Organizing without organizations

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For the last hundred years the big organizational question has been whether any given task was best taken on by the state, directing the effort in a planned way, or by businesses competing in a market. This debate was based on the universal and unspoken supposition that people couldn’t simply self-assemble; the choice between markets and managed effort assumed that there was no third alternative. Now there is.

Our electronic networks are enabling novel forms of collective action, enabling the creation of collaborative groups that are larger and more distributed than at any other time in history. The scope of work that can be done by noninstitutional groups is a profound challenge to the status quo.

That is Clay Shirky, the guru of social media, in his fascinating book Here Comes Everybody. Could Shirky be describing the long-awaited for Third Way that would make peace between the socialists and capitalists? Count me among the skeptics. While Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, and the rest of the gamut of social media tools have opened new avenues for organizing collaboration, I don't see them replacing the market as the place where the exchange of most goods and services takes place.

This is not to say I disagree with Shirky that these tools present a tremendous challenge to many institutions (newspapers being a prime example). But this kind of challenge fits in with the capitalist notion of creative destruction: while some industries will become obsolescent, others will learn to adapt themselves to the new reality. An obvious case in point: someone still needs to manufacture all the computers and cell phones that make all this social media possible, and I don't see any self-organizing groups volunteering to do this for the simple pleasure of it.


Ryan Hahn

Operations Officer

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