The first two chapters of Clay Shirky’s book, “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” are unreadable. It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.
When I picked up the book, I recognized the ‘famous’ name. I was looking forward to absorbing some insights into social media and human behavior. Instead I was hit with self-indulgent prose filled with enough buzzwords to choke an elephant. Think of a business buzzword and you’ll find it here. Ambiguous and esoteric terms abound, like ‘managerial imperative,’ ‘strictures,’ and the creatively constructed (read: fake) word “amateurization.”
Along with the meaningless terms, the author fills pages with run-on sentences and rants. Each page could stand to lose at least 250 to 500 words and still (with some major editing) make its point. I fear Mr. Shirky fancies himself a philosopher. In Philosophy, complex exposition in writing is accepted. Mr. Shirky’s writing is far from lofty or scholarly. In today’s non-fiction market, his disregard for his readers’ ease is downright insulting. He and his editors (if he had any, which I doubt) made no effort to rein in his blathering prose. Nothing is clear. These two chapters require herculean efforts to gather even one small point. I’ll attempt to finish the book before I weigh in completely, but I am angered at the pain I’ll endure to do so.
Here are a few examples from Chapters 1 and 2.
Chapter one, last paragraph:
“The ways in which any given institution will find its situation transformed will vary, but the various local changes are manifestations of a single deep source: newly capable groups are assembling, and they are working without the managerial imperative and outside the previous strictures that bounded their effectiveness. These changes will transform the world everywhere groups of people come together to accomplish something, which is to say everywhere.”
That is only 2 sentences. An entire game of buzzword bingo could be played and won with those 2 sentences alone. Unfortunately, the entire book continues on like this.
Chapter 2 begins with a muddled example that I had to read about 5 times. Why did I have to read it repeatedly? Because it made no sense. The errors were in the language used; it made the concept unclear. Read for yourself:
First paragraphs, Chapter 2.
“Imagine you are standing in line with thirty-five other people, and to pass the time, the guy in front of you proposes a wager. He’s willing to bet no two people in line share a birthday. Would you take that bet?
“If you’re like most people, you wouldn’t. With thirty-six people and 365 possible birthdays, it seems like there would be only a one-in-ten chance of a match, leaving you a 90 percent chance of losing 50 dollars. In fact, you should take the bet, since you would have better than an 80 percent chance of winning 50 dollars.” [He goes on to explain The Birthday Paradox].
Mr. Shirky is attempting to give you a scenario on how to think about relationships and comparisons. The paragraph is very confusing and fails to connect with readers. The reason is the use of negatives like “no two people,” “losing” fifty dollars, and “wouldn’t” take the bet. Also, in these ‘betting’ scenarios, the sneaky, wiser person offers the sure-fire winning side of the bet to the unknowing receiver. The unknowing fool must wise up to the ‘too good to be true’ scenario quickly in order to escape the scam. It is a common archetype. Mr. Shirky turned the tables and sacrificed clarity.
The paragraph should have gone something like this:
“Imagine you are standing in line with thirty-five other people. The guy in front of you proposes a wager. He’s willing to bet $50 that at least two people in line share a birthday. Your half of the bet would be that everyone in line has a different birthday. After all, there are 365 days in a year and only 36 people in line. Seems like easy money, right? You take the bet, like most people would.
According to statistics and what is called The Birthday Paradox, you would find, after collecting birthdays, that two people did indeed share a birthday. You would owe the guy 50 bucks.”
Here’s another example, in Chapter Two on page 65, of another run-on, buzzword heavy sentence:
“In a world where a dozen editors, all belonging to the same professional class, can decide whether to run or kill a national story, information that might be of interest to the general public may not be published, not because of a conspiracy but because the editors have a professional bias that is aligned by the similar challenges they face and by the similar tools they use to approach those challenges.”
The next sentence is barely English:
“The mass amateurization of publishing undoes the limitations inherent in having a small number of traditional press outlets.”
In fact, some of that sentence isn’t English. As of today, Jul 7th 2008, Merriam-Webster.com’s Unabridged Dictionary (to which I have a full subscription) does not have ‘amateurization’ listed as a word. “Amateurism” is a word, defined as “: the practice, characteristics, or status of an amateur : NONPROFESSIONALISM <amateurism in athletics> <a staff notable for its amateurism>”
It will be difficult for me to continue to read this book. I will try to muddle through it only for the sake of providing you with a thorough review. Perhaps Penguin (the publishers) wanted to jump on the Social Media bandwagon as quickly as was humanly possible and gave Mr. Shirky carte blanche and a monstrously cruel deadline. Mr. Shirky seems like a nice guy with some great ideas. I was really starting to ‘follow’ him. This book, so far, portrays a very unfortunate view of him. I’ll let you know what I think if I get to the end of the book.
If you’ve attempted to read it, please weigh in with a comment. Thanks!
UPDATE July 13, 2008: This on-going review series is now called “A Clay Shirky Adventure.” This entry is now officially Part I. Please see Part II here.