Thoughts on “Here Comes Everybody”

By now most people know about Wikipedia, the collaboratively-written encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Isn’t that great and impressive that millions of people who don’t know each other can create such a useful and comprehensive resource? There are many other powerful examples of online collaboration, and sometimes it seems as if there is an equal number of books on the shelves that promise to explain the collaborative production revolution.

Can you tell from my tone that I’ve become cynical about the collection — sometimes it seems like a genre — of books that surround this subject? Well, there’s at least one that I can say is well worth reading — Here Comes Everybody.

Here Comes Everybody is full of examples of internet tools being used for social movements, and collaborative production, including examples that lots of people have heard of (Wikipedia and Linux), and other less-commonly known or discussed examples like political flash mobs in Belarus, citizen journalists in the 2004 southeast Asian tsunami, or the effort to get one woman’s mobile phone back in New York City. Some of the most interesting examples are those which failed, and Shirky discussed what was missing from them — whether it lacked a plausible promise, an acceptable bargain, or just used the wrong technology.

Recently, I returned to some of the ideas and examples in Here Comes Everybody to think about what they may mean for public transit agencies and transit advocates. One of the core ideas of Here Comes Everybody is that collaborative technology has created a fundamental shift by collapsing institutional costs. That means projects that formerly required a high level of organization can now be done by self-assembled groups of individuals. Not every task (probably not even most) can be undertaken by a self-assembled group, however. For example, running a transit agency requires a high level of organization to make sure schedules are well-coordinated, buses run on time, and safely, and equipment is kept running smoothly. Those aren’t tasks that should happen in an ad-hoc fashion. I want to know that a professional operator is behind the wheel of a bus or train, and that there’s a whole team of support and accountability behind him or her.

But, what are transit-related projects and tasks that can be performed by self-organized groups? Better yet, what are projects that can only or best be performed by these groups?

Let’s turn to the pages of Here Comes Everybody to look at the differences between institutionalized and self-organized effort and some of their non-transit examples. Undertaking a huge project such as writing an comprehensive up-to-the-minute encyclopedia (Wikipedia) probably wouldn’t be a cost-effective project for an institution to take on. It would take too many people with many different expertise areas and would involve a lot of management and overhead. Shirky calls this the institutional dilemma:

“In a way, every institution lives in a kind of contradiction: it exists to take advantage of group effort, but some of its resources are drained away by directing that effort. Call this the institutional dilemma—because an institution expends resources to manage resources, there is a gap between what those institutions are capable of in theory and in practice, and the larger the institution, the greater the costs” (19).

Güttenberg’s press collapsed the cost of reproducing text, and in some ways we’re seeing a similar kind of collapse in the cost of creating and maintaining groups:

For most of modern life, our strong talents and desires for group effort have been filtered through relatively rigid institutional structures because of the complexity of managing groups. We haven’t had all the groups we’ve wanted, we’ve simply had all the groups we could could afford. The old limits of what unmanaged and unpaid groups can do are no longer in operation; the difficulties that kept self-assembled groups from working together are shrinking, meaning that the number and kinds of things groups can get done without financial motivation or managerial oversight are growing. The current change, in one sentence, is this: most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without those barriers, we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done.

Today, of course, anyone can hit a few keys and nicely printed text will come out of a laser printer. But just because it’s easy to reproduce text doesn’t mean everyone is a best-selling author. Similarly, just because it’s easy to create groups doesn’t mean that every collaborative effort on the internet will succeed. In fact, most will fail, and Shirky explains how this is actually key feature of the revolution in cheap group-making, using the example of Meetup.com, a website for interest groups to find each other and meet in person in their local communities:

“Users are free to propose and pass judgment on groups, and this freedom gives Meetup a paradoxical aspect. First, it is host to thousands of successful groups, groups of between half a dozen and a couple dozen people who are willing to pay Meetup to help them meet regularly, usually monthly, with other people in their community Second, most of the proposed Meetup groups never take off, or they meet once and never again.

These two facts are not incompatible. Meetup is succeeding not in spite of the failed groups, but because of the failed groups. …Failure is free, high-quality research, offering direct evidence of what works and what doesn’t” (236).

Unlike for Meetup, failure is costly for most institutions. And so “most organizations attempt to reduce the effect of failure by reducing its likelihood.” This means passing on projects which may appear experimental or risky, but which could actually turn out to be very successful. And, almost inevitably, even some seemingly-safe projects which are green-lighted will turn out to be failures (245).

Another example of low-cost failure producing some great successes is open source software:

“The open source movement makes neither kind of mistake, because it doesn’t have employees, it doesn’t make investments, it doesn’t even make decisions. It is not an organization, it is an ecosystem, and one that is remarkably tolerant of failure. Open source doesn’t reduce the likelihood of failure, it reduces the cost of failure; it essentially gets failure for free” (246).

