Executive Book Summary: Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky (Part I)

by Ryon Harms on July 12, 2010

This is Executive Book Summary is the first in a series of book reviews. If you would like to check out the rest of my bookshelf, where I’ve rated several of my favorite books, click here.

Clay Shirky (TED, Blog, Twitter) is the Godfather of social media. His work on Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (affiliate link) in 2005 was a visionary book and is still a must read for any serious student of social media. His encore work Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (affiliate link) is another worthy read, but wasn’t as intellectually satisfying. Not that it wasn’t written eloquently and convincingly, it was, but because he recycles ideas that don’t bring much new to the party. With that said, I still highly recommend this book, if only because these insights can’t be emphasized enough.

The fusing of means, motive, and opportunity creates our cognitive surplus out of the raw materials of accumulated free time.

In Cognitive Surplus, it isn’t the big ideas that make the book worth reading, it’s the way Shirky positions social media in a historical prospective. Just as in early 18th Century London the population drank themselves into the Gin Craze to cope with the harsh realities of early industrialization, post-World War II America turned to sitcoms to consume their new-found free time following the advent of the 40-hour work week.

When Boomers today ask where “these kids” find the time to post on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, they need only look to their wasted youths watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island and I Love Lucy. As Shirky points out, recent generations are opting to take advantage of the abundance created by social technology to communicate, share and be generous through amateur content, as opposed to sitting back and mindlessly consuming the scarce content created by professionals. And because abundance can remove the trade-offs we’re used to, it can be disorientating to the people who’ve grown up with scarcity.

Quote: In fact, were this preference for the professional universally applied, we would all be patronizing prostitutes -they are after all far more experienced at their craft.

Abundance creates opportunities.

In a world where opportunity changes little, behavior will change little, but when opportunity changes a lot, behavior will as well, so long as the opportunities appeal to real human motivations. Where once we sat brain dead watching Gilligan pooch the rescue yet again, social media is providing opportunities for humans to express a previously untapped need to communicate, share and create on a massive scale, desires driven by both intrinsic (personal) and extrinsic (social) rewards.

Quote: Interpretations of those behaviors that focus on the technology miss the point: technology enables those behaviors, but it doesn’t cause them.

A an old motivation, revealed through new technology.

Contrary to common belief, social media and other studies in behavioral economics are proving that human motivations based on social contracts can be stronger than those based on market compensation. For as long as we can remember, there have been two ways to get things done on a civic scale: the first was by government and the second through commercial enterprise. However, we now have a third viable option: wired communities that leverage massive aggregations of small contributions into civic-scale projects, for example Wikipedia and Ushahidi. According to Shirky, understanding how to create and maintain those communities for the greater good is one of the great challenges of our era.

Quote: Is their behavior rewarding a desire for autonomy or for competence? Is it rewarding their desire to feel connected or generous?

Clay Shirky concedes that there are no fool-proof recipes for social media success. However, over the last few decades we’ve learned a few things about human interactions that can improve the odds for those of us committed to using social technology. The second part of this book review (to be released) will highlight some of those keen insights.

Clay Shirky at TED discussing Cognitive Surplus

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