Clay Shirky, groups and "just because…"

Following Clay Shirky’s talk @ the ICA on Wednesday (watch it here), there was one thing he said that really, really stuck in my head, and I’ve been kicking it around for a few days now… let’s see if I can make proper sense of it here.

[Note: it starts economics-y, but I’ll drag it round to comms & brands and that…]

Basically, it used to cost to bring significant groups of people together.  And this played out in two different ways; people would be brought together ‘for money’, or for ‘the public good’.


Now, the private sector were the people who brought people together ‘for money’.  If companies could get significant numbers of people to do something, pay for it, and then make MORE money from the payments received than it cost to bring those people together, then they would do it.

Example; if a clothing company could get everyone to buy into their brand, wear their clothes, and overall pay the company more the the cost of production, distribution, marketing et al… then that’s a viable business.  People are brought together because a private company can make money from it.


Now, groups of people could also be made to do things that were for the public good; run a national health service, so the workforce is healthier, and the economy more productive.  Pay the TV licence, so that the BBC can continue to ‘educate, inform and entertain’.  Pay taxes, observe laws, claim benefits etc etc etc…

…and this is all funded by the public sector.  People come together in groups to do these things because it’s for the good of the town, region or country, and the public picks up the cost.


Because getting people together was so expensive, that was the only real two ways that people came together…

…but here, says Shirky, is where things have changed.  There are no longer just two reasons people come together in groups.  There are three.

Technology (internet, social networking, mobile phones and so on) has brought down the cost of bringing people together by so much that there is a third reason that people come together in groups… ‘just because’.


There doesn’t have to be a profit in it for anyone, or some high and mighty purpose the the government should fund.  People can now come together just because they want to

For kicks, for fun, to feel that they’re a part of something bigger, to socialise, to be inspired, to just kill time… people all over the world are filling time with doing stuff together just because.

What’s this got to do with communications between companies and people?

Well, it’s sometimes hard to persuade anyone who’s established a career in the ‘pre-social’ era of the potential.

“Why would people do that?”  they’ll ask.  And they’re right to, because thinking back to an era where people only came together for money or for the public good, that sort of behaviour didn’t exist. 

No-one would do the things we see groups of people doing now, because it’d be extremely costly for them to participate (in terms of time and resource), and extremely costly for the company to set up and run.

But as we’ve seen, the cost of participation has disappeared.

So, to refer back to Amelia’s post on comparethemeerkat, over 90,000 people will become ‘friends’ with a fictional, talking meerkat.  They’ll read what other people have said to him.  They’ll comment themselves, maybe.  Why?  Well, just because they want to.


Our priority must be to move the emphasis of question.

It’s not about ‘Why would people do that?”.  The answer to that is always ‘just because’. 

You could do endless studies on the myriad of reasons (sense of belonging, ego, desire, self-realisation…).  And you’ll get to a imprecise, final answer which can be summarised as…

‘…just because they want to’

The important bit is the latter half;  ‘…they want to’

Companies who want to connect with people in this space have to create, build, share and start things that satisfy the ‘want’ in people. 

It’s back to the Entertain, Educate, Connect or be Useful principles again; do things for people that has some real power in satisfying the ‘want’. 

Because if you tie yourself up in knots over clarifying why they want to do something, you’ll be in the same position you are now six months down the line…