Review: Clay Shirky and Cognitive Surplus

Clay Shirky crystallized what was going on with social media in his 2008 book “Here Comes Everybody.” Shirky has a new book out called “Cognitive Surplus.” For a summary of the book, you can read this speech transcript from a couple years ago. You can also watch this video, similar content.

Shirky’s concept certainly has, as Seth Godin puts it, “world-changing” potential. In fact, Tim O’Reilly has already pointed out how to make this a reality, imploring us to work on stuff that matters.

Beyond a straight summary, here are some of the concepts I found thought-provoking:

  • Media is the connective tissue of society. This is a wonderful definition of not only what we share, but also hints at why we connect and how.
  • Digital sharecropping. An idea that social sites create an unfair situation whereby individuals create content but platform owners get the monetary rewards. Theoretically feasible, but rare in practice.
  • Consumers will take control – if you let them. “If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy and competence or generosity and sharing, they might take you up on it.” This could be for better or worse with regards to your brand.
  • The problem is us, not it. “Many of the unexpected uses of communications tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy.” Fewer people today say they don’t get Twitter, namely because we have shifted mental models regarding how people communicate online.
  • Why sharing ideas works. Thomas Jefferson: “He who receives ideas from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine.” I can share ideas through this blog that do not detract from my own ideas – and in fact this community returns the value through comments, retweets, and other responses.
  • Culture is key. It’s how alchemy evolved into chemistry and the world ended up gaining from a greater degree of openness.
  • There are drawbacks to more connectivity. “Increased communication and contact with others isn’t risk free, and any new opportunity requires ways to manage risk.” Moreover, “social media introduces social dilemmas into a number of environments where they didn’t previously exist.”
  • Building a business case may be difficult. “We can’t ask people running traditional systems to evaluate a new technology for its radical benefits; people committed to keeping the current system will tend, as a group, to have trouble seeing value in anything disruptive.” Don’t limit the definition of “systems” here to IT only – think of processes and culture within ecosystems as well. 

The entire last chapter focuses on starting, growing, and adapting efforts – solid advice for anyone responsible for community development. Shirky has created a wