Clay Shirky: How the Enterprise Moves to 2.0

Clay Shirky’s new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (Allen Lane, February 28, 2008), looks at the Internet’s impact on the way people work together. “When we change the way we communicate, we change society,” he writes. Web 2.0 tools have “altered the old limits on the size, sophistication and scope of unsupervised effort” required to communicate effectively between and among groups, with big implications for institutions and the people who manage them.

Shirky, a consultant and author, is an adjunct professor at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he focuses on the intersection of technology and sociology. He spoke with CIO Insight senior writer Edward Cone about the impact of social media on the enterprise; this is a lightly-edited version of their conversation.

CIO Insight: IT people say they want a familiar experience when it comes to buying and implementing Web 2.0 products–a feature-rich stack of software, delivered by an established vendor. That feels a little out of tune with the grassroots nature of social media, doesn’t it?

Shirky: There is no million dollars to be spent on experimenting with this stuff to see how it goes; these tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. We’re used to the CIO being presented with two lists: Product A has 17 features, and Product B has 32 features, so B must be better. With social tools, it is very often the opposite. I see this with my students in a seminar on the production of social media tools. They come back and say, “We took this out for user testing, and the users ask for fewer features.” That’s a persistent pattern.

CIOs are so beset by the sales community and these feature shootouts that it is often hard to see that for social tools, the kind of clarity that comes from having only five features–and everyone having the same ones, so everyone knows what’s going on all the time–is an advantage that can’t be expressed with a feature list.

The cognitive model is to treat the computer not as a box, but a door. It’s something you need to get through to get to the value on the other side. People don’t want a door with 32 different kinds of handles; they want a relatively transparent view of the other people who are using the system. The software that’s become most ubiquitous has launched with almost no features–that’s true for the launch of Blogger, the launch of Twitter, the launch of wikis. Now you’ve got blogs that have lots of features because they’ve become mature, but the basic idea of what a blog does was so simple, and it was that simplicity that drove it.

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