More is Different

Hey folks. Today Shoshana and I are presenting on Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. As a short preface to our presentation, I just want to share with you guys some questions to think about:

How has social media altered the way in which people organize?

How has the scale of social media structurally altered interpersonal communication?

What sorts of previously unavailable organizing and collaboration has social media enabled?

The book organizes largely around the idea that “More is different,” which is a phrase that recurs several times throughout the first six chapters of the book. Shirky proposes that the mass communication which the internet enables isn’t simply a one-on-one conversation on a much larger scale, but rather a fundamentally different type of communication. Social media has collapsed the way we previously understood organizations to function, both in terms of hierarchy and cost. Shirky is primarily invested in exploring the new types of organizing, communication, and actions which are available when the institutional dilemma (the endless quest to keep your profits higher than your cost) is no longer such a dilemma.

Shirky divides social media-based action into three categories: sharing, collaborative production, and collective action. Sharing is the simplest action, and occurs when people publish material online for others to see (Shirky uses the photo sharing capabilities of Flickr as an example). Collaborative production, not entirely different than a automobile assembly line, happens when people work together on a common product, as in the case of a wikipedia entry. No one person can take credit for the product of the group, but neither is any one person held accountable for its shortcomings. Collective action, the rarest form of social media-based action, occurs when people bind their identities together to work for a common goal. In this case, each individual is bound to the fate of the group and held accountable for its actions, as in the case of unions.

We’re particularly interested in thinking about the (sometimes tenuous) distinction between these three categories, where our own blogging might fit, and what these three categories teach us about blogging. How do we fit blogging and the comparatively small communities of our own blogs into the organizational framework which Shirky provides?

Along these lines, we are also interested in Shirky’s deployment of the word “audience.” He seems to use audience only to refer to a large group of people, and in his fourth chapter, suggests that many smaller blogs don’t have audiences at all, but rather a group of friends that read and discuss them. Is this necessarily a fair assessment of “audience,” and how does such a limited understanding of audience limit Shirky’s argument?

Does Shirky’s argument make any room for accountability on the internet, or does accountability/responsibility dissolve with traditional models of organization?

Finally, we’re interested in several of the dichotomies that Shirky draws (public/private, professional/amateur, audience/writer). Do these distinctions have any use within Shirky’s argument? Does social media dissolve these categories, or does it simply complicate our relationship to them (and also their relationship to each other)?

See you guys in class today!

Will and Shoshana


Edited for a short and deeply embarrassing title mistake.


One Comment on “More is Different”

  1. Moe says:

    I randomly stumbled upon this short piece and I think it’s an interesting read along side Shirky’s book

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