The Changing Face of Social Tools

I've just finished reading Clay Shirky's brilliant and entertaining "Here Comes Everybody" - it's well worth a read, particularly for anyone who seeks better understanding of how social tools impact society. It's tempting to think that we're already realising the true benefit of such tools but, as Shirky says, it's when these tools become truly ubiquitous that they reach their potential. In other words: things are about to get very interesting.

Shirky likes to compare these new grassroots activities with large company activities. In the old days, the only way to get large groups of people coordinated was to set up an organisation, with the crippling costs of management attached. Now there's a new way; it's almost free in a practical and financial sense, and accessible to practically anyone.

And here's the key; in sharp contrast to an organisation, which has to chose the initiatives to which resources should be assigned, the cost of failure in these social groups is zero. In fact, it's less than zero - the failure is public, which means everyone can see it and learn from it. Anyone can try anything, improving the chances of success rather like ants spreading out and finding food. The potential for growth is simply immense.

But it turns out that these two methods of organisation are often ideal for getting different things done. Want to build a car for profit? Good luck getting people to collaborate for free! Want to get a group of people to protest against a dictatorship? Forget centralised offices and activities, they'll be shut down. Want to build an operating system??? (can...opened. Worms....everywhere...)

The fascinating thing, from my point of view, is what happens when these two classes of groups and activities collide. Shirky sites several crude (but effective) examples, generally involving people rising up against a repressive regime / company / religious group. But I'm sure there are harmonious possibilities out there, and huge rewards for those who can harness this. One thing's for sure; the potential of these systems ain't gonna end with Facebook groups....