In the same way that things are winding down with You Are Not a Gadget Thursdays, so too, Here Comes Everybody Fridays are almost over, with less than a month more of these posts. Like You Are Not a Gadget Thursday this week, I’m tackling two chapters in a single post.
“Fitting Our Tools to a Small World”
Shirky’s big idea in this first chapter is that we need to be concerned both bonding capital and bridging capital.
We live in a world that is full of small groups that are closely connected together. In these groups. there are connectors who know people in other small groups. When you meet someone on a plane and find that you know someone in common, it is likely that the person you both know is one of these connectors.
Small groups are held together by intimate connections between all the participants. Shirky calls this bonding capital. The members are bonded together, likely sharing a lot in common with one another.
Larger groups are brought together by bridging capital, such that the small groups are bridged together on a single issue (or a small set of issues). This bridging capital can sometimes form new small groups with bonding captial, but it is likely to be a loose connection between people.
In life, we need to utilize both bonding and bridging capital. Close, personal relationships (or communities) need bonding capital to survive and grow. Professional relationships need bridging capital to thrive and develop. There can be overlap between the two, as some relationships have a little bit of both (or a lot of one and a little of the other). Connectors are likely to share both bonding and bridging capital with those outside their small group.
Shirky talks about how a company requested new ideas from employees and if the employees only discussed it with people in their department (bonding capital), it was almost guaranteed to be a bad idea, as it tended to be too specific to be of help. The good ideas were ones that people across departments discussed (bridging capital). The ideas to help everyone needed to bridge the small groups and consider multiple perspectives, something that bonding capital has difficulty in doing.
However, a utilization was not a guarantee for success. In fact, many ideas, even with a broad perspective of ideas, are failures, which sets up the next chapter.
“Failure for Free”
When failure costs little, there are more opportunities to try different things, with the possibility of a great success in the end.
Shirky sings the praises of open source software in this chapter because of the way that many different things can be tried, and it doesn’t cost anything if they fail. When businesses try something and fail, they must absorb the cost in some way. Things like open source software and MeetUp have very little costs to absorb when things fail. Additionally, there is very little to no overhead, reducing the costs even more.
These organizations are bridged together in an unspoken agreement that leads to cooperation and investment in the project, even if it is small investment. Shirky thinks that in this digital, connected age, these groups have the possibility for longevity because they invite people to try things and fail, knowing that the next time just might work.
The theme in both of these chapters is related to the connectivity of groups and the power of those groups. While these groups definitely lower the cost of failure, they don’t seem to necessarily produce something greater in themselves. Shirky admits as much, as less than 5% of open source software gains 1000 downloads in its lifetime.
I’m drawn more to Google’s 20% approach, encouraging people to work on new ideas, not in groups, but individually, recognizing that if you throw a group of 20 people into a room for 20% of the week, they’re likely to come up with one bad idea between all of them. However, if you have 20 individuals using 20% of their week to come up with ideas, you’re likely to get 20 ideas, making you far more likely to get a good idea from those 20 different ideas, than the one idea that the 20 people put together as a group.
I’m not sure Shirky is saying anything against Google’s 20% time in these chapters. By spreading out the time among individuals, you are lowering the cost of a bad idea, as more people are coming up with more ideas. However, Shirky’s idea in the book is that our social connectedness can do more than individuals can do by themselves. Even his example of Linux seems to fail him with regard to that argument, as he admits that one person had to spearhead it in order to get it going and that a small group of people are doing the vast majority of the work.
As I’ve argued throughout this series, I think that Shirky’s social connected groups work for the refinement and polishing of ideas. However, you still need the creative human persons coming up with the ideas to be refined and polished. Creativity still happens on the individual level, with the group refining and polishing those ideas.