Now, of the open source projects hosted online, most are failures. Only a few people (if any) have even downloaded them. There are also spectacular exceptions like Linux or Firefox that millions of people use every day.  You may not realize it, but many of the web-servers that you download content from online are running open source database and server software.

Of course, one of the most obvious lessons for transit is that embracing the open source and open data movement is a way to make experimentation and innovation in transit software less expensive and more easily possible. Since TriMet has made their schedule and arrival data publicly available at developer.trimet.org, this has allowed 3rd party application developers to create applications that do new, interesting, and useful things with the data and present it in more places. Some of these use examples are included in an interview with Bibiana and Tim of TriMet.

Some of these attempts to re-use TriMet data will probably turn out not to be successful or very useful for many people. But others could be very useful. And the point is that it’s no skin off TriMet’s back. They don’t pay any of the costs of experimentation or failure of these projects. All they do is reap the benefits and lessons of any approaches that turn out to be very successful — approaches that succeed in the ecosystem.

And, when clear successes emerge from the ecosystem, they can be put to good use. Not just with customer information systems (that’s what the interview was on), but I just noticed that TriMet is even employing open source software for their point-of-sale terminals.

Shirky creates a very nice analogy to think about the exploratory potential of self-organized ad hoc effort:

“Imagine a vast, unmapped desert with a handful of oases randomly scattered throughout. Traveling through such a place, you would be likely to stick with the first oasis you found, simply because the penalty for leaving it and not finding another oasis would be quite high. You’d like to have several people explore the landscape simultaneously and communicate their findings to one another, but you’d need lots of resources and would have to be able to tolerate vastly different success rates between groups. This metaphorical environment is sometimes called a ‘fitness landscape’—the idea is that for any problem or goal, there is a vast area of possibilities to explore but few valuable spots within that environment to discover. When a company or indeed any organization finds a strategy that works, the drive to adopt it and stick with it is strong. Even if there is a better strategy out there, finding it can be prohibitively expensive. For work that relies on newly collapsed transaction costs, however, providing basic resources to the groups exploring the fitness landscape costs little, and the failure of even a sizable number of groups also carries little penality.” (247)

Of course, there are other fitness landscapes that can be explored through organization-lite approaches, as I’ll call them. Contests for customer-created transit advertisements, videos, or other content (like the Colbert Greenscreen Challenge or U.S. PIRG’s Transit Video Conference in which our friends over at More Riders took first) can explore the landscape of ideas and possibilities, and probably do that more cheaply than with a more institutionalized approach.

In addition, transit gains particularly from involving and engaging people who are passionate about it, facilitating their development as partners for improving transit services and technologies and attracting more riders and funding support. And that’s a big deal.

There tend to be many more groups and organizations of cyclists compared to transit riders. I suppose transit is a less personalized vehicle than a bike.  Instead, it’s a way of getting to work or traveling in or between cities. It’s just a commute mode, not an identity. But recently, transit riders are creating blogs, like Metro Rider LA and Trimettiquette that form the basis of rider communities and self-identification as part of a larger group. The upcoming More Riders Magazine has some great interviews on facilitating the growth of the transit rider community.

Bay Area Rapid Transit is using one of the tools, Twitter, that Shirky writes about to create a community in which folks can participate and identify themselves as transit riders. Check out the BART Twitter Feed.

One of the terms we hear used a lot nowadays, after all, is “social software.” So, the success of any particular project that needs participants to succeed depends on its social-ness: “For any given piece of [social or open source] software, the question ‘Do the people who like it take care of each other?’ turns out to be a better predictor of success than ‘What’s the business model?’ As the rest of the world gets access to the tools once reserved for the techies, that pattern is appearing everywhere, and it is changing society as it does” (259).

The term Shirky uses for the ability of something like the BART Twitter feed to bring a community together is “bonding capital.” But if we talk in terms of our ability to organize a political community, the movement requires bonding and bridging capital. Bonding capital is the glue that brings a group of ardent supporters together. Bridging capital is the vehicle for those supporters to reach out and include a network of many more, but less committed, supporters (224). I believe that online social networks offer some (largely untapped) potential for transit supporters to bridge to other groups.  There are a few successes out there — see my earlier blog post about how Trillium helped use Facebook to bring people together to fight for a great transit project.

If you pick up a copy of Here Comes Everybody or another book at your library or bookstore, please don’t hesitate to drop a line and tell me what you think of it, or share any ideas that occurred to you as you read it.

Aaron is the founding principal of Trillium Solutions, Inc. He brings experience that includes 12 years of web-development with 8 years in public transportation, with knowledge of fixed-route transportation, paratransit, rural transportation, and active transportation modes. Aaron is a recognized expert in developing data standards, web-application design, digital communications, and online marketing strategy. He originally developed Trillium’s GTFS Manager, and has played a key role in the development of the GTFS data specification since 2007.