In 1982, I had a fellowship that allowed me to spend a year learning how computers were changing work in America. I spent the year talking with auto workers and car designers in Detroit, newspaper composers in Miami, bankers and technology officials in Boston. Here’s what I learned: It was too early to say how computers would change the lives of average workers. After all, it was only a year after the first IBM personal computer had been introduced. Cheap computer power was upon us and we knew that these bulky desktop computers would bring vast changes, but we didn’t know where or how the changes would come.

During that year, I heard a great phrase. The first thing computers would do, an engineer told me, was “pave the cowpaths.” That is, they would take what was routine and make it faster and cheaper. Computers would  get rid of newspaper Linotype machines – loud, monstrous contraptions that composed newspapers in metal forms – replacing them with small, clean, quiet phototypesetting printers. They would gradually replace bank tellers with ATMs. They would replace paper drawings and clay models of car designs with computer renderings that you could rotate and even take on a virtual test drive. None of these tasks was new (setting type, dispensing cash, designing cars). In the first wave, then, computers would make established routines more efficient.

But what about the second wave, after the cowpaths were paved? What entirely new things would we be able to do with cheap computers? No one knew, but we assumed it would be revolutionary. And we were right.

It’s nearly 30 years later, and now we can see that computers – paired with the Internet, an innovation as great as the personal computer itself – have come close to eliminating newspapers, not just the jobs of a few of their workers. They’ve allowed us to carry thousands of songs around in our pockets, killing record stores and decimating recording companies. Soon, we’ll all carry libraries of literature in a device the size of a single book and, in doing, kill the bookstores. Computers and the Internet allow us to do nearly all our banking from home. (Goodbye branch banks? Goodbye paper checks?) They’ve given rise to new ways of buying things, from books and shoes to entertainment (Amazon, Zappos, Netflix) and new ways of selling them (eBay, Craig’s List).

None of this was obvious in 1982. And here’s my point: When we talk about how new technologies, particularly social networking, will affect communities and their leadership, nothing is obvious today. We’re still paving the community cowpaths. But get ready, because the changes will be huge.

Let’s start with the cowpaths. If I were president of a Rotary Club or executive director of a non-profit, I’d put together an e-mail list and send out a newsletter every week or two. If I were angry about the city council, I’d post a snippish update on my Facebook wall or, if I’m really steamed, write a blog post calling out every council member by name. If I wanted to hold an emergency neighborhood meeting, I might use e-mail, Facebook or Twitter to put out the word. And I wouldn’t sent out just one message – I’d send out a half-dozen reminders as well. After all, these messages are essentially free (no postage, no paper, no running to the printer for leaflets).

But none of these tasks is truly new. I’ve taken the familiar (paper newsletters, letters to the editor, griping about politicians, calling a meeting) and made them faster, cheaper and better through my computer and the Internet. I’ve paved some cowpaths.

So what will be new, even revolutionary, thanks to computers, the Internet and social networking?  With the caveat that it’s still early in the social networking era, let me offer a few thoughts.

To begin, as Clay Shirky points out in his book, “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” the most important contribution will be to dramatically reduce the “transaction costs” of coordinating groups. What are transaction costs? They’re all the things people have to do to manage organizations, events and projects.

To get a sense of what this means, Shirky asked us to imagine what it would have been like in, say, 1992 to be angry about a problem in your community and hear that a new organization was forming to address it. Your first impulse, certainly, would have been to join. But right away, Shirky wrote, you would have run into “a set of small hurdles.”

How would you locate the organization? How would you contact it? If you requested literature, how long would it take to arrive, and by the time it got there, would you still be in the mood (to join)? No one of these barriers to action is insurmountable, but together they subject the desire to act to the death of a thousand cuts.

The Internet and social networking have leveled those small hurdles. You know exactly what to do today: Go online and look at the group’s web site. If you’re convinced, you can register your name, phone number and e-mail address with the organization. You can take note of the date, time and place of the next meeting – and put it in your iPhone or Blackberry calendar. For good measure, you might go on Facebook and tell your friends about the organization and ask them to join you at the meeting.

And it doesn’t stop there. Since you’ve registered your contact information (maybe by clicking the “like” button on the group’s Facebook page), you’ll start receiving regular updates from the group, including invitations to additional events. And the group’s organizers will know who’s coming to their events by the number who respond.

And here’s where we really get off the cowpaths: The greatest beneficiaries of cheap organizing won’t be conventional civic organizations – Rotary Clubs, chambers of commerce, city governments or even neighborhood associations. These groups are already organized, with established management processes.

No, the greatest beneficiaries will be those groups that couldn’t have organized in the past because they didn’t have the money, staff or connections. What we will see in the future, Shirky wrote, are a lot more groups, thinly financed (if financed at all), headed by volunteers and fueled by cheap technology.

What kinds of groups? Well, certainly protest groups. Wal-Mart take note: Your challenges in locating in big cities are about to get much greater. Ditto for city governments looking to locate a landfill or expand an airport.

But it won’t all be anger and protest. An era of cheap community organizing means almost any small-scale, focused effort can be managed at little cost, from a group of neighbors cleaning up a park to volunteers for an after-school tutoring program.

And here’s the payoff for community leaders: Cheap organizing offers much greater shared responsibility. In the past, citizens expected governments to do most things – clean up parks, tutor kids – because government was organized and they weren’t. But if citizens can be organized quickly and easily, they can do much more for themselves, with government acting as partner, not leader and provider.

This will be one of the greatest changes in cities in the years ahead: the replacing of professional government expertise and labor with that of grassroots volunteers. We’ll still need government but not in an exclusive role and, in some instances, not even in a central role. Rather than government taking charge and calling on citizens to help out, it will often be the reverse: citizens taking charge and asking government to lend a hand.

We are about to test the limits of what people, armed with the tools of cheap organization and communications, can do for themselves. My bet is, it’ll be a lot more than we can imagine.