Saturday, July 30, 2011

Children of Jihad by Jared Cohen

Jared Cohen is a Stanford Univ. graduate and Rhodes Scholar, hails from Weston, CT, and has toured in the most dangerous regions of Africa and the Mideast. At 24, he was the youngest-ever member of the Secretary of State's Policy Planning Staff and a close advisor to Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. He is now Director of Google Ideas.

His book Children of Jihad (2007) reads a bit like a 007 thriller, starting in Iran in 2004, passing through Lebanon and Syria, culminating in a potentially deadly wayward visit in 2005 to Iraq. Cohen developed a never-say-die attitude in war-torn Africa, including hanging out with AK-47-toting teenagers in Sierra Leone.

He seems fearless in the Mideast, often revealing his Jewish identity when his life was on the line, say, at a club in Beirut with young Hezbollah operatives. Yet his experience with indigenous youth was almost always a positive one, despite their attitudes toward Israel and for that matter, the U.S. More than anything, this is a book of startling contrasts, from Ferraris (Beirut Ferrari showroom in photo) and Lamborghinis (p. 109) plying the streets of Beirut to Syrian nomads enjoying 200 channels on satellite TV in the desert. Let me relate a few random observations from this fascinating book.

Iran. Cohen makes a beeline for the universities in an effort to engage students in conversation. The young women in Tehran seem to live in a bipolar state of western wear concealed under the veil. In public, the black hejab (head scarf) and the black chador (long robe) have defined womanhood since the Islamic Revolution. Once entering a club, the veils all end up in a pile in the corner. Youth gather for outdoor partying on Fereshteh St., showing off their cars and listening to hip-hop music. They are nearly unanimous in their disdain of the authoritarian Government and of the hard line leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Inconsistencies stretch the imagination - Tehran is home to 11 fully functional synagogues (Synagogue Haim in photo), each one catering to an active congregation (p. 105). There are even two Kosher restaurants ! On a ride back from Esfahan, the taxi driver pointed out the Natanz nuclear facility, a uranium enrichment plant capable of making nuclear weapons. Cohen is surprised to learn that most young people are supportive of the nuclear effort and take pride in it, never considering the ultimate danger in weaponization.

Cohen notes that "the Internet is a place where Iranian youth can operate freely, express themselves, and obtain information on their own terms...users of the Internet in Iran can be anyone and say anything they want as they operate free from the grips of the police-state apparatus...It is true that the Government tries to monitor their online discussions and interactions, but this is a virtually impossible enterprise" (pp. 56-57). Not so ! says Morozov in his book Net Delusion. He says "Cohen is given to dangerously excessive cyber-utopianism" (p. 157).

Lebanon. There is more political and social freedom in Lebanon than anywhere else in the Mideast (p. 135). Cohen is overwhelmed by the vibrancy of Beirut nightlife. Clubbing in Monot, he met Muslims, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, and Syrians. He observed that Beirut had become home to women from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states, who wanted to escape the veil. He also learned that young Lebanese have discovered that members of rival religious groups make perfect anonymous romantic partners (p. 112). Sleeping with the enemy is the best way for Lebanese youth to guarantee that their nighttime indiscretions never see the light of day.

In March of 2005, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese came to Martyrs' Square to make their demands heard. They celebrated unity between Christians and Muslims. The Cedar Revolution was the first time Lebanese had come together to do something other than party. Syria withdrew its troops and Lebanon was sovereign.

Cohen would hang out at T.G.I. Friday's on Marrad Street (photo), the city's best place to people watch. It was here that he would meet members of Hezbollah and reveal that he was a Jewish American. The members claimed they were against terrorism, against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Hezbollah arranged for Cohen to visit the Palestinian refugee camp Ayn al-Hilwah, a very dicey endeavor. Cohen was entering a danger zone with al Qaeda sympathizers like Asbat al-Ansar, a Sunni terrorist group. Under the Cairo Agreement, Palestinian camps were away from civilian centers and the Palestinians would be responsible for their own security. In the camp, Cohen met with General Mounir Maqdah, chief military authority over 350,000 Palestinians in Lebanon, wanted by both the Lebanese and Israelis.

