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1st Look BOOK REVIEW: “Here Comes Everybody” Is Muck.

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Reed Gustow 7 July 2008, 8:11 pm

    I agree with your comments on the examples you present. His writing is poor. I am not willing to read the book if it contains only this junk.

    • PurpleCar 7 July 2008, 8:44 pm

      Hi Reed.

      The examples I provided are typical for what I’ve read so far. I’ve skimmed the rest of the book, and looks like more of the same style. I have a feeling Clay Shirky writes the way he speaks. I blame the publisher more than I do Mr. Shirky. Unfortunately, editors just don’t have jobs anymore; publishers find them unnecessary. How very wrong they are.

      I’m sure there are perfectly great points buried in the pedantic style, but it’s such muck I’m afraid they will be lost completely.

      -PC

  • Annie Boccio 9 July 2008, 9:43 am

    Funny, I’ve just started reading this myself. And by just started I mean I’m on page 3. I’ll give it some attention and let you know my thoughts!

    • PurpleCar 9 July 2008, 11:04 pm

      Thanks, Annie, I respect your opinion!

  • Rick Wolff 10 July 2008, 6:48 pm

    I also read this — or, as I’m wont to do with nonfiction books with one main point, I read enough to get as much of the point as I care to, meaning I left the last three or four chapters. There did seem to be a low calorie content in his paragraphs, the literary equivalent of celery. I will, however, defend his right, and the general utility, in his inventing the word “amateurization.” It fits like a glove, it’s the whole boobyhatch of the book, and no other single word or set of words fits the bill as well.
    In the debut of my ill-fated calligraphy tutorial TV show, I was going to read a paragraph from this book, about the demise of the scribe with the advent of movable type, where he describes calligraphy. I had the feeling at the time that these observations were being made by dozens of other authors, and that anyone reading them in some other book might see a little tedium in the Shirky work. (Shirky work? Wonder if Shirky is lurking on Plurk.)
    His keynote speech for the Reilly Web 2.0 show was a lot more thrill-packed. Maybe he should stick to public speaking. (Although, of course you realize, he got the speaking gig because of the book.)

    • PurpleCar 10 July 2008, 7:39 pm

      I have NO problem making up words. In fact, I’m all for it; Here in the PurpleCar household we make up words (and song lyrics) on an hourly basis. But some basic standard of communication must be followed if, as an author, you want people to buy your book. It is far harder to be concise and clear than to communicate without
      plan or filter. Editors used to nuance this keen skill of clarity out
      of authors. Editors like that don’t exist anymore. It’s a shame.

      As for Clay’s word, amateurization, the ‘-ization’ on the end of the word just complicates things. ‘-izing’ would be better, if we must make up passive verb forms. I still think the word ‘amateurization’ will make only vague sense at best to the majority of people, and the minority that understands it will have to pause to parse it out (which is bad and exactly what you DON’T want when you are making up terms). That word, in combination with all the other buzzwords in Clay’s first two chapters, adds up to the ‘literary equivalent of celery’ of which you speak, Rick Wolff. Sorry to hear that the rest of the book is pretty much the same. Once I get it back from the library, I’ll let you know. (No, I didn’t buy the book).

      As always, Mr. Wolff, I love your wisdom. You are welcome anytime at PurpleCar!

  • Troy 12 September 2008, 1:20 pm

    I fully agree. I was assigned to read the first chapters and my professor even told me that Chapter 2 is quite lengthy, confusing, and stated to simply move forwards towards the last two pages where he actually makes his point. I had to read the “Birthday Paradox” over a few times because of the use of negatives and attempted to decide who would metaphorically earn the 50 dollars. Crazy.

    • PurpleCar 13 September 2008, 7:44 am

      Thanks, Troy, for commiserating. I actually should update this post. I gave up on Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody.” There isn’t enough time in my day to trudge through it. I guess I should have read the last two pages. Can you sum them up for us? (This was a library book that has since been returned.)

      Plus, what class do you have? What are you majoring in? I’m curious to know what kind of class would have this book on the syllabus.

      Thanks!

      -CCP

  • Karina 20 March 2009, 2:15 am

    Oh my God, I’m SO glad to have found this review. I’ve been trying to wade through this book with someone who’s engaged in a translation of it, and it’s driving me (and the translator) crazy! I’m an editor, and it makes me wonder, as you did, how his prose could have even passed by copy editors without coming out at least a bit more concise and readable.

    I’m really glad to know it’s not just me! I’m about to check out Part II.

    • PurpleCar 20 March 2009, 2:44 am

      Karina,

      zOMG I KNOW! “Here Comes Everybody” was ridiculous to read. It’s as if Clay Shirky just intimidated any editor into making even one suggestion! I find the writing style to be unconscionable. It’s alienating purposefully, and I find it mean-spirited. I’ve read philosophy, thick educational theory, Freud, etc. I can read, understand, and deconstruct graduate-level prose. I’m a peer reviewer for an academic journal! Believe me, I’m not unfamiliar with the style. Unfortunately, Mr. Shirky’s attempt to write in theoretical style and the clear lack of editorial input resulted in disaster. Good theory may use advanced language but in the end it is readable. Mr. Shirky relies on buzzwords and run-on sentences in a mockery of true academic theory. It was so disappointing.

      Unfortunately, I gave up reading the book. My Part II just explains that in his footnotes, Mr. Shirky has concise and clear writing; I wondered why the entire book couldn’t be like that (he probably didn’t write the footnotes, as I’ve heard rumors that he speaks in this psuedo-academic style when he presents). I really meant to wade through the whole thing but I just couldn’t waste any more time on it. I’m sure Mr. Shirky’s a smart man but something went very, very wrong in the editing process. I suggest that in your translation, you take the license to do the dreadfully needed editing and then translate. There’s no reason to alienate other cultures as well.

      Thanks for chiming in! I’m glad someone can see what I did!

      -Christine

      ________________________________

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