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

by Ryon Harms on July 14, 2010

This is the second post summarizing Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (affiliate link). If you missed Part I, click here to read it before starting this one.

The perfect social media strategy… doesn’t exist yet.

Truth is that with just over five years of experimentation, we are still in the trial and error phase of understanding how exactly social media will shape our culture. Shirky points out to the early days of Gutenberg, who made a mint typesetting bibles and indulgences. If you lived in the fifteenth century, you might have thought the printing press was made to buttress the Church. However, just the opposite happened. A flood of printed indulgences swept through Europe, leading to Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. Luther’s rebellion then went viral thanks to the printing press and ultimately undermined the Church’s dominance.

Quote: Because we’re so lousy at predicting what we will do with new communications tools before we try them, this particular revolution, like the print revolution, is being driven by overlapping experiments whose ramifications are never clear at first.

8 Lessons To Improve Your Odds For Social Media Success

In the final chapter, Shirky provides a goldmine of information that alone would make the book worth reading. Below are my favorite eight lessons:

  1. Start Small: to get to a system that is large and good, it is far better to start with a system that is small and good and work on making it bigger.
  2. Behavior Follows Opportunity: it doesn’t matter how much you want users to behave a certain way. What matters is how they react to the opportunities you give them.
  3. Growing: a hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand. A hundred people is often too big to operate as a single group but too small to become socially self-sustaining.
  4. Participation: you can’t insist that participation be either equal or universal. A low threshold of participation invites the accumulation of the smallest units of value.
  5. Intimacy Doesn’t Scale: you can have a large group of users. You can have an active group of users. You can have a group of users all paying attention to the same thing. Pick two because you can’t have all three.
  6. Support a Supportive Culture: a visible willingness to enforce the rules, actually reduces the amount of energy the people who run the network have to expend on policing, because the members know they can count on predictable support.
  7. Success Causes More Problems Than Failure: successful services heighten expectations and attract people that want to take advantage of the goodwill of others.
  8. Clarity is Violence: groups tolerate governance only after enough value has accumulated to make the burden worthwhile. The burden of rules has to follow, not lead.

Cognitive Surplus did not live up to my expectations, but my expectations were so high that it’s still well worth reading. One of my biggest bones to pick was that Shirky, time and again, used the same academic studies originally used by Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational, a must read on another one of my favorite subjects–Behavioral Economics. In short, Cognitive Surplus has some insights worth absorbing, if you haven’t read Shirky’s previous book Here Comes Everybody, or Ariely’s Predictably Irrational.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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