Syria. Syria has long been one if the most nationalistic societies in the Mideast, it is the birthplace of Arab nationalism. The concept of Greater Syria involved taking sovereignty over Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and parts of Turkey. A shift toward totalitarian autocracy began in 1963 with the secular Ba'ath Party. Ba'athism was a contradiction of Islamist extremist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Shi'as in Iraq. Hafez al-Assad reigned a police state from 1970 - 2000. His son, Bashar, an ophthalmologist in London, was groomed for the presidency starting in 1994. Unlike Iraq, the more fundamentalist Sunni are the majority of the country, but it is the Shi'a that rule. Unlike much of the Mideast, Syrians believe in country first, clan second. Cohen heads east across the Palmyra desert, seeing the ruins, as he contemplates a daredevil visit to Iraq. He visits the ruins of Dura Europa, home of Syria's oldest synagogue. Ultimately he has a taxi drop him off at the Ibrahim Khalil gates to enter into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Iraq. Despite counsel from everyone he met on his trip, he entered the Iraqi Region of Kurdistan, expecting the worst, but found a welcome reception everywhere he went. Though they are Muslims like most people in the Mideast, the Kurds are not Arabs. The waterfalls at Geli Eli Beg (photo) were a highlight of his visit. he visited Salahaddin Univ. in Arbil, one of the best in Iraq. Young Kurdish students showed him images of Halabjah (photo), where Saddam Hussein gassed the city in 1988, killing 5,000 people. Cohen saw images of skin melting off people's faces.

The final chapter reads like a Hollywood movie script. Cohen's taxi driver heads south to the nearest border crossing back to Syria. Cohen wakes up from a nap in 130 degrees heat to discover hat the driver had taken him into Mosul, but the driver was gone !! Had the driver been an entrepreneur and informed the locals that he had an American Jew in the car ? At this point, Cohen truly believed his life was in danger at the heart of the Iraqi insurgency war zone. Fortunately, the driver returned, having gone to buy black market gas at 9 cents/gallon. Happily, it had been the driver's intention to exit Iraq at Rabea'a.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky has written a sequel (2010) to Here Comes Everybody. Cognitive surplus relates to the amount of free time that humans have to engage in activities of their choice. Consumptive acts like watching TV have dominated our free time since the 1940s. Work, sleep, and watching TV are the 3 most common activities of mankind. Shirky views compulsive TV viewing as a modern version of the Gin Craze in 18th century London, where the masses binged as a self-anesthetizing response to epochal social disruptions.

Television reduces human contact - a social surrogacy phenomenon. Shirky defines a metric for the sum total of cognitive surplus in the aggregate of educated people. Wikipedia (counting every edit in every language) represents about 100 million hours of cumulative human thought. Americans watch 200 billion hours of TV every year, or 2,000 Wikipedias of free time.

Media is like a triathlon - People consume, produce, and share. Now, interactive media are shifting our behavior away from broadcast media that are purely consumptive. While the Internet is 40 years old and the Web is 20 years old, some people are astonished that individual members of society, previously happy to spend most of their free time consuming, would start voluntarily making and sharing things. People often worry about the negative impact of digital media on face-to-face contact, yet political actions brought about by Facebook and Twitter enable large scale assembly.

Shirky develops a typical oversight he dubs a "milkshake mistake." McDonald's wanted to improve sales of milkshakes, so it hired researchers to figure out how to improve the product. One researcher studied the customers instead of the product. One surprising discovery was that many were purchased for breakfast. Also, the buyers were alone, they only bought the shake, and they never drank it in the store. Customers were buying the shake so they could eat while driving. The researchers made two milkshake mistakes: (1) everything important about the product was implicit in its attributes, (2) treat habits as deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents. The same mistakes can be made thinking about media. The possibility of the social uses of media tools wasn't implicit in the tools themselves. The pure consumption of traditional media was never a sacred tradition, it was a set of accumulated accidents.

