The Mission; or, Why I Write, Part II

This is the second in a three-part series about Why I Write. You can read Part I here. Part III will be available next Friday. The series is both an exercise in transparency and a shameless attempt to show you that by keeping up with this blog, you’ll be a part of something bigger.

If you’ve read Part I, you may think that I’ve carved out an impossible task for myself. Up until about a year ago, I agreed. For years I was sure that my mission to change the way the general public understands crime was doomed to failure. I was committed to finding a way, and years of pounding away at a brick wall finally brought me to a solution that I believe will work. Mission success hinges on harnessing the power of the Internet.

The Internet as a Platform for Organization

Clay Shirky argues that the Internet makes it easy for large groups of people to self-organize without being a part of a formal organization. Not only is it easy for people to self-organize, this self-organization makes it possible for large groups of people to complete projects that no formal organization could justify spending the resources doing. Imagine a newspaper dispatching hordes of photographers to the annual Mermaid Parade on Coney Island and then organizing the photos into a massive collection. Wouldn’t happen. As Shirky shows, flickr makes it simple for people who were there to complete that task without any oversight.

Shirky and others who try to explain this turn to the work of R.H. Coase, who argued in 1937 that there are transaction costs that go along with organizing people. If you go to the open market to find people to do things all the time, you’ll be expending more resources than you would if you hire people into a firm and give the task to members of the firm. To a point, anyway. Coase argued that firms grow until the cost of organizing their members to complete the tasks that need doing becomes more expensive than just turning to the open market. Shirky argues that the Internet lowers the transaction costs of organizing people. That’s why you can find a massive online collection of photos from the Mermaid Parade at flickr, why a free and editable encyclopedia is available at Wikipedia, and why the Internet is the ideal platform for the widely distrirbuted and disorganized mass of people who want better crime policy to self-organize.

This is already happening. Cursory searches on Facebook, Twitter, and Technorati will introduce you to people who are using blogs, social networking sites, and other social media to organize around many criminal justice issues. Some are activists trying to influence policy and others are just people with specialist knowledge sharing their expertise through commentary.

Harnessing Your Collective Wisdom

This is happening with or without me, but I’m not waiting for it to happen on its own. This is what I’ve spent the last decade preparing for. I’m not just trying to build a readership here, I’m trying to build a following. Followings are different Seth Godin calls them tribes. Chris Guillebeau calls them small armies. Others call them other things. The name may change, but the idea is simple. Someone with a dream builds a platform that allows the growth of a community of people who all buy into that dream and become committed to making it happen. Neither “tribe” nor “small army” resonates with what I’ve got in mind. I don’t know what I’ll call us yet, but you’ll be among the first to know.

You might wonder how I intend to make sure this following is built up of the right kind of people. People with the right education and experience to make this happen. I’m not going to try. If you believe a world where crime policy is based on knowledge is better than the alternative, you’re in. If not, go find someone else to support your view of the world. Seriously. We can still be friends, but you’re not wanted here. Go away. Get!

If you’re still here, welcome. You’re who I’m writing for. You can be a professor or a politician, a stay-at-home-dad or a sex worker, a cop or a crook, an auto worker or artist, a beat reporter or a beatnik. I don’t care and it doesn’t matter. Expert, novice, or whatever, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to agree with me or with each other on anything. In fact, I hope you don’t. There’s a place for all of you because I’m relying on the wisdom of the crowd, a concept described by James Surowiecki in his book of a similar title called The Wisdom of Crowds.

According to Surowiecki, crowds can be smarter than the experts contained within them. He introduces the idea by recounting a tale of British gentleman scientist Sir Francis Galton, who went to a fair one day where people were betting on how much an ox would weigh after being slaughtered and dressed. People bet on their guess and the closest guessers won prizes. The crowd contained cattle experts and people with no relevant experience and everyone in between. After the prizes were awarded, Bacon took the guesses and analyzed them. One of the things he did was calculate the average guess of the crowd, expecting it to be wildly off the mark. The crowd, somehow, got it right to within a single pound. Crowd wisdom. Surowiecki argues that under specific circumstances, crowds display wisdom instead of a mob mentality or groupthink. These circumstances are diversity of opinion, independence of thought, decentralization, and aggregation. We’ll explore each as it relates to the mission in the months to come.

For now, suffice it to say that if we succeed it will be because of your efforts. Your collective efforts will bring about the world I’m talking about. My role is just to do what I can to help.

You’re busy, so the question I’d ask next if I were you is how we’re going to find the time to do this. Shirky is helpful again, this time with an idea he calls the cognitive surplus. Here’s Shirky explaining where people find the time to contribute to things like Wikipedia. It’s well worth the time spent watching it and absolutely necessary to understanding why I no longer believe the mission is doomed.

Part 1:

Part 2 (with a little overlap from the end of Part 1, which cut off rather abruptly):

I realize now that you may be balking. Just how much commitment am I expecting of you? Only as much as you are inclined to give. These things apparently follow a power law, with most people doing very little and a few doing quite a lot. Cool. If most of you do little more than read the articles I post and occassionally share with others, that’s awesome. Follow Understanding Crime on Facebook, sign up for our free e-mail updates, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS and you’re set. Some of you will do more, much more. When that happens, we’ll start to win.

To Be Concluded. Read Part III.

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