A tectonic shift: Ridiculously easy group-forming [DPI-659’s #1]

A lot is said these days about the “2.0 nature” of the web, entailing some important implications for democracy (the topic of this brand new blog). In this first post I will reflect about the possibilities brought by the Internet that allow people to interact and collaborate in ways that were inconceivable some decades ago, to then link it to democracy. As starting points I’ll use Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” and Tim O’Reilly’s What Is Web 2.0 article, which I strongly recommend.

Out of the two, Shirky’s is the most relevant (and engaging) one to understand the overall social and political implications of the Web 2.0. The main argument by Shirky is that the tectonic shift embodied by the Internet is about people using new tools to assemble and to do things together (given the drastic drop of transaction costs), bypassing traditional organizations and institutions. To summarize it, he quotes Seb Paquet’s statement about “ridiculously easy group-forming”. Shirky then continues to describe, in different chapters, the main kinds of group activity that emerge: sharing, cooperation, and collective action.

On the other hand, O’Reilly’s article has the merit of being one of the pioneering analysis of the Web 2.0 concept, being written in 2005 (with the unknown Facebook being only 1 year old and Twitter not even existing). At the same time, the article has the shortcoming of being written mostly to a business audience (hence disregarding the many non-business implications described by Shirky). But the shiny highlight of O’Reilly is that he is extremely accurate and relevant-to-2014 in describing the technicalities when explaining the 7 principles of the Web 2.0.

Collective Intelligence: scale of intent and complexity [Analyze/evaluate]

The main point of overlap of both authors is the Collective Intelligence concept, which is described pretty precisely by O’Reilly and which is implicit in Shirky’s analysis of the 3 group activities. O’Reilly does it by analyzing how some web applications are efficient by harnessing the unconscious contributions of millions of users (such as Cloudmark, Google and Amazon) or the voluntary contributions of users in platforms (such as Wikipedia, Flickr or eBay). While Shirky emphasizes the intended contributions of users with the purpose of engaging a group, paying special attention to the three kinds of group activity stated above.

And it’s the analysis of the different kinds of group activity that better describes the actual behaviour we observe over the Internet on a daily basis. He argues that the three kinds of activity can be categorized according to the difficulty to coordinate them. Sharing is the simplest one for a user, and it’s THE feature we know so well nowadays: we live in a society of “sharers”, we are constantly sharing all kind of stuff; be it through any social network, any chat app, or good ol’ email.

Then, cooperation is harder because of the need to synchronize behaviours of different people, but is remarkable for having achieved notorious impact throughout the web; the most notable and cited example is Wikipedia. And finally, collective action is the hardest given the binding nature to commit to a collective effort even if you don’t agree with the majoritarian decision (“rules for losing”), and is the one activity that is still rare in the Internet.

Implications for democracy [Synthesize]

To connect these three kinds of group activity to the topic of this blog, we could say that the first two activities are already significantly influencing our democratic institutions. Regarding our ability to share, the Web 2.0 has revolutionized the media industry (a key player in democracy), with citizens participating in both the production of news (though they still are largely mainstream dominated, as Matthew Hindman proved) and its consumption (the mediate through sharing -or curating-).

Regarding our ability to cooperate, it is also already happening in our political systems through online political activism, be it in developed countries (such as the campaigns of Obama or Podemos), in developing countries (such as the Arab Spring activism or the Argentina’s Twitter political battles), or globally (such as the Avaaz or Greenpeace campaigns).

What we still haven’t seen is online collective action with “rules for losing”, within the political institutions. Back in Argentina we want to experiment with it in the Net Party, and many promising Participatory Budgeting initiatives are starting to implement it as well. And that’s what I’ll continue to explore in this blog throughout these two years at HKS.