Originally published on Culture Wars (now defunct).
Clay Shirky, adjunct professor at NYU, in his new book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, argues that all this represents the awakening of democracy. People are more able to influence others by overlooking cumbersome official channels that are unrepresentative and out-moded, which worries the establishment – be they political elite, the media or large companies – since it seems to go on outside their radars. Shirky and other digital evangelists argue the rise of social media is actually a severe challenge to the elite’s hegemony and authority. One of Shirky’s main points is that the old order can no longer play the ‘scarcity card’, since they don’t own the means to produce, distribute and organise ideas and content. The growth of the internet and social media means anyone can publish and communicate whatever they like, often at zero cost.
However, Shirky doesn’t only support an attack on the establishment: but he takes aim at professionalism, expertise and authority per se. In the book he singles out traditional journalism, arguing that it cannot be justified when we have access to thousands of alternative sources of news, comment and opinion. This army of amateur, self-interested publishers (often working alone) are not bound by any profit motive and can choose to report on anything they want. The reporter on the other hand, is tied to meeting editor’s deadlines; the publisher driven by market share.
He has a point. In the face of growing online competition media proprietors have had to diversify, often producing online editions, embracing multimedia content and encouraging their own readers to write for them. The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian are two notable UK examples. However Shirky’s argument takes an anti-elitist form in his attack on journalism as a profession, and he is wrong.
His ‘bottom-up’ defence of the amateur appears one-sided and naive at a time when we need more human-centred endeavour, expertise and intellectual rigour. Some journalism doesn’t cut the grade, but replacing it with an army of self-appointed amateurs isn’t the answer either. Instead, the reporter must raise the game, rising above subjective conjecture. But Shirky doesn’t call for high standards: his argument is an example of low horizons and populist rhetoric.
The logic in Shirky’s vendetta against the professional (journalist) is symptomatic of a wider anti-elitist movement that can be characterised by the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ phenomenon (a term coined by James Surowiecki in his book by the same name). It goes that the sheer weight in numbers of people, opinions and choices will mean a triumph over the viewpoint of the expert, from journalists, and scientists to politicians. In the face of the online proliferation of ‘news’, the journalist is redundant when there are many others are better able to document events in a more responsive manner.
Hidden in the debate about social media is a belief that participation (or to report in the case of citizen’s journalism) is more important than a worked-out worldview, belief, or perspective. Participation is seen to encourage ‘authentic’ behaviour that trumps the professional’s viewpoint. Agenda-setting is old, elitist and unable to keep up. Instead, insights come from examining patterns of social behaviour that lead to better predictions of future decisions and trends. The wisdom comes from the crowd, but not because of their interrogation and debate. Ideas form in an unintended, bottom-up manner.
Shirky argues throughout the book that what matters most of all is to understand the innate nature of human group action, which he sees as the real divining force behind social change. As he says, just being in a group is itself a political act:
’any tool that improves shared awareness or group coordination can be pressed into service for political means, because the freedom to act in a group is inherently political. ..We adopt those tools (text messaging, Twitter etc.) that amplify our capabilities, and we modify our tools to improve that amplification.’
We are treated to numerous examples of how technology helps generate spontaneous community; helping groups form and ideas spread. He draws attention to ‘stay at home moms’ who previously found it difficult to discover others with similar needs, and now connect effortlessly online with encouraging results.
But on the other hand, fluid and open networks that are a mix of political ambition and protest don’t always impress. Shirky mentions ‘flash mobs ’. Over the last five years, numerous flash mobs have taken place around the world where seemingly random groups of people come together to do silly things in public – such as dance in railway stations or stage pillow fights in public spaces – and then disappear as quickly as they arrived. But Shirky notes their potential lies in their spontaneity, and thus ability to ridicule political elites who are unsure of how to respond to such absurdity. In Belarus, for example, when a group of people protesting against the government appeared momentarily and proceeded to ‘eat ice cream’ en masse, the authorities were unsure whether or not to respond in their customary oppressive way.
But flash mobs are a joke and not a serious social or political weapon. Taking part in one might be fun, but they beget a lack of coherent argument or agenda. A group of people misbehaving is one thing: offering a credible, audible argument another. Flash mobs are an example of how social media can cohere people (which isn’t a bad thing), but at the same time demonstrates an obvious lack of political or social content.
Put in these terms, social media is an expression of low horizons. When a fascination with the psychology of groups replaces political argument, we are in the midst of an era of intellectual retreat of seismic proportions. There can be no doubt that these social tools do enable us to organise and communicate more freely than ever before. But until we become less fascinated with group behaviour and let genuine purpose and content rise to the surface, the tools will continue to do all the talking. Contrary to Shirky’s belief, everything else won’t simply happen spontaneously.
(1) The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wisdom-Crowds-Many-Smarter-Than/dp/0349116059
(2) Wikipedia article on Flash Mob: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_mob
(3) 4,000 flash mob dancers startle commuters at Victoria, 12 August 2008 http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/news/article-23391632-details/4,000+flash+mob+dancers+startle+commuters+at+Victoria/article.do