Wednesday, April 6, 2011

10. Failure for Free

How do new social tools, technologies, and the Internet influence and contribute to new methods of organization and production while dealing with high rates of failure? In other words, how can we collaborate and be productive online with so much junk (and failure) to weed through? How can failure be helpful? These are some questions that Clay Shirky addresses in Chapter 10 of his book Here Comes Everybody, and which we shall briefly address here.

To begin, it is important to understand the premise of social networking communities, which rise and fall based solely on user interest and communal involvement, rather than geographic proximity (we often join online communities because we share an interest in something with others, and we aren’t limited by where the communities’ members live). These communities are built on social structures supported by social tools, and these new social systems are able to tolerate enormous amounts of failure by uncovering and promoting the rare successes within and between them. The key to this is providing groups of individuals with a platform for them to do things for and with one another, without managerial oversight coming from paid workers.

For example, online sites for communities can be viewed as a market - the groups are the products and the market expresses its judgment not in cash but in expenditure of energy. In this way, failure becomes free, as the market of users naturally weed out the failures by neglecting to expend any energy or time building or forming a certain group or product. This is different from a conventional business perspective, in which an individual name is attached to the failure and costs the company money for investing in it.

Another aspect of failing for free relates to the open source movement. Open source projects benefit from the inter-connectivity of the world wide web, promoting widespread contribution from a global talent pool in an environment that can afford failures as a means to success.The Open Source movement, which leverages the cheap failure costs of distributed exploration, is able to take advantage of good ideas, no matter where they come from. This is impossible in a traditional organization, which has high failure costs, and can only employ people who have consistently good ideas. Thus, the ideas from people who have one good idea, or infrequent good ideas, are too high of a cost for the traditional organization.

The secret to open source’s success, as well as other forms of sharing, collaborative work, and collective action, is that failed projects fail quickly and for free, and the successes are advertised for all to see. This allows successes to become a host to a community of sustained interest, and that these shared interests can create communal longevity and support is a new and significant historical change. (This differs from the business landscape, where companies have incentives to hide both successes and failures from the larger public, and failure has significant costs.)

What the open source movement teaches us is that the communal can be at least as durable as the commercial, and tools once reserved for select groups of individuals are now open to almost everyone, thus changing the ways in which society organizes and produces.

Can you think of any examples of organizations, communities, web sites, etc. that reduce the cost of failure? How are costs reduced and failure used to their advantage? What are your thoughts on these new ways of organizing and producing? Critiques, etc.?

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