Ushahidi (Swahili for "witness") was developed to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence in Kenya. When the Kenyan media banned the broadcast of violence resulting from a disputed election, a Kenyan political activist blogged about the violence. She then asked readers to post comments about the violence on the blog, Kenyan Pundit. As responses flooded in, she enlisted the help of programmers to create a service in 2008 that would automatically aggregate reporting and mapping in real time. Ushahidi developers added the ability to submit info via text message from mobile phones. Governments act less violently when they are being observed. Since its debut, Ushahidi has been expanded to other countries and was used to locate injured in the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes.

Scale makes big surpluses function differently from small ones. Shirky relates how as a 16-year old visiting New York, seeing pizza by the slice was a minor epiphany. With a large enough crowd, unpredictable events become predictable. Once the certainty of demand is divorced from individual customers and remanded to the aggregate, new classes of activity become possible. Shirky quotes Nobel physicist Philip Anderson with his mantra "More is different," after an article in Science (1972). New communications tools are aggregating our individual ability to create and share. Shirky asks what are the chances that a person with a camera will come across an event of global significance ? Extrapolating from an egocentric view can mike the likelihood seem small. Cameras embedded in phones now number over a billion. The chance that someone with a camera will come across an event of global significance is rapidly becoming the chance that such an event has any witnesses at all. Formerly unlikely events become certainties as we share one another's cognitive surpluses in aggregate. The wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource.

When the police want to understand whether someone could have taken a particular action, they look for means, motive, and opportunity. Further, these three aspects help to determine the appearance of new behaviors in society. The following chapters examine the hows, whys, and wheres of cognitive surplus.

Means. Gutenberg introduced movable type in the mid-15th century. He realized that if you made carvings of individual letters, they could be arranged into words and reused. Movable type introduced an abundance of books. A printer could print 300 copies of a book for the same price a scribe could produce a single copy. Hence scribal capacity was given over to reproducing extant works. The idea of bookmaking was centered on re-creating, not producing "novel" books. In an historical eye blink, printers started printing books that were diverse, contemporary, and vulgar (native language), hence the word novel was born. Production of books that no one had ever read before created a new problem - risk ! A printer who printed a book that no one wanted to read would soon be out of business. Printers of Bibles and Aristotle never had that problem. In order to manage that risk, printers were forced to be responsible for the quality of books. The transition from printers to publishers was brought on by the desire to print novel books. This Gutenberg economics is all about the burden of enormous investment costs, evident today in entertainment media like CDs and movies, where 15th century risk management is still invoked.

Before Gutenberg, the average book was a masterpiece. After Gutenberg, erotic novels, dull travelogues, and hagiographies of the landed gentry are of interest to few today. Freedom and quality are conflicting goals. The easier it is for the average person to publish, the more average what gets published becomes. Yet increasing freedom to publish has compensating values, such as an increase in experimentation of form.

Contributors now share creative content with aggregators like Facebook or YouTube, who employ a paid staff. This pattern has been dubbed digital sharecropping, after the post-Civil War sharecroppers who worked the land but didn't own it or the food they grew on it. The people sharing photos and videos don't expect to be paid. It is fundamental that these are acts of sharing rather than production. Their labors are labors of love.

Motive. Doing something because it interests you makes it a different kind of activity than doing it because you are reaping an external reward. Edward Deci at the Univ. of Rochester, distinguish between two broad types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivations are those in which the activity itself is the reward. Intrinsic motivations can be characterized by the desire to (1) be autonomous and (2) competent. Extrinsic motivations are those in which the reward for doing something is external to the activity, not the activity itself. The bottom line is that money crowds out love. Note that the origin of the word "amateur" is from the Latin "amare" - "to love", so an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. For a given activity the two motivations are not additive as payment can crowd out intrinsic motivation. Other psychologists have challenged the crowding-out effect as inapplicable to real world actions and is limited to free choice by the individual. After all, where is this relevant ? In an age where free choice and talent are joint resources, the answer is "Everywhere."

Shirky gets into an interesting discussion of the denizens of, the community of people who write new stories set in the imagined worlds of existing fictional works. FanFiction hosts more tan half a million Harry Potter stories, not to mention those that are hosted by Contributors are looking for little more than attention, often requesting fellow authors to read and review (R&R) their submissions. Authors acknowledge that they do not own the characters or the universe in which they appear, but believe they own new plots. Those authors looking to profit from fanfic are chastised. Most would agree that fanfic authors are not within the normal bounds of copyright law, but they feel they have safe harbor in an act based on love, not money.

