Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (2008) is a smart, engaging look at the power of the Internet to mobilize groups of people around a common cause. Shirky begins the book with the story of a woman named Ivanna who lost her cell phone in the back of a cab in New York City. She enlists the help of her friend, Evan, a programmer in the financial industry, to help her retrieve the phone. Evan launches a full-scale online campaign, harnessing the power of passionate “passersby” on the Internet, the media, and even the NYPD who all become actors in the narrative to get the phone back.
Eventually, Ivanna’s phone was returned and Evan’s quest for justice was satisfied. The point Shirky makes in telling this story is that the Internet has broken down the barriers to forming groups that have the power to take substantive action. Someone like Evan, with time, passion, and social capitol can organize a goal-focused at very little cost. The Internet has reduced management and organizing expenses, therefore nearly anyone with access to a computer can advocate on behalf of a cause.
Similarly, in the media industry, the costs of reproduction and distribution have gone away, therefore anyone with a desire to express him or herself can become a publisher.
One of my favorite chapters in the book focused on the power of the Internet to solve social problems. Shirky notes that contrary to what many trend spotters predicted, the Internet did not reduce the desire for people to meet in person. Rather, the Internet has provided the ability to connect online in a manner that compliments offline interaction.
New York City entrepreneur, Scott Heiferman, the founder of meetup.com understands this concept quite well. After he read Robert Putnam’s classic, Bowling Alone, Heiferman decided to found an organization that would help online users facilitate offline interaction, and possibly help U.S. communities rebuild their social capitol. Putnam’s book highlighted the decline of weakening communities in the United States, providing two key observations:
1) The United States has been an effective country, in part, because of our ability to generate social capitol
2) Yet, participation in group activities was declining in America
The interesting thing about meetup.com is that the majority of groups that have formed tend to fall outside the bounds of typical, socially approved groups. For example, groups called “Witches” and “Vampires” fall into the top 15 most active groups. Rather then solely reviving old groups, Heiferman developed a platform that enabled new groups to form. And those new groups are typically less supported by the broader U.S. culture.
No only has the Internet reduced the barrier to entry for active online, goal-driven groups. It has also enabled the proliferation of new groups to form, groups that didn’t always have a voice in popular culture.
As a marketer for a non-profit group, this book could help you think about how you might best equip your known or even unknown supporters with the tools they need to advocate on behalf of your organization. Who knew witches and vampires were so interested in organizing and meeting up?