Thanks to increasing technology (and, more importantly, the increasing use of technology), research is increasing in fields such as electronic communications and digital humanities. Books and articles in these areas are frequently being written only to be outdated once a new type of media or tool becomes widely used. However, rather than viewing this research as futile, it should encourage people to work harder to stay up to date on electronic communications research. Three books that can currently help people understand electronic communications and its impact on society are Here Comes Everybody, New New Media, and The Networked Nonprofit.
Although these three books are all in the field of electronic communications, they cover very different topics and have very different purposes. In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky takes a theoretical approach to studying electronic communications. He studies the large impacts that technology is playing in society, specifically when it comes to forming and using networks. Paul Levinson in New New Media, however, narrows in on specific technologies and media that are currently among the most popular and used. Instead of trying to form a wide, over-arching theory, Levinson wants to provide students and schools with information on the media that are currently a large part of everyone’s daily lives because he feels that classes have been slow in discussing them. In The Networked Nonprofit, Beth Kanter and Allison H. Fine combine these approaches by showing how the theory of social media and the current tools available can be put into practice by nonprofit organizations. Their goal is to help nonprofit organizations understand the Internet and use it to increase their productivity and effectiveness. The next section of this review will describe these three books in more detail and show what I learned from each one.
Here Comes Everybody
Shirky’s book primarily deals with networks and crowdsourcing. In order to understand his ideas, you need to understand what he sees as a primary characteristics of society: “Society is not just the product of its individual members: it is also the product of its constituent groups” (14). He provides the example of taking an individual bee and trying to understand the work that it does (17). Much as the bee’s activities cannot be understood apart from the hive to which it belongs, studying individuals without regards to the networks they are a part of does not provide a clear picture. Part of this network is the technology that connects people. As Shirky explains, “When we change the way we communicate, we change society” (17), so recent advances in communicating technology has been noticeably impacting society as a whole.
In order to study technology’s impacts on society, Shirky describes several events involving networking that would not have been possible a decade ago. His examples range from retrieving a stolen phone by using a personal website, MySpace, Digg, and a public online bulletin board to activists in Egypt communicating via Twitter and cell phones to halt traffic and negotiate the release of an arrested man.
By analyzing these examples, Shirky comes to several important conclusions. The first is that most projects that require crowdsourcing follow a power law distribution trend (123). In this trend, there is a major imbalance of the work done among participants. For websites suck as Flickr and Wikipedia, a large portion of the content comes from a small percentage of the participants. The average participant hardly does any work: for example, less than two percent of Wikipedia users contribute to the encyclopedia’s articles (125).
Another conclusion that Shirky draws is that successful networks involve “a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users” (260). These three components have led to the success of systems such as Linux and Wikipedia, and failing to understand these components has led to the downfall of projects such as Microsoft Encarta. By describing these key criteria, Shirky is providing a practical way to use the theoretical observations that are included in this book.
The power law distribution and the three components of a successful network are two of the key ideas that I gained from this book. I also learned that the concern many people have of the Internet destroying traditional media such as newspapers and book publishers is very similar to the discrimination that the printing press faced when it was introduced, yet society learned to adapt to the new technology and will continue to do so. By describing the Birthday paradox, Shirky also taught me how networks are much more complex than I had originally viewed them. I also appreciated learning about media such as MeetUp and Flickr. However, most of the information that I have learned about specific forms of media came from Levinson’s book, New New Media.
New New Media
The key term that readers need to know while reading Levinson’s book is new new media. Levinson describes new new media as media in which every consumer is a producer, the users are nonprofessionals, using the media is free, and the media benefits and works alongside other media (1-2). He differentiates this from “old” new media by explaining that websites and email are having less noticeable impact on society compared to newer media like YouTube and Facebook. Levinson’s definition for new new media encompasses both tools and websites. This book specifically focuses on nine types of new new media: blogging, YouTube, Wikipedia, Digg, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, and podcasting.
Levinson’s approach to studying new new media is similar to that of many users: he gradually explored them on his own, making use of the tools that seemed to benefit him at the time or that were interesting. Because of this, much of New New Media focuses on Levinson’s personal experience in new new media and how he views their usefulness. Some readers may be put off by this approach, especially since many of Levinson’s stories involve self-marketing. However, Levinson does provide other examples of people using new new media. His last two chapters are dedicated to the 2008 presidential election and to negative uses of new new media.
