among smirking post-hippies, which was what I then aspired to be. It was compiled by “the Reverend Ivan Stang,” head of the “Church of the SubGenius.” Of course, both were fictions. The real Ivan Stang was a businessman named Douglass St. Clair Smith who sold wacky counterculture to college students; the Church of the SubGenius was his vehicle. You won’t be surprised to learn that High Weirdness was published by Random House, a company whose interests are decidedly not countercultural. At the time, I didn’t see the irony in any of this, and ate High Weirdness up like so much hipster candy. Not that I took the book seriously—one can’t really take anything seriously and still remain hip. No, High Weirdness was what I called “bog reading”: stuff you read on the toilet. And “read” isn’t really the right word, either; instead, you leafed through the book, laughing at the random wackiness that filled its pages and reveling in the sense that you were in on something the squares were not.
Though I now put High Weirdness in the category of “pretentious things I thought were cool back when I thought I was cool,” I must confess that the book taught me something important, namely that there were many more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy. I thought I had seen a fair amount of what there was to be seen, at least in the United States. But I was dead wrong. High Weirdness was brimming with tales of invisible groups deeply engaged in the pursuit of the most bizarre things you could possibly imagine; and many that you—or at least I—couldn’t. It just never occurred to me that a group of people would band together for that—whatever that was. But there they were in their hundreds, a huge secret garden of strangeness growing just below the surface of American life. And what was more intriguing, the garden had no walls. Stang promised high weirdness by mail, and he delivered: For the cost of a stamp, I could contact any of the odd groups listed. I could have an epistolary exchange with “mad prophets, crackpots, kooks, and true visionaries,” all at a safe distance. That was somehow exciting.
I sometimes think the Internet is High Weirdness by Mail writ large. The Reverend Stang uncovered a small piece of the invisible world of human variety. The Internet has shone a bright light on the entire sphere. Before the Internet, most of us had no idea that there might be toilet paper critics, rotten fruit collectors, and toenail worshippers walking among us. Now we know that they exist, as do millions upon millions of other eccentrics. Just type “fetish” into any search engine (not at work) and behold the infinite weirdness that is humanity. See anything interesting? Well, it’s your lucky day, because you can easily participate in the fun! Just write a post on the Web site or send an email, and you’re a member of the club. Don’t see the flavor you like? Well, your bonanza continues, because you can set up your own oddball site almost as easily. Sign up with a Web hosting company (some are free), write a Web page (it’s as easy as pie), and watch as people who share your “interests” gather round. Of course, consorting with fetishists can be a nasty business, even if you are one yourself. But don’t worry. The Web provides you with the cloak of anonymity, so you can sit back and watch the rumpus from a safe distance.
Sounds great. But is it? Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody both grapple with this question. Let me begin by saying that both books are excellent. If you want to understand what the Web is doing to you, me, and everyone else, I highly recommend you read them. But you have to read both of them, because they reach diametrically opposed conclusions. This is somewhat disturbing: We would like to think that when two smart people look at the same thing, they will tend to agree on what they think about it. At the very least, we would expect them to reach conclusions that seem to come from the same planet. Instead, it turns out that Clay Shirky is from Mars and Andrew Keen is from Venus.
When the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the classic study Democracy in America, first came to the United States in 1831, he noticed something odd about Americans: they loved to form groups.
Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to distribute books, and to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.
In the Old World, commoners rarely formed such associations. Instead, they relied on the state or the nobility to organize common affairs. Why, Tocqueville wondered, were the Americans such joiners? His answers were democracy and liberty, by which he meant equality of conditions and freedom from overarching control. He believed that democracy gave rise to liberty, and that you couldn’t have one without the other. Together, they constituted the basis of the American propensity to make common cause, of which Tocqueville generally approved.
In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky picks up the story nearly two centuries later. He has also taken a trip to a strange land—let’s call it “Internetia”—and been amazed by the associative propensity of the natives, whom we’ll call “Internetians.”
