The article, Social Software and the Politics of Groups, is my first experience of a doomsday perspective by Clay Shirky. He seems concerned. Concerned that the web, and the social software living in it, is reaching a point where a healthy dose of focus is needed to prevent it from fizzling out.
In his article, Shirky differentiates the internet from earlier media (printing press, telegraph, radio, etc.) as a structure on which conversations can occur “among many people at once”. He notes “the radical change was de-coupling groups in space and time”, allowing for these conversations to happen. Shirky also reminds us that social software is still relatively new. He says “we are still learning how to build and use the software-defined conference tables and campfires we’re gathering around”.
As we know from Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, he is a big believer in the power of crowdsourcing and collaborative efforts online. He suggests that groups exhibit different behaviours that “cannot be predicted by examining the individuals in isolation” and that this creates a design problem for social software. Social software had been created on the assumptions that groups can be of unlimited size, offer unlimited access and not hold the individual to a higher-level duty or common good.
Shirky suggests that because “the network is now a global metropolis”, these criteria need to change in order to protect groups. Wikipedia is an example of the kind of group that has done well in the current online reality – those that limit growth or restrict size, have barriers to joining or obtaining status as a “good member”, and impose enforceable norms for the good of the community. From what I understand, this supports the notion of the Semantic Web coined by Tim Berners-Lee.
These barriers are referred to as examples of “constitutions”, hence the article’s title, that govern software or groups like Wikipedia. Of course, this governance creates a culture. When we say so and so is a “Wikipedian”, it means something.
Shirky gives examples of constitutions that exist or could exist, such as Slashdot. He also recognizes “that the individual’s reaction to the software is the critical factor” – individual needs must be met while creating these constitutions. Further, he gives ideas for creating barriers that might be a component of such constitutions.
While this language of organization and politics seems to contravene open-source thinking, it does make sense in the bigger picture. Perhaps Shirky isn’t being all doom and gloom after all – he may just be saying what needs to be said.