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Review: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

Sunday, July 05, 2009 at 04:59 PM EDT

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky (Penguin, £9.99)

Here Comes Everybody

With Chris Anderson’s Free! coming under fire for being a) heavily cribbed from wikipedia and b) mostly wrong, it feels like a dangerous time to be writing a speculative book about how technology’s going to change everything we understand about economics and society. Fortunately, Clay Shirky hasn’t done that – he happily admits that he isn’t sure what’s going to happen next. Here Comes Everybody is a book about how technology has already changed society in irrevocable ways, and why you need to recognise that – whether you’re a TV critic unwilling to admit that his job’s worthless, a dictator who needs to start worrying about Twitter or, say, a 30-year old journalist who really should be thinking about getting a new job.

In itself, this choice of subject matter that you probably regularly use – you’ve probably had a go on Twitter, Flickr and Meetup, even if you aren’t cool enough to know about Dodgeball yet – makes for an interesting read. Books like Outliers or Freakanomics are at their best when they take what you ‘know’ about something – why the Beatles were so good or whether Giuliani’s Zero Tolerance policy actually worked, for instance – and tip it on its head. This usually takes hard statistics or at least some extra facts, and HCE is a bit different from that. A lot of it is information that it feels like you more or less already know, but haven’t properly articulated in your head yet. In fact, there’s a sense that with enough patience, you could sit down for ages with a load of tea and biscuits and work it all out starting from scratch. Now that it’s actually happened, for instance, it seems obvious why a user-contributed encyclopaedia with very few editing restrictions works when a properly peer-reviewed one doesn’t, or that newspapers as we know them are dead. The trick, of course, is that nobody predicted this sort of thing at the time, and a lot of people – most employees of the newspaper industry, say – are still in denial about it. By the end, you’ll be convinced that they should all be updating their CVs, and amazed that they didn’t all do it five years ago.

Crowd(Photo by Dieter Drescher, used under Creative Commons license.)

Thankfully there’s no temptation to shoot the messenger, simply because of how likeable Shirky is. He cheerfully explains why traditional media’s doomed like a friendly, patient teacher, with a handful of diagrams and plenty of anecdotes to keep things memorable. He draws interesting parallels between flashmobs and Blitzkreig, and helpfully outlines how what you probably think about both is wrong. He tosses in a reference to In Praise Of Scribes – a fifteenth-century tribute to the art of rewriting manuscripts by hand which was printed on a press – just in case anybody hit by the huge shift in the media landscape is feeling especially sorry for themselves. He even explains why you shouldn’t look down on self-indulgent bloggers or people who don’t use proper grammar on their Tweets – although you’ll probably ignore that, because you need to have some fun. And he does it all charmingly.

Anderson’s book, oddly considering that he’s the editor of Wired, is hamstrung by the limitations of old media – with a rapidly changing social landscape, the six months or so it takes to get a book on the shelves is just about long enough for your economic model to be proven horribly wrong. Shirky’s, by contrast, plays to the strength of his medium – in a world where information is superabundant and easy to come by, what you really need is someone to sort through what’s already there, decide which bits are important and present them to you in an interesting, digestible format. In doing that, Shirky’s also done something that not many people can manage these days – he’s made a thing out of paper that can make you feel smarter and happier on the ten-minute tube journey to work. Hopefully he isn’t working on a sequel about how books are dead. Not yet, anyway.

Joel Snape is a journalist. He enjoys getting punched in the face and choking people out.