He observes two things in this regard. First, that the Internetians form groups at a much higher rate than real people in the real world, and that these groups “are larger and more distributed than at any other time in history.” Alas, he never attempts to demonstrate this central claim systematically, though it is at least plausible.
Second, he notes that organizations in Internetia tend to be “flatter” than organizations in the real world, which is to say that the ratio of administrative overhead to productive activity is lower in the former than in the latter. In Internetia, “the loosely affiliated group can accomplish something more efficiently than the institution can.” As a result, no hierarchy develops. There’s just no need for it. Again, Shirky makes no effort to rigorously prove this proposition, but it, too, is reasonable enough.
All of this, according to Shirky, amounts to something of a revolution in human affairs, and, like Tocqueville, he naturally wants to understand how and why it works.
His answer? “Social tools.” These tools, he says, enable us to coordinate “action by loosely structured groups, operating without managerial direction and outside the profit motive.” It’s easy to understand why he chose this term, for things “social” are all the rage in Internetia: “social software,” “social hardware,” and—everyone’s favorite—“social networks.” Nevertheless, it’s an unfortunate choice. When I hear the phrase “social tools,” canapיs and cocktails come to mind. That is certainly not what Shirky means. More importantly, however, the term itself is completely redundant. All of Shirky’s examples of “revolutionary” social tools—cell phones, email, Web sites of various types—are devices that allow people to send, receive, store, and retrieve information at a distance. Yet we already have a word for such things: media. That term, of course, sounds very old hat, but I can see no reason to abandon it simply because it isn’t sexy. After all, a rose is a rose is a rose.
According to Shirky, social tools—in deference, we’ll use his phrase—are responsible for the accelerated pace and unusual patterns of group formation in Internetia. This is because they radically reduce the expense of getting people together in order to do something. Social tools have driven down the “cost of all kinds of group activity—sharing, cooperating, and collective action.” In the real world, coordinating people is relatively expensive for all kinds of reasons: people with certain interests can’t find one another; when they can, they are scattered all over the place; and even when they are concentrated in one area, their activities have to be managed by a central authority. As a result, people in the real world form associations only when the benefit of doing so outweighs the costs of finding, gathering, and administering the group members. Since, in the real world, these costs are high, a lot of groups we might like to form and join simply never get organized. As Shirky correctly points out, “What happens to tasks that aren’t worth the cost of managerial oversight? Until recently, the answer was ‘Those things don’t happen.’” Social tools, therefore, turn once-marginal or non-existent groups into viable entities.
Shirky sensibly divides these groups into three types: First, collectives that share digital items like personal data (MySpace), news (Digg), photographs (Flickr), music (Napster), videos (YouTube), or movies (BitTorrent). Second, groups that pool their labor to create a common digital product like an online encyclopedia (Wikipedia), virtual world (SecondLife), or massive multiplayer game (World of Warcraft). Third, associations that form in cyberspace and then move into the real world in order to achieve a practical goal like meeting people face to face (MeetUp), uncovering a crime (Voice of the Faithful), or getting someone elected (MoveOn). Shirky points out that each type of group is less expensive to form than the one that follows it, i.e., sharing is cheaper than collaboration, and collaboration is cheaper than collective action. This is why sharing sites have a higher participation rate than collaboration sites, and collaboration sites have a higher participation rate than collective-action sites—or so Shirky implies.
This is an excellent theory. It is both parsimonious and powerful. It’s also only half the story. The part Shirky gets—and he gets it very well—is the impact of equality on group formation. Tocqueville argued that Americans were all basically the same in terms of their mental and economic endowments. They were all pretty smart and fairly prosperous. In contrast to France and England, America knew no nobility of the mind or manse. This equality made it easy for Americans to mix, which in turn made it easy for them to form groups. Shirky argues that Internetians are similar. They are all more or less the same in terms of their communicative endowments. They all have Internet connections, which means they all have access to the mighty social tools. “Everyone,” he claims, “is a media outlet.” In contrast to the real world, Internetia has no class of media oligarchs—scribes, printers, television executives—who exercise disproportionate control over the means of communication. It is this equality of powerful communicative means that permits Internetians to join forces so easily.

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