When turning to something as baffling as the impact of the internet on interpersonal and inter-group communication, it pays to have signposts and guides.  Clay Shirky understands the internet as few others do. This is driven home by his recent book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organization.

Shirky’s thesis is that modern communication methods, in particular those created to use and facilitated by the internet, are profoundly changing the way humans interact. Yes, and the earth orbits the sun, right?

But Shirky unpacks the cliche, looking at the various ways in which communication really is different, and why that is important. He makes a strong case that current shifts in media are, in fact, as significant as the introduction of the printing press (about which he has at least one clever story).

Shirky spends some time driving home the fact that new media tools are making it much easier for so-called novices to challenge established publishing norms. Rather than perfect and then publish, as has been the case for centuries, Shirky notes that a new paradigm is forming: publish, then perfect. In his words (at 81), new forms of media “break the older pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact.”

Some of his key discussions include the following:

– He explains that groups have traditionally been difficult to form and direct, but new forms of collaborative media, from email to Web 2.0, are breaking down many of those barriers and making group formation and function easier.

– He uses the example of the open-source software movement as a challenge to the notion of software companies (why pay for management and overhead when other, decentralized models of development create products equally robust?),

– He explains that certain forms of modern communication make it easier for political and other interest groups to communicate, even when governments want to inhibit such communication.

The foregoing only exemplifies the many topics Shirky addresses. There is a lot of meat in his 300 pages, and it is very satisfying.

Shirky’s style is clean and engaging. He combines anecdotal evidence with substantial research and clear reasoning to build a consistent and compelling treatment of one of the most important trends we face as a human community. As I approach the topic of connection in the modern world, it is good to get off on the right foot.  Here Comes Everybody is one of those.