Clay Shirky – Here Comes Everybody


The phrase that pops up repeatedly throughout this book is “more is different.” Shirky’s aim is to demonstrate, through detailed examples, that once technologies become ubiquitous and mundane, they can become tools of revolutionary social behavior. I don’t use ‘revolutionary’ here in one sense only. Shirky provides instances of how Twitter was used to organize flash mobs in protest, and he explains how websites, emails, and blogs were employed by a fired-up group of air passengers in support of the Passenger’s Bill of Rights. Yet, ‘revolutionary’ also means ‘novel’ – ‘different.’ Shirky claims we are in the midst of a “fundamental shift. We now have communication tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change” (20). One of the reasons we have witnessed technology at work in key social situations (another example Shirky offers is the group Voice of the Faithful, which formed in protest of the Catholic Church’s handling of pedophile priests) is because “forming groups has gotten a lot easier” (18) thanks to the ubiquitous use of now mundane technologies like email, blogs, and Twitter.

Additionally, thanks to the low costs associated with using these technologies, the most successful group-forming entities on the Web are such not because of their power to dictate the particulars of group formation, but rather because they act as a gathering spot for coordination among the users themselves. That is, users rather than the company (or host site), entirely control whether a group will form and what its rules will be. More and more, we are witnessing the power of such self-synchronized groups to enact real change in the world. This is part of the fundamental shift in group behavior that mundane technologies coupled with the right promise and the right set of boundaries makes possible.

In this new technologically mediated social environment, people’s roles are constantly in flux, and identity is a function of the capability of whatever tools are available to appropriate. This is the result of the “mass amateurization” movement which blogs, wikis, and podcasts have largely made possible. Shirky writes, “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” (108). However, it is wrong to assume that huge numbers of people are now contributing huge amounts of meaningful content to social media systems. On the contrary, Shirky is careful to point out that all social media behavior is described by roughly similar Power Law Distributions – this curve, which slopes sharply downward from left to right like a playground slide, illustrates that a few people contribute most of the substantive content, while the remaining masses pop in to make small, infrequent contributions. This pattern of unequal participation is repeated all over the Web, from Flickr to Wikipedia. The distribution also tells us that within a small system with few participants, attention can be tightly focused, and conversation can happen among all. Whereas in a larger system, a single or small group of users broadcast content that other users see, but no conversation can happen among all members of the community because the connections are too many.

Quotes & Ideas Pertaining to Interface Design and UX


“On the Web…the arrows of attention are all potentially reciprocal; anyone can point to anyone else, regardless of geography, infrastructure, or other limits” (90).

“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” (102).

“The internet augments real world social life rather than providing an alternative to it. Instead of becoming a separate cyberspace, our electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life” (196).

“Everywher we look, social media makes creativity not just possible but desirable” (311).

“The future belongs to those who take the present for granted” (319).

Promise, tool, bargain (PTB)

Definition: “The promise is the basic ‘why’ for anyone to join or contribute to a group. The tool helps with the ‘how’ [of coordination]…And the bargain sets the rules of the road” (260).

Social Capital

Shirky cites Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone to base his explanation of social capital.


  • “that mysterious but critical set of characteristics of functioning communities” (192); “a set of norms that facilitate cooperation within or among groups” (193).
  • Participation is “the vehicle for creating and sustaining social capital” (193);
  • “that store of behaviors and norms in any large group that lets its members support one another” (222).


  • “When your neighbor walks your dog while you are ill, or the guy behind the counter trusts you to pay him next time, social capital is at work” (192).
  • “The person who teaches learns twice, the persona who answers questions gets an improved reputation in the community, and the overall pattern of distributed and delayed payback—if I take care of you now, someone will take care of me later—is a very practical way of creating…social capital” (258).

“Essential conundrum”: “inclusion implies exclusion” (202). Was it K. Burke who talked about congregation by segregation?

Power of: “One reason the phrase ‘social capital’ is so evocative is that it connotes an increase in power, analogous to financial capital” (222)

“Individuals in groups with more social capital…are better off on a large number of metrics, from health and happiness to earning potential, than those in groups with less social capital. Societies characterized by a high store of social capital overall do better than societies with low social capital on a similarly wide range of measurements, from crime rate to the costs of doing business to economic growth” (192).

Types of:

  • Bonding capital: “an increase in the depth of connections and trust within a relatively homogenous group” (222)
  • Bridging capital: “an increase in connections among relatively heterogeneous groups” (222)
  • Connection to Ronald Burt: Among other things, bridging capital is the force underlying the argument for transdisciplinarity. In “The Social Origins of Good Ideas,” Ronald Burt found that “the highest percentage of good ideas came from people whose contacts were outside their own department.” In other words, “Bridging predicted good ideas; lack of bridging predicted bad ones” (230-31).[2]
  • Example: “an increase in bridging capital would increase the number of people you’d lend [your money] to; an increase in bonding capital would increase the amount of money you’d lend to people already on the list” (222).
  • “Bonding capital tends to be more exclusive and bridging capital more inclusive. In Small World networks, bonding tends to happen within the clusters, while bridging happens between clusters” (224).
  • Application: “The [Howard] Dean [presidential] campaign was great at doing everything a campaign can do with bonding capital—gathering ardent supporters and raising millions in funds—but getting people to vote for the candidate required bridging capital, reaching out to people outside the charmed inner circle” (224). Thus, the failure of Dean’s presidential bid is effectively the story of a failed bid for bridging capital.

My Questions

1. How is Shirky’s idea of “social capital” different from Ronald Burt’s, Althusser’s and Bourdieu’s? How does social capital as a mechanism drive interpellation into the realm of the aesthetic (i.e. Design)?

2. How can Pink’s 6 right-brain aptitudes and Heath & Heath’s SUCCES model be leveraged to find the right mix of Shirky’s “promise, tool, bargain”?

1.  Through an analysis of the promises offered in some of the book’s examples of group action, Shirky notes that what makes a good promise is a “balanced” message; something that sounds “just right”; an idea that’s “modest but interesting.” To me, these sounded like Aristotle’s Golden Mean might have some play in terms of better understanding what makes an interpellative promise.

Come to think of it, bridging capital seems to be a huge underlying current in Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. There, he calls for the democratization of science – the inclusion of the “uninitiated” into the discourse. Similarly, Bruno Latour in Science in Action notes that many scientific discoveries and ‘a ha!’ moments emerge from a scientist discussing work with non-scientists. Bridging capital might also be latent in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I need some quotes here to substantiate all this, but what I’m trying to say is that I see the importance of bridging capital pretty powerfully demonstrated through these writers in the history of science.

~ by ahatter on September 3, 2009.

2 Responses to “Clay Shirky – Here Comes Everybody”

  1. Very elegant blog. Regarding the democratization of science, is it possible that one of the greatest a-ha moments — the discovery of evolution — came about after Darwin was influenced by discussions with the captain of the Beagle and perhaps others on his long voyage. And, isn’t the social capital contract/construct biologically based on our evolution?
    If you a chance, please check out my own review of Shirky’s book: at Navy Reads

  2. In the age of Network Centricity & Cybernetics, Shirky is simply developing systems of control through network topology rather than through discrete organizations or the State.

    Further, I think that Baudrillard would ask if “the world has to have meaning?” As he write in his book, The Perfect Crime:

    “If we could accept this meaninglessness of the world, then we could play with forms, appearances and our impulses, without worrying about their ultimate destination. If there were not this demand for the world to have meaning, there would be no reason to find a general equivalent for it in money [or ‘social capital’]….Do we absolutely have to choose between meaning and non-meaning?”

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