Erm, excuse me, but I think Everybody was here all along

It’s taken me a while (and 83 more pages of Here Comes Everybody) to understand my unease with the “technology changes everything” discourse around social media, and now to reach an alternative hypothesis. In my last post I questioned whether the advent of the internet in the place of television could, as Clay Shirky suggests, awaken some kind of latent creativity and collaboration. Could the web really turn the tables on the mass media, humble big corporations and bring about revolutions?

Here Comes Everybody contains a number of such vignettes to back up the case for the technology-led societal shift: the phenomenal accumulation of quality volunteer-contributed content in Wikipedia, British students’ Facebook revolt against changes to their HSBC bank charges, Belarus “flash mob” protests, and so on. Nothing like these things could happen, the story goes, without new tools built on top of mobile phones and the internet.

Except that they could, and did. Because for every story of 21st Century people getting together to achieve something amazing using new technology, there’s a story from history of people who did much the same without the benefit of the world wide web. One of these even gets into Shirky’s book: the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and all that it stood for. But to that we might add any number of 20th Century educational movements such as the Workers’ Education Association, student boycotts of Barclays and Nestle in the 1980s, the demonstrations of May 1968 (the same year, by the way, that a contract was awarded to build something called the Arpanet).

These big things, of course, are just the tip of the iceberg. To these we must add countless more localised acts of collaboration and creativity: the village antiques society of which my grandmother was treasurer, the baby-sitting circle where my mum and dad traded nights out with other parents using curtain-rings as currency, countless fanzines photocopied and posted. Sure, it was a little harder to shift ideas around the world, but from what I can recall we mostly managed OK. After all, making and sharing stuff are two of the most defining characteristics of being human.

So how come it still feels like the internet is changing everything? I have a suggestion.

When Clay Shirky talks in his blog post about a massive television-related bender spanning the whole second half of the 20th Century, he’s half right. But it wasn’t the mass of the population that was rendered senseless by the broadcast media – no they kept on creating and collaborating much as people always have. Rather, the intoxication induced by television was mainly in the minds of big business and mass media. Broadcasters and brands became so drunk with the power of pushing content one-way into people’s living rooms that they forgot that their “audience” might be busy doing other things.

It was a wise executive who admitted “I know half my advertising doesn’t work, I just don’t know which half” because the mythical housewife never was waiting patiently for the television to tell her which brand of soap powder to buy. She was too busy chatting to her next-door neighbour while they scrubbed their doorsteps, or making bunting to string along the street on carnival day. But business, the media and government didn’t get that. It was their tragedy that there was no return path. Information flowed in only one direction – away from them – leaving them to revel in their own self-importance.

It’s my contention that the amount of collaboration and creativity in the world is not changing greatly as a result of new communications technologies. There may be a little incremental creation, but mostly it’s substitutional of other activities that have gone on in some shape or other for thousands of years. What has changed is that new technologies make those old activities more visible. All those conversations used to happen in drafty village halls, through the post and over the phone. Now they are on the web for all to search and to see. It’s no longer possible for the mass media and big businesses, or even governments, to imagine that they have it all their own way, because the curtain has been drawn back to reveal just how irrelevant some of them have become.

It’s not so much a case of “Here Comes Everybody”, as of “Everybody Was Here All Along”. People aren’t late to this party, technology and business are. Only by understanding that can traditional organisations have a chance of being welcomed into the conversation. If they come at this change from a technology point of view – thinking that they’re going to instantly enable incremental communications for an amazed and grateful populace – then they’ll likely fail to make the grade. But if they understand that it’s mainly substitutional then they’ll see why their customers set the bar so high.

People have been communicating and interacting for thousands of years without the help of mobile phones and computers. They have developed sophisticated ways of doing so. Social niceties and nuances make their collaborations highly efficient. If you or your business want to be a part of that you’d better first watch and learn. See how natural are the conversations, and how easily people negotiate complex issues of coordination and collaboration. Then try to design tools and talk in a language that matches that quality. Or to put it another way, Here Comes Technology, Late As Usual (but if you sit quietly at the back for a bit Everybody might let you join in).

Update 2 October 2008: David Cushman interviewed Clay Shirky in London and is posting a series of videos at Faster Future, including an answer to my question. Worth a look.

Update 1 November 2008: Simon Collister is not alone. I still haven’t finished my copy either.

Update 11 October 2011: John Dodds on the (re)discovery of the second screen.