Opportunity. Shirky makes an effort to distinguish opportunity from means. Opportunity is viewed as a way of taking advantage of our ability to participate (means) in concert where we previously consumed alone. Cognitive surplus is not merely trillions of hours of free time spread across 2 billion connected individuals. Rather, it is communal, we must combine our surplus free time if it is to be useful, and we can only do that given the right opportunities. Human character is the essential component of our sociable and generous behaviors. High-tech tools enable these behaviors, they do not cause them.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel economist, coined the term "theory-induced blindness." Remember the milkshake mistake ? The unexpected uses of communications tools are surprising because old beliefs about human nature are poor. Once you stop asking about why people do things for free and just start asking why they are doing them, the concept of intrinsic motivation is part of the explanation.

Behavioral economics is a body of experimental cognitive science that is rapidly growing. It is demonstrating that humans don't always act in self-interested ways. The Ultimatum Game is one of the best known games in social science. It is a two-person interaction, with a proposer and a responder. The game starts when the partner is given $10 and is instructed to share the money between the two of you. The only say you have is whether or not to accept the offer. If you accept she keeps the balance, if you don't accept, neither gets anything. Neoclassical economics predicts your partner will offer $1 and will keep $9. $1 is more than nothing and hence preferable to no deal. In practice the game doesn't work this way, the Proposer typically offer $4-$5, which the Responder typically accepts. The Responder typically refuses lower amounts. This result is a shock to neoclassical economics - what actor would refuse a free dollar for the sake of mere emotional satisfaction ? Versions of this game were run with more money and other variations, but rationality never won out. No group of responders was ever moved to accept a proposed split that deviated too far from some perceived sense of fairness. In the Ultimatum Game people behave as if their relationship matters. Because we are deeply social, participants are hard pressed to assume a role of anonymity. We are incapable of behaving as if we were not members of a larger society. Rejecting ungenerous splits is a communicative and social act rather than a cognitive mistake. It is referred to as "altruistic punishment," since people derive pleasure from punishing wrongdoing.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

Here Comes Everybody ("HCE") is a nickname given to Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker in James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake. HCE is referred to by literally thousands of names throughout Joyce's book. Shirky has adopted it for this seminal work (2008) on the effect of the Internet on group dynamics and traditional business models and the implications for new economies. Shirky is ambitious in his examination of the tectonic shifts impacting communications and media. My approach is to paraphrase the ideas in the first 5 chapters, chapter 7, and the epilogue. Before we start, note that Rosenbloom in The New York Times (6/26/11) comments that Shirky hardlly uses Twitter himself.

It Takes a Village to Find a Phone. Shirky uses an intriguing example of web based methods to retrieve a phone lost in a taxi cab to demonstrate the power of the Internet in solving otherwise intractable problems. This story illustrates how the Web enables groups to assemble and cooperate. The story bears repeating. So Ivanna leaves her Sidekick phone in a NYC taxi, giving up, she buys a new phone. Lo and behold the photos taken on her old phone were being transferred to her new phone, thereby revealing the face and email address of a girl in Queens. Ivanna's techie friend, Evan, emailed Sasha requesting return of the phone. Sasha and boyfriend sent racist invectives, so Evan decided to take the story public. He created a "StolenSidekick" webpage with Sasha's photos and description of the events and added it to his personal website. Friends soon found Sasha on MySpace. An NYPD officer saw the site and contacted Evan to file a claim. Sasha's brother, Luis, Military Police member, contacted Evan to say Sasha had purchased phone from a cabbie, contradicting Sasha's earlier account that her brother found the phone. By now, Evan's story appeared on Digg, a collaborative news website. Soon, the nation's media picked up the story. Someone identified Sasha's home and posted a drive-by video. Now members of Luis' MP unit took notice and became concerned that he was threatening Ivanna. Evan now set up a bulletin board, hosting thousands of members. Evan and Ivanna filed a police report, who classified phone as lost rather than stolen, meaning no action would be taken. NYC Government officials got involved and explained how the complaint could be amended. The public airing of the NYPD's refusal to treat the case as theft generated public outcries. The NYPD caved and arrested Sasha, a 16-year old from Corona. After 10 days, Ivanna had her phone back.

