Clay Shirky on structured fighting, technology, and all the squishy, human stuff

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Clay Shirky, known for his books Cognitive Surplus and Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, began his LinuxCon keynote by showing what may be the most entertaining bug ever filed. It was--on the surface--about Firefox password management under Windows XP and begins, "This privacy flaw has caused my fiance and I to break up after having dated for 5 years."

Bug 330884 comes down to this: "Your browser does not efficiently respect the privacy of different users for one system." The long list of replies of advice ranges from technical to relationship-oriented.

Or as Shirky explains, "You can never disentangle the technical stuff from the squishy, human stuff."

As humans, were not particularly adept at scrutinizing our beliefs, especially with the goal of finding error in those closely held beliefs. We are, however, quite excellent at subjecting other people's closely held beliefs to that sort of scrutiny. The field of chemistry was completely revolutionized--and legitimized when they began sharing results, essentially saying nothing but, "This is how I did it." It was the beginning of peer review. It put structure to what was previously just fighting, and that's what open source communities do as well.

"What the open source community has given to the world is astonishing when it comes to managing large scale collaboration," Shirky said. The GPL guarantees that you can contribute to a project without being alienated from your own work. But the free software projects conducted under the original GPL were small and tightly managed.

Even a few years into the Linux project, it was mysterious how this form of collaboration was working at all until Eric S. Raymond explained: Linux was the first project that consciously, successfully chose to use the entire world as its talent pool was made. That choice and ability are now one of the most important resources the world has.

Shirky describes this massive talent pool in Cognitive Surplus, which is his term for our cumulative, increasing spare time. The book uses Wikipedia contrasted with television watching as an example. By 2008, the state of Wikipedia had taken 100 million hours to create. Each year we devote more than one trillion hours to watching televsion--the #1 use of free time worldwide. Wikipedia requires only a small fraction of that. When we can deploy the cognitive surplus to a practical purpose, we reap great success and value.

Previous media revolutions, from the telegraph to the Internet have taught us that connections don't create peace. They reduce it. "When you vastly increase people's ability to communicate with one another," Shirky said, "What you increase isn't peace, but fighting. The key is to understand that more poeple commuinicating means more fighting. The key is how to structure that fighting."

And the first step to understanding the structure is to recognize that many projects we consider large scale collaborations actually aren't. In the last 10 years, the Linux page on Wikipedia has been edited 10,000 times by 4,000 users. That averages out to about 2.5 edits per user, which is normal for a frequently edited Wikipedia page. But it turns out that this apparent massive collaboartion of small contributions is not that at all. The most active participant contributed almost 500 edits on his own. The curve falls off quickly. The #10 editor contributed 107 changes. The 100th most active contributed 10 edits. About 75% of the contributors contributed only one edit. This apparently large, collaborative project is really a large participatory project with a small number of real collaborators.

Collaboration is hard and gets harder as the number of of participants increases. Lowering the number of participants and making it possible to add your part without joining as a full collaborator improves the project for everyone.

That said, many people who do want to participate and argue shouldn't be allowed to do so too easily. Even if you assume all of the participants are acting out of full good will, you want some parts of the system to be hard to change.

StackOverflow has implemented a karma system, like countless other participatory websites. And, also like many others (including, they've added a layer of badges to the karma system. But unlike most others, the badges aren't just "achievement unlocked." They're using karma to enforce restricted participation. When you show up to StackOverflow as a new user, all you can do is listen. You can't post a question or answer. You just have to be quiet, read, and see how the community works. Newcomers to many communities receive this advice--take some time to observe before getting involved--but few heed it. StackOverflow enforces it.

On the other end of the spectrum, at 10,000 points, you essentially become a moderator. You're given the ability to shut down things you consider inappropriate without being a part of the site's management. Once you've proven you're trustworthy, you're rewarded with the ability to act as if the site is your own.

It's an unusual, and potentially unpopular, idea on the surface: that we don't have to treat all users the same.

It's been said that the history of civilzation can be described in seven words as "More people pooling resources in new ways." Shirky adds to that, "after arguing about it for a really long time." The power of collaboration online means more fighting, which means we're going to have to get better at fighting to get value out of the system. Open source communities in particular, because of their default transparency and collaboration, have already forged much of this territory. Now the rest of the wolrd is trying those methods in ways that could be new to the open source world. We'll never disentangle the technical stuff from the squishy, human stuff, but that's OK. In fact, it's better that way.

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Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.


As a member of the Stackexchange/stackoverflow community, I'd like to correct an error here. Anyone can post a question or an answer on any StackExchange site, including StackOverflow/SuperUser/ServerFault. There are some basic quality standards, but registration is not required to post and anyone can do so.

" When you show up to StackOverflow as a new user, all you can do is listen. You can't post a question or answer"

Er - this is totally wrong. As a new user you can post questions and answers - that's what the site is all about. See this page from the site:

There's a <a href="">list of privileges</a> you might find useful. SO does stop new users from doing a lot of things, although (as wax_eagle points out) posting isn't one of them, that only requires <a href="">1 reputation</a> (which is what new users start at, and can't drop below)

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