I asked four Web experts to recommend the best books in the area of networks and social media. Here’s what they had to say:
The Book: “The Wealth of Networks” by Yochai Benkler
“It’s a formidable manifesto about the ways the digital technologies will alter our sense of value and our understanding of how we build things in the world. Benkler wants us to think beyond scarcity. What he is saying is that the tradition of political economy has been, for centuries, about managing scarcity. Coming up with models about efficient distribution of resources, his book sort of blows all of that away and shows a very different picture of world. One in which value is subject to the ability to manage abundance.
It’s too easy to say that we live in a world of unlimited information or information overload. What Benkler is pointing out is that real value is determined by the ways that people leverage this abundance to create huge and functional structures that don’t depend on the old reward systems where you had to pay somebody with goods, services, money, to get them to do something. Benkler points out that there are some really elaborate and valuable experiments in an electronic networked economy that don’t require you to reward people with those sorts of things. The reward is sociality, being part of something. The two best examples are Linus and Wikipedia. The reward for them is the deep reward of human beings working with each other.
Whether you buy his argument one, 50 or 100 percent, you can’t ignore this book. It’s a great conversation starter about the changes we’re going through.”
The Book: “Here Comes Everybody” by Clay Shirky
“It’s about how the Internet makes organizing groups trivially easy and how that process changes the kinds of groups that get formed and how it disrupts business and other structures that are based on doing that group formation in the old, expensive way.
I’m most interested in it from a journalism perspective since that’s what I do. Fundamentally, it gets at how the Internet eliminates a lot of the power that comes with owning a distribution channel. Before, if you had a group of people who wanted to know about city council in Boston and you had a group of people when knew about city council in Boston, to connect those two people you needed to have a journalist in the middle who would talk to the people who know what they’re talking about and would then share that knowledge with a large audience of people who buy the newspaper or watch the TV broadcast. That channel isn’t as important anymore. It’s easier to get around that channel; it’s easier for groups with like interests to assemble themselves without the intervention of a middle man, which is unfortunate for those folks who’ve made a living being quality, competent middle men.
It’s perfectly aligned to beatblogging because it’s all about how groups form. And around every beat there’s an invisible group of people who care about that beat and know about that beat. No matter how good a reporter you are pre-Internet, you were only going to be able to know a tiny fraction of those people. When that community can form around a Web site and form around this blog, the communication doesn’t have to be the reporter seeking out a source blindly or going to the same place you always go to. Now the sources have the ability to come to you and that really ties back into what Shirky is talking about.”
Two more after the jump…
Brian Reich, Managing Director of little m media and author of Media Rules!: Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience.
The Book: “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives” by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser
“The book is not about how to master social media or the technologies that will fuel engagement and change in the future. Rather, Palfrey and Gasser dig deep into “the future opportunities and challenges associated with the Internet as a social space,” as well as “the legal and social ramifications of the Internet with regard to the generation of “Digital Natives” born after 1980. I don’t think technology is the answer and too much of the attention in social media is paid to the tools, the channels and the like. For example, Twitter is not, itself, important — it is what short-form/micro communications represent about our society and how our communications are changing that we must understand. A first and important step to understanding how to engage, educate, mobilize and social effectively is to understand the audience you are trying to reach. Few books do as good a job as Born Digital at breaking down how digital natives communicate and what their expectations are for those who try to communicate with them.”
Howard Rheingold, author and critic on the topic of the social, cultural and political implications of modern communication media.
The Book: “From Counterculture to Cyberculture” by Fred Turner
“Fred Turner makes a strong historian/journalist/media-analyst case that the Whole Earth Catalog and several of the counter-cultural ideals and driving forces that merged in it, and especially the WELL, set the scene for personal computing and Web culture. Any number of cyberculture historians and theorists have come up with their analytic frameworks for understanding the importance of the WELL, but Fred Turner is the only one who really got it right.
He invokes some ideas that come from the sociology of science. He speaks about “network forums” that bring together networks that had not intersected before, in ways that lay the groundwork for people to create new sociotechnical forms. The Whole Earth Catalog readers and contributors, and later the WELL, are examples of network forums that brought together the people who were interested in self-sufficiency — an old American tradition that goes back to Emerson’s “Self Reliance” with the old-tech people interested in self-sufficient energy systems like windmills.
It’s not only an excellent historical analysis of the roots of digital culture, but it offers analytic frameworks for looking at social-cultural change. It is also a great example of how someone can go through two primary source materials, seek out people to interview and come up with an explanation of what a particular group of people did 25 years ago — so accurately that those people agree it is a good portrayal. It’s important to understand the dynamics of the historical emergence of web culture.”