In Shirky’s second chapter, “Sharing Anchors Community”, he develops the role that sharing plays in the self-developed groups and the types of things that are worth trying to accomplish with the removal of typical barriers.
Our traditional management model is that a single individual can only effectively manage so many people and projects, so we tend to get a structure where one person manages ten people who each manage ten people who each manage ten more people and so on and so forth. If any one person has to try to manage every detail, it will fall apart, but this model requires increases in overhead when the organization expands.
One example he gives is the collection of pictures of a parade. Lots of people attend parades, but traditionally, to get a collection of pictures from everyone there would take a lot of coordination and effort in order for this to happen. However, with something like Flickr, people can upload their pictures and put a tag on them, allowing that picture to come up any time someone searches for that tag. With more and more people uploading pictures onto services like Flickr, you can quickly assemble a collection of pictures from an event from multiple people by searching a tag.
There are three types of group undertakings that each involve a different level of commitment. The first is sharing, which is the lightest level of expectations on the participants. You typically put something out that can be accessed by multiple people and let it be.
The second type of action is cooperation, where you work with others, but instead of each person acting independently, in cooperation, the members of the group work with each other. A simple conversation is an example of cooperation, for you can’t have a conversation with someone unwilling to talk. Collaboration falls under this category, as it is cooperation with higher stakes, such that it increases the tension between individual and group goals, while letting no single individual to take credit for the results.
The final level of group action is collective action, where a group of people work for an end such that all individual members are bound by the group decisions. Common examples of collective action are unions and government, where the group acts on behalf of the collection of members, even if not all individual members necessarily agree with the action taken. This level of group action is the most difficult to achieve, as the members must be committed to a shared vision over their own personal desires.
Presently, in social media there are many examples of the first two levels of group action while very few examples of the last. Shirky has an optimism that as more boundaries are lowered, we will see more and more of all three levels of group action.
I personally think Shirky is too optimistic about his assessment of the increase of collective action. It usually is the cost of overhead that keeps sharing and collaboration from happening, and as social media eliminates these costs, sharing and collaboration will almost certainly increase.
Collective action is far more difficult both off-line and on-line. In both situations, people have to be willing to sacrifice their own personal desires for this shared vision, favoring the vision of the group. Additionally, there has to be some incentive to keep people bound to the group. Off-line, in unions or governments, there are severe penalties if you act according to your own desires that are contrary to the decisions made by the group. However, on-line there are not those severe penalties and I’m not sure how there can be severe penalties.
Imagine for a moment a situation where I join a group on Facebook and we all decide to join together to form a group achieving collective action on something we’re all passionate about. We all agree that we’re going to work toward the shared vision we have and abide by the group’s decision, even if we disagree with it. At some point, the group decides that they want to do something that I strongly disagree with, as it comes at great cost to me. Even though I may ultimately agree with the shared vision, I no longer align with the group and simply remove myself from the group. The group members may get upset about it and harass me, sending me messages and writing mean things on my wall, so I block them from my friends list. They continue to harass me unrelentlessly and so I decide to delete my Facebook account. While there is some loss, it is not like being thrown into jail or prohibited from working as are consequences of other forms of collective action.
Now the group could have asked for my bank account number, my address, etc and made me agree when joining that if I left the group that there would be severe penalties. That is a matter of enforcement. If social media grew, they may be able to build those harsh enforcement possibilities into particular groups, but it does not seem like it would be a lowering of overhead costs or barriers. The only way that social media could be able to actually enforce that level of penalty needed in order for collective action to continuously occur is if social media were able to have actual control of our entire life, at which point, we seem to start to lose individual humans.
I’d like to think that Shirky is not optimistically awaiting a time that everything we do is controlled by social media, such that the necessary consequences could be enforced for abandoning collective action. If he finds that collective action through social media to be that important, then Lanier’s critique may apply far more than I thought.