Although Levinson mentions several events connected to new new media, he does not consider the larger impacts on society in the same way that Shirky does. Levinson instead focuses on events that were linked to a specific form of new new media, such as the “Leave Britney Alone” YouTube video and Rep. Peter Hoekstra’s tweets about visiting Baghdad. In other words, instead of making an argument about new new media, he mostly is just describing them for his readers.
New New Media is very helpful for people who are not yet comfortable with all of the tools described within the book. Personally, I learned how new new media like blogs and Second Life can be used to create profit. I also gained more insight into the reasons people use Second Life, from recreational to business. Levinson also made me rethink the way I viewed certain new new media. For instance, comparing Wikipedia with a newspaper that is quickly updated was not something I had considered before. I also appreciated Levinson’s explanation on the importance of comments in blogs: “A blog without comments is like a flightless bird: The blog may make important contributions or bring satisfaction to its writer, but it will be lacking one of the signature characteristics of new new media, interacting with the audience” (21). I found this advice very applicable because previously I would have been wary of allowing too many comments on my personal blog, but now I see comments as a necessity for creating conversation online. Levinson also describes how blogs can be used to connect with people unexpectedly; Levinson provides several examples of celebrities or people closely connected to celebrities commenting on his blog. Although Levinson clearly views such connections as beneficial, he does not describe how to use the connections as much as Kanter and Fine do in The Networked Nonprofit.
The Networked Nonprofit
Kanter and Fine, like Shirky and Levinson, also begin their book by defining an important term: “Networked nonprofits are simple and transparent organizations” (3). This might appear to be a short definition, but Kanter and Fine spend much of the book explaining how nonprofits can remove some of the complex organizational structures that inhibit participation and how they can freely share the work they are doing and the needs they have.
The Networked Nonprofit is divided into three sections. The first section describes what it means for a nonprofit to become networked and why they should attempt to do so. The second section describes how to become a networked nonprofit, drawing on Shirky’s work to explain how social networks form and operate. It also echoes the advice of Levinson by stating that nonprofits need to listen to the public and respond to people’s concerns. The final section covers how to continue functioning as a networked nonprofit once the relationships have been formed. These chapters explain how to maintain social connections, crowdsource effectively, and request funding in a way that doesn’t alienate the organization’s followers.
One of the primary messages that Kanter and Fine communicate with nonprofits is that they must be willing to loosen their control of the organization, let go of traditional methods, and embrace the new philosophies that come with new media. Being transparent about the organization’s activities and needs and simplifying the structure that has become an integral part of the organization can be frightening, but it allows interested people to see what they can do to help the organization and be able to provide services without going through so much red tape.
Unlike New Nea Media and Here Comes Everybody, The Networked Nonprofit is written for a very specific audience: nonprofits that want to improve their social networks and presence online. Therefore, much of the advice can only be applied if one is currently working for a nonprofit, but as a student I still learned several things from it. It’s descriptions of the traditional model of a nonprofit showed me the way that many organizations currently function, and I also learned how some of this model can be trimmed to make the organization operate more efficiently through networking. Like Levinson’s book, the explanation for why nonprofits should be listening and responding to comments was enlightening. Kanter and Fine also did a good job of showing how crowds can be used to gather information, create new products, vote, and raise funds. Finally, a key idea that I learned from Kanter and Fine is that each new online tool has a specific function, so it’s important to select the tools that I need and use them properly instead of trying all types of new media at once.
Here Comes Everybody, New New Media, and The Networked Nonprofit describe the theory, tools, and practice of electronic communications, respectively. Here Comes Everybody adds the most to the academic conversation surrounding electronic communications and provided the most illuminating examples of people using new media. Also, since Here Comes Everybody relies more on the characteristics of society and less on the specific tools, it is likely to remain relevant for longer than the other books. However, I do not feel it is an essential read for college students who are experimenting with electronic communications. Instead, it is important for students to understand what tools are available to them and how the tools can be used. New New Media does an adequate job of describing the tools, although I can envision better resources. For example, I believe that a collection of essays in which different experts describe one type of new media that they have extensive experience with would be more beneficial than reading about one person’s experience in all of these media. The Networked Nonprofit, although it is clearly aimed at nonprofits instead of students, is still very pertinent for this class, and it includes some of the important points brought up by Shirky in Here Comes Everybody; therefore, I would recommend that this book continue to be used in future semesters.
Regardless of my personal experience with these books, they all serve a specific function and are targeted to a specific audience. I would not recommend that people interested in electronic communications read all of them, but I would recommend that these people consider what they want to learn about electronic communications and select the book that will meet this need.