By cognitive surplus, Clay Shirky refers to a vast resource of all the potential free time everyone enjoys while not at work or sleeping. Traditionally in the West, he posits that television has “deflect[ed]” these largely unstructured hours but with the rise of social media, new and exciting things have been happening. Instead of watching endless re-runs of “I Love Lucy” or “Dynasty,” some of us, at least, have been sharing on Facebook, Twitter, in blogs or e-mails and through other interactive forms of computer-based exchange. With this book, Shirky aims to describe and then explore the meaning of this new kind of mass communication.
The book raises some intriguing questions about social media. I’m still pondering the one that seems most relevant to me: Why do people work for free? It is so obvious yet I’d never even considered the idea before. Facebook, e-mail and commenting on other peoples’ blogs take a lot of time and certainly is work. What are we getting out of it? Well, Shirky has some pretty interesting answers that he derives from a series of psychological studies which he describes in detail. Essentially it all boils down to: we enjoy ourselves while doing it.
Another exciting question has to do with the relationship between amateur social media producers and professionals. If there are hundreds of restaurant reviews for any particular place that you might consider dining in, all written by people who have been before, does it really matter what a single professional restaurant critic thinks any more? Maybe not. And that’s where social media has the potential to overturn old ways of thinking and organizing the world. Do we still need wine critics or interior decorators or psychoanalysts any longer? Wow!
Finally, an especially controversial topic that takes up a significant part of this short and enjoyable book: How do you create and define value? Let’s face it, a lot of the stuff on the internet is junk, spam, porn or boring. What makes something really worthwhile? Shirky has some answers for that which moves this book beyond the boundaries of being merely an analysis of social media and human nature into a whole new philosophical realm. Early in the text he asserts a basic assumption:
The cognitive surplus, newly forged from previously disconnected islands of time and talent, is just raw material. To get any value out of it, we have to make it mean or do things.
Of course, my immediate response to that passage was, “Why?” Isn’t it enough just to have fun? Well, apparently not for Starky.
He divides the concept of “value” into four somewhat overlapping parts: personal, communal, public and civic. An example of the first might be when you upload your vacation pictures from Disneyland on Facebook for your friends to see. “Communal” might be a group with a shared interest. In the book, he writes about Harry Potter fan fiction websites. “Public” has to do with on-line activities that are helpful to people generally and “civic” has to do with things that actually change the real world around us in some presumably positive way. He offers numerous examples of social media activities for all categories though clearly more highly values “public” and “civic” over the first two.
I think that is so typical of an academic writer, don’t you? Creating something new and Earth-changing must be as incredibly satisfying as it is rare. Really, most stuff is maintenance. Usually teachers teach students, lawyers practice law, physicians treat patients, plumbers fix leaks and chefs cook food. It is not very often that something genuinely new comes along in any field of human endeavor. So why not give to these every-day communal and personal activities the respect that they deserve? Even in academic research, most of it makes incremental progress in human knowledge, if any at all. A value system that diminishes the wonder, bounty and satisfaction of the routine job-well-done is flawed. Moreover, even if you agree with his perspective, Shirky never addresses the much tougher question of what kinds of civic change are valuable, and to whom. I’ll admit that’s a huge topic, perhaps for another book?
There are lots of other complex areas in social media that don’t get fully fleshed out in this work. For example, the role of advertising and government regulation are obviously relevant here but not a lot is said about them systematically. I also question the case-based approach favored by the author. It is difficult to make generalizations about all of social media with a detailed analysis of only a few dozen compelling examples.
That said, I truly liked this book. It is fun to think about familiar things in new ways and now I fell more energized in my blogging, e-mailing etc. after reading it. I’m even re-contemplating joining Facebook. Shirky is affiliated with the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program. So he’s a professional on social media. It seems ironic that I feel more confident after having an expert, who seems to believe that amateur producers might one day eliminate the need for the professional, tell me what I’m doing with my cognitive surplus is worthwhile. Old habits die hard.