I have finished reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. Here Comes Everybody and would like to my comments on the book.
Shirky examines the dynamic of social communities that have arisen as a result of the Internet and assesses the possible long-term consequences they represent to corporations and governments. The usual way of doing business or governing a country is about to change in significant ways. I’ll start with two examples used by the author: Wikipedia and Linxus. The conventional way of producing an encyclopedia or software is for a company to find the resources to fund the highly skilled employees who are assigned specific tasks. That means allocating capital to pay for the office space, equipment, salaries, benefits and other cost of doing business, on the basis the product or service sold by the corporation will return sufficient revenues to pay all of the overheads and still return a profit.
In the world of Wikipedia, for example, no one is assigned a subject or topic. There is no overhead. But there are thousands upon thousands of people who volunteer their time. That’s a core point of these (often unstable and temporary) new social communities. These communities are voluntary associations of like minded individuals. No one pays them. Some like Wikipedia are more stable than others, which appear overnight and disappear as quickly. No one expects the members of these communities to turn up for work. Most members have only a slight contribution to make, but since there are so many of these volunteers, the cumulative effect of even slight individual contributions, when combined, is substantial.
Another central point of Shirky’s social communities is that failure incurs no institutional cost. No overhead, no salaries, no company cars, computers, office equipment or benefits. That is a hugely salient as we are accustomed to a world where corporations and other institutions are conservative in their choices, and it is assumed the management’s role is to avoid failure. Departments have internal risks analysis that makes certain what choices are made have a good chance of success. Microsoft Corporation, with its legions of highly paid software engineers, can only tolerate so much failure before it would implode. Wikipedia and Linxus, on the other hand, thrive because any mistake or failure by one can be quickly correct by one of the thousands of others.
Part of the secret of how these communities’ works is assessing the contribution of those who volunteer. From the view point of the participants, the new social communities are governed not be a bell curve or the average workload, talent or expertise of the employees. Remember employees aren’t volunteers. They sell their time to the company in return for an implicit promise to assist in the success of the employer. Wikipedia, and Linxus, on the other hand, are governed by a Power Law. You may scratch your head and ask, what is a Power Law? Shirky provides a good example. Bill Gates walks into a bar in Seattle frequented by ordinary office workers and orders a drink. If you interviewed everyone in the bar and wrote down their net worth and added in Bill’s, the average person in the bar would be a multi-millionaire. Of course, we know that is because of the huge weight of Bill Gates’ wealth and his wealth makes the idea of “average” wealth in the bar meaningless.
In the context of Wikipedia and Linxus this means a very few people (out of thousands or even hundreds of thousands) who have the equivalent of intellectual wealth that matches Bill Gates’ financial wealth, volunteer to do most of the work. They do this not for a corporation which will enrich its management and shareholders; they do it for the community of which they are part of, a large collective that is a shared enterprise.
The question is whether any of these matters apply when talking about members of the crime fiction community? The answer is there is more than one such community. Publishers and agents, for example, have their own interests, ones that surely overlap, but nonetheless would be cohesive enough to form a community. The publishing community, like the Microsoft Corporation example, is based on the system where failure carries a penalty. A book that fails will cost the publisher money. Publishing a book carries a risk. In the new online social communities, books can be “published” and downloaded. There isn’t any financial penalty attached to the failure of such a book. One would expect to find more fiction and non-fiction in the marketplace, and, at the same time, applying the power law formula, only a tiny fraction of those books would be widely read.
Other social communities have formed online which focus on crime fiction. I am a member of Crime Space which has over a thousand members, including authors and readers, who share information, provide advice, and create a forum for discussion. It is a gathering place for people around the world to find others who share their interest. As one would expect, something like a Power Law applies to this community as well. Not everyone makes the same contribution (I am a good example of a laggard). Some members are pitching their books. Some are looking for an agent. Others are talking about problems in the publishing industry, or their own difficulty to getting published. But Crime Space doesn’t have a fixed agenda, there is no real way to judge whether it is successful, and as with any self-contained community, there are a few high-energy leaders and a lot of followers with the odd bit of information to offer.
Shirky suggests that in the future Amazon may become the dominant force in publishing through its BookSurge unit. Under this model, there is no cost for Amazon to offer a book that doesn’t sell. And when a book does sell, a copy of the ordered book can be printed on demand. In this brave new world, there is no filtering system to guarantee that publishing industry workers found that it was worthy of publication. What is offered is an unfiltered book. No agent, no editor, no editorial board meeting intervened to lend support. BookSurge is a publish and then filter system. It leaves to the readers to become their own filter in much the same way that music has been heading, publishing books in the new social setting will be gauged to match the interests and taste of a specific community at which the book is aimed. Crime fiction authors won’t look to a community devoted to quantum theory analysis as their audience (of course, someone is bound to try).
If Amazon gets it right –and that remains an open question – any community will find the chance to embrace a book that appeals to them, can get a copy printed, and sent directly to their house or office with a few keystrokes and a credit card. If the Amazon offers tens of thousands of titles, but 99% sell only five copies each, it won’t matter. Remember? There is no cost for failure in this model. And there is a profit even on five copies of a title being sold. And the 1% that sells in massive quantities brings in massive profits – as there is little or no overhead (at least in comparison with the existing publishing model). The competition to find, create and capture a community will be the new publishing battle ground. As many of these communities are inherently unstable it may be like trying to catch a falling star. 99% of authors will be spending as much time trolling for and talking to members inside such communities. Writing for communities will mean books become narrowly, tightly designed to appeal to a niche audience. The other 1% of authors who are celebrities will have communities forming around them. The fan sites for Hollywood stars, musicians and authors are already well-developed machines, often without much direct attention or assistance from the celebrity.
I would recommend Here Comes Everybody who want a thought provoking discussion of what the future of these new social communities represent to the future of way of doing business and running of government institutions, such as police forces.