Come together, right now….
After reading this chapter, I’m not sure that Shirky’s distinction between collaborative work and collective action is all that clear. In the second chapter, he seems to imply that collaborative work is something that is done primarily by a small group of people, but everyone can help to create something, while collective action seems to be this communal activity that is more characterized by a way of life than what it creates, where the individual is willing to sacrifice him/herself for the group.
In this chapter, the examples of collective action characterized collaborative work that tries to change things rather than create something. His main example is the formation of Voice of the Faithful in response to the 2002 Boston Globe report on the sexual abuse of some priests and the apparent cover up. Once the story was initially published, through the use of e-mail, blogs, etc., the story was able to be heard, not just in Boston, but across the country very quickly. A group formed in response to that scandal and were able to organize and grow at a rate that would have been impossible previously due to the developing ability to transmit information to anyone and to do it quickly. A similar story was published about another priest in 1992 that didn’t gain the traction because of the lack of tools at that time. Voice of the Faithful has become a significant critique of the Catholic Church on this issue, gaining meetings with important people to discuss what can be done to address this problem.
While Voice of the Faithful(VOTF) is a noteworthy cause, I’m not sure it makes the point that Shirky seemed to be making in chapter two. Shirky’s examples in chapter two of collaborative work were a barn raising and potluck dinner. The examples of collective action were the government and unions. If we abide by Shirky’s examples in chapter two, I think that VOTF is a better example of collaborative work, even if there is no tangible thing created. While VOTF works as an agent for change in the Catholic Church, the individuals of the group are not actually sacrificing themselves as individuals for the group. A handful of individuals may find the work of the group that they sacrifice themselves as individuals for the group, but it is likely that those individuals are being paid, and if the group took a strong turn away from what one of those individuals thought was the correct route of action for the group, there is nothing there to keep that individual as a part of the group. It is more similar to a barn raising in that regard. It takes a lot of people to get the barn raised and going, but once it gets going, a small number of people keep it going and use it, while the rest of the group is glad that it is there and what it stands for, although they themselves are not overly active participants in what has been created.
In a previous post, I addressed the concerns I had about the likelihood of the possibility of collective action actually happening in large groups of people who are not connected in the same area. Shirky has not changed those concerns. I’m equating collective action with a type of meaningful community, where you really do put the interests of the group before that of yourself. I think the problem happens when we start to forget that the group is a collection of individuals. While it may legally be a separate entity, and may not rely on any specific individuals to accomplish the goals of the group, it is still a collection of individuals. That collection of individuals must be concerned about the other individuals and also the goals they the individuals have come together to accomplish, to the point where they are willing to personally suffer in order to see these goals accomplished.
I can’t help but think Shirky sees this himself when he ends the chapter talking about how social tools do not create collective action, but merely remove barriers from it happening. In another earlier post, this one on Kierkegaard and technology, and I discussed the role that technology should play in our relationships. Technology can be a great tool for enhancing meaningful relationships and erasing barriers that would have previously been there. For instance, in the next couple weeks, I will get to see my soon-to-be born niece through pictures and video, and maybe even live video chat, within hours of her birth, even though I’m over a thousand miles away. Twenty years ago, I would have had to wait for pictures to arrive in the mail and only get to talk to my brother and sister-in-law on the phone about it. Two hundred years ago, I would have had to wait till the next time I was there to see her. With technology, those relationships can be cultivated in ways that would have been previously impossible. However, if there’s not a meaningful connection already, it is hard for these tools to be used in a way that would cultivate meaningful relationships.
Bringing it back to Shirky, I think a community that embarks on collective action can use these social tools as an additional means to accomplish their goals. However, those communities seem to be small and (at least at one point) localized. Larger groups can come together for collaborative work that continues and develops into a force for change, but if we’re going to have a significant distinction between collaborative work and collective action, I don’t think we can label that force collective action. I am not belittling this kind of group action, but I think Shirky has to settle for something much less forceful than it seems that he wants to demonstrate.