For generations we have functioned in hierarchies, from feudal systems in old England to bosses/managers in present day. The texture of these hierarchies has softened over time, and now the internet is exponentially accelerating the ability of people to organize themselves outside of hierarchies. In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky explores the tectonic shift made possible by the organizing tools in Web 2.0.
Social tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, blogging and others have dramatically reduced the cost and time previously associated with organizing groups. Without the expense of traditional institutions and managers to organize groups, self-organizing has become feasible. Shirky says, “… these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort, …. and as we would expect, when desire is high and costs have collapsed, the number of such groups is skyrocketing, and the kinds of effects they are having on the world are spreading” [p 21]. The multiplier effect of the “former audience” who has now become a participant by sharing information with their friends and so on has increased the speed that information spreads. Applications have made it easy to form and find new interest groups with tools such as “tagging” in Flickr that can aggregate items (in this case photos) from various sources into a single, retrievable category, such as “puppy” or “cute.” Hyperlinks in blogs also offer ways to connect conversations. In What is Web 2.0, Tim O’Reilly describes hyperlinking as a way to “harness collective intelligence” and continue to amplify user participation [p 6].
While the opportunities of Web 2.0 tools offer the potential for great positive impacts and to act as an equalizer, I am prone to be cautious. When I see the way in which an outcry of seeming injustice can become a groundswell of public opinion in a certain direction potentially without a basis in fact I become concerned. Mass Amateurization of the news provides room for broader documentation of coups and natural disasters [Shirky p 36], but is also provides the opportunity to create a lynch mob without the basis of evidence. Social media can bring some people together, but can also create a new schism between others. Those who are uncomfortable with technology can quickly feel left out of the clique when people take shortcuts in normal conversation such as referring to FB (rather than Facebook), or insisting on a google group for communication without considering that some don’t know how to join and need help to be included. In addition, the volume of stimulus experienced by engaging in social media is not manageable for some with special needs or different ways of working well. It’s realistic and respectful to understand that not “everybody” is part of this new way of communicating and creating social connections. While there are many upsides to the self-assembly and reduced hierarchy that Web 2.0 allows, there are also downsides.
This moment in time with it’s positive and negative impacts on social networking was probably not envisioned, however, over 50 years ago when, “In 1958 the United States government set up a special unit, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (arpa), to help jump-start new efforts in science and technology. This was the agency that would nurture the Internet” [2008 Vanity Fair article, “How the Web Was Won”]. Once again US ingenuity was initially pushed by competitiveness and fear of another country, this time the Soviet Union, to create something that has become life-changing and fundamental to our daily lives. Incredible innovation has evolved our society from feudalism to industrialism to new ways of self-organizing. I can’t wait to see what comes next!