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The Internet Organizes Itself: Here Comes Everybody

I started using the Internet in one of its early forms in the late 1980s, and full time in 1993 just as it started to commercialize. It was clear from the earliest days of my use that putting tens of thousands of people together in a medium that didn’t restrict the way in which we connected would lead to emergent behavior. That is, there would be no way to predict the forms of communication or the new kinds of interaction that people would engage in with an unfettered ability to exchange information, record that information, and build upon it.

Clay Shirky has been thinking about these issues for over a decade as a journalist, consultant, and professor, currently at New York University. His book “Here Comes Everybody” (The Penguin Press, 2008) explains his views on the power of individuals to organize into groups without companies, hierarchies, or outside efforts. Without borders, with few limits, and with almost no social approbation, the Internet is disruptive in ways that are just now being understood. It’s not just about MySpace, ecommerce, and Google; rather, students protesting in Belarus, anorexics self-un-helping each other, and ex-Jehovah’s Witness
members meeting are all part of the new mix.

In his book, Clay recounts many anecdotes about how groups of people behave in new ways, and he expands upon these stories with statistics, research, and observation. For instance, he notes that when the TV network that aired Buffy the Vampire Slayer decided to shut down a long-running Buffy discussion board, the community raised their own funds to build a system to continue their existence. Shirky notes in the book that the group had one request: “no major changes.” The group didn’t want to disrupt the way in which they had learned to communicate, using simple but effective tools for discussion.

I sat down with Clay on 14-Mar-08 to talk about the book for a short article that appeared in the Seattle Times, focused on the business side of his book. However, the Seattle Times allowed me to publish a podcast of our roughly 40-minute conversation.

Shirky and I were at Yale together, and we both majored in art, Clay four years ahead of me. We knew each other in passing then from working on a play (he lighting, me sound), and were amused to discover our mutual interest in this topic several years ago. I tend to write more about the how-to and underpinnings; Clay about the bigger picture.

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