This is a story about the power of leveraging a massive international audience of millions. Thanks to the Web, the cost of publishing globally has collapsed, due to the tools and social structure now in place. The story went from local to international almost immediately. Without the audience, the NYPD would not have changed the complaint. For Sasha, the recovery of the phone was not the only loss she suffered, since Evan's bulletin board named and shamed her on a global platform. This is also a story about the architecture of participation (p. 17). Evan was able to avail himself of capabilities previously reserved for professionals. He told a story without being a journalist, he found Sasha without being a detective. The Web makes it easier for unsupervised groups to self-assemble without requiring formal management (and incurred overhead seen in hierarchical organizations).

Sharing Anchors Community. What is the chance that in a group of 36 people, no two people share a birthday ? With 36 people and 365 birthdays, a 1/10 chance seems reasonable. But in fact it is 8/10 ! This is called the Birthday Paradox (surprise really). Most people get the odds wrong for two reasons. They think in terms that one of the 36 shares their own birthday, which is 1/10. But in a group, you need to count links between people. Consider yourself with 2 other people, A and B. It's not 2 comparisons, but 3: you and A, you and B, and A with B. For 36 people, there are more than 600 pairs of birthdays. A count of "any two people" rises much faster than the number of people themselves.

This growing complexity applies to social settings as well. As a group grows in size, getting universal agreement becomes difficult, then impossible. Ever try to decide on a movie with a group ? This complexity carries over to organizations, hierarchical to render interactions at a minimum. Every transaction an organization undertakes requires time, attention, or money. Because of the high transaction costs, no institution can put all its energies into pursuing its mission. Nobel laureate Coase (1937) considered what would happen if we abandoned organizations, and transacted directly in the marketplace ? Coase reasoned the transaction costs would be too high.

Shirky looks at the photo file sharing site Flickr. Flickr lets the users label or tag their photos as away of arranging them. The photos are linked when two or more users share the same tag. It is vital that Flickr does not bear the cost of organizing the pictures. Nor does it have any obligation to broadcast the categories it has ! Flickr provides a platform for users to aggregate the photos themselves. Flickr reverses the old order of group activity, transforming "gather, then share" into "share, then gather." Flickr escaped the traditional management overhead costs by abandoning any hope of oversight.

Traditional managerial oversight is often illustrated by an org chart, which had its origins in the railroad industry where trains ran in both directions on a single track (2 tracks were too expensive). One gets pretty organized after a few collisions. Hierarchical management of track sections became the answer and lowered transaction costs. At some point an institution cannot grow anymore and remain functional, because the cost of management destroys the profit margin. This is the Coasean ceiling. But what if transaction costs collapse ? Inconceivable in Coase's era. What happens to tasks that aren't worth the cost of managerial oversight ? Until recently, they didn't happen. Think of Flickr. These activities now lie under a Coasean floor. They are valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way, since they are not worth pursuing. Coasean logic dictates that large decreases i transaction costs create activities that can't be taken on by businesses, because there isn't enough payoff to support the cost of being an institution. Social tools provide an alternative: action by loosely structured groups, operating without managerial direction and outside the profit motive.

For 100 years, a big question has been whether any organizational task was best taken on by Government in a planned way, or by business competing in the market. There has been a universal assumption that people cannot self-assemble. But now we can operate below the Coasean floor. We can now see coverage of tsunamis, coups in Thailand, etc. as the beginning of intense experimentation with these tools. Sharing, cooperation, and collective action form rungs on a ladder of activities enabled by social tools.

Everyone is a Media Outlet. Shirky looks at the traditional role of professionals (gatekeepers) who possess a specialization to solve a problem in a world constrained with scarce resources. Collapse in communications costs have undermined media businesses that traditionally rely on running a printing press or record label. The commercial viability of media businesses involves providing solutions, so preservation of original problems becomes an economic imperative. The Web did not introduce a new competitor in the ecosystem, it introduced a new ecosystem. The future presented by the Internet is mass amateurization (mass professionalism is an oxymoron) of publishing and a switch from "Why publish this?" to "Why not?' What happens when costs of reproduction and distribution go away ? What happens when there's nothing unique about publishing anymore, because users can do it for themselves ? What happens when the basic link between newsworthiness and publication no longer holds ? The lack of trustworthiness in blogs is made up for in the volume of reporting.

Shirky relates an amusing anecdote on 15th century scribes. Only a tiny fraction of the populace could actually write. The scribe would handcopy fragile and decaying manuscripts as an essential service to refresh cultural memory. A scribe's function was indispensable as a bulwark against intellectual loss. At the end of the 1400s, Gutenberg's movable type undermined the scribe profession. The Protestant Reformation was not caused by Gutenberg's invention, but was possible only after Martin Luther could spread complaints against the Catholic Church and print Bibles in local languages. In 1492 Johannes Trithemius launched an impassioned defense of the scribal tradition. Ironically, in order to get the word out, he used a printing press, undermining his message (see image of his book In Defence of Scribes). It is interesting to think that the subsequent spread of literacy was an early example of mass amateurization (p. 79).

In 2006, New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed after refusing to reveal her sources in an ongoing federal investigation. This case created a great deal of unease about journalistic privilege. Federal law has no equivalent to state laws (in 49 states) that provide a shield. Members of Congress introduced a bill to provide a federal shield law. It was unanticipated that it would get hung up over who is eligible as a journalist. Definitions of journalist was easy in an era of scarce resources, where journalists were rare. Now, anyone can become a publisher, so anyone can be a journalist. Given that, journalistic privilege becomes a loophole too large to be borne by society. Shirky fails to answer how the federal case was or was not resolved. This conundrum also applies to photography and the mass amateurization of photographers, i.e anyone with a camera phone. These amateur photos may be viewed by millions with no money changing hands. Absent the scarcity that made publishing such a serious-minded pursuit, the written word no longer has a special value in and if itself.

Publish, Then Filter. Personal communications and publishing now blend into each other. AS a result, the old pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication has yielded to social filtering, after the fact. User-generated content is a term used for amateur raw media that users create and share with one another, with no professional oversight. Most user-generated content is not content at all, any more tan a phone call to a family member generates family-generated content. Besides, people don't want professionally produced content for community matters. Shirky considers the amusing case of playing a recorded "Happy Birthday " on the stereo, instead of personally singing it off-key, likely preferred.

Facebook and MySpace are home to millions of users, but most users have an audience of a dozen or less. It is tempting to think of this as a failure, but user-generated content is only intended for a small audience. The posts seem inane because they aren't intended for us, but rather a community that has a social density that large audiences lack.

Communications media (phone, fax, telegrams) are designed for 2-way conversations. Broadcast media is between one sender and many recipients, a one-to-many pattern. Social tools now enable many-to-many conversations that are 2-way. The distinction between communications and broadcast is evaporating. A driving force behind user-generated content is that conversation is no longer limited to social cul-de-sacs like the phone.

While the Web makes interactivity technologically feasible, famous participants promulgate an imbalance between inbound and outbound attention. For someone to be famous, they have to be unable to reciprocate. Removal of technological limits has been replaced by social ones. Oprah has email, but if it became public, it would become useless. Even when a medium is 2-way, the most popular practitioners will be forced into a 1-way pattern. Oprah cannot hope to read thousands of blogs pointed towards her.

Because publishing is hard and expensive, the written word comes with an implicit promise: someone besides the writer thought this was worth reading. The converse of this effect explains our skepticism about self-published books. Mass amateurization has created an enormous filtering problem. Mass amateurization of publishing has invoked mass amateurization of filtering. We have lost the clean distinctions between communications media and broadcast media.

Communications tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. The invention of a tool doesn't create change; it has to have been around enough that most of society is using it. It's when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to become invisible, that profound changes happen (p. 105).

Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production. Wikipedia is the best known example of distributed collaboration. Founded in 2001, it was an offshoot of the failed Nupedia, an encyclopedia to be written, reviewed and managed by experts volunteering their time. The first wiki was created in 1995 (Hawaiian for "quick"), which was a daring user-editable website. A wiki allows reader/writer crossover. A test wiki was set up on Nupedia, but the BoD objected, so was founded. In 2007, over 2 million entries were achieved. Why is it reliable? Because Wikipedia's self-correction process is so robust. Wikipedia has transcended the traditional functions of an encyclopedia, becoming a coordination tool for gathering and distributing information quickly. Within minutes of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, a Wikipedia page was set up and over 1,000 edits were added in the first 4 hours.

Without management, Wikipedia relies on spontaneous divisions of labor. Once an article is started, it attracts readers. Every edit is itself provisional, as is human knowledge, the articles are never finished. Wikipedia's contributors work on what they want to, when they want to, avoiding traditional obligations of workers in an institution. Wiki does not need to make sure its contributors are competent, productive, or even showing up. Nupedia failed because it was an expert-driven system. Mass amateurization removes the technological obstacles to participation. Interestingly, equality of participation does not follow, but obeys a power law distribution, which tracks the imbalance of participation. Wiki articles with hundreds of contributors typically have a few that do the most work. Apparently, the imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them. The "average" user is nonexistent (implying "bell curve" distributions). The 80/20 rule (Pareto's Law) applies to a store making 80% of revenue from 20% of inventory. This is the basis of long tail economics, where at Amazon, most items don't sell well, but in aggregate they sell huge, brick&mortar stores cannot afford the overhead to stock them. In a power law system, most participants are below average. [If Bill Gates walks into a bar, everyone becomes a millionaire on average!]. To understand the creation of a Wiki article, you can't look for a representative contributor, you have to concentrate on the behavior of the collective.

Faster and Faster. Collective Action is explored using the protests against the GDR in Leipzig in 1989. Gradually growing in numbers, they took advantage of an information cascade. The 3 levels of shared awareness were key - (1) when everybody knows something, (2) when everybody knows that everybody knows, and (3) when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows. Shirky also talks about the rise of flash mobs and the ice cream events in Minsk, Belarus. Effectively, these flash mobs are not planned, but coordinated at the last minute using social tools. An historical example was the Nazi's use if radios in tanks, which gave them superiority over France. Mobile phones now provide a shift away from advance planning. People now make less definite plans - they can call at the last minute to make arrangements.

Evan Williams developed a website that would take text that a user entered into a form, and post it onto a webpage, known as Blogger, later acquired by Google. That social tool enables this blog you are reading. He then focused on mobile phones and created Twitter. Twitter was first used in a political activist context to make sure that Egyptian activists successfully passed through borders or checkpoints.

Epilogue. The epilogue is interesting as it provides a springboard for the social tools that have come to fruition in the Arab Spring with the ouster of Ben Ali from Tunisia (14JAN2011) and Hosni Mubarak from Egypt (11FEB2011). Shirky introduces the concept of "net value." One has to wonder if this was the inspiration for Evgeney Morozov titling his book Net Delusion. Regardless, Shirky makes the case that increased flexibility and power for group action will have more good effects than bad ones, making the current changes positive. The Abbot of Sponheim never understood this tradeoff - he was operating under the "lump of labor" fallacy, meaning any labor-saving device must make society worse off. He never stopped to think of new jobs in the printing press industry. One weakness of net value arguments recognizes that the good and bad changes are incommensurable, which is to say that the value of new sources of knowledge like Wikipedia cannot be measured against the increased resilience of networked terrorist groups. Further, when a real revolution is going on, net value is problematic. Societies before and after revolution are too different to be readily compared. Regardless of incommensurability, the ability of people to do and say as they like is inarguably good.

Shirky cannot resist a final anecdote about Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, who published a translation of Virgil's works in 1502. Manutius chose to publish in the octavo size, small enough to fit into saddlebags and enable easy transport. This was a small revolution, allowing the book to also shrink in cost. In an echo of the salacious nature of new content in many modern media (after all, pornography drove VHS), Manutius published the Hypnerotomachia, a contemporary novel with erotic passages, creating a market for new fiction. This certainly hints at audio downsizing with MP3, creating new markets for teenagers who live the principle of "good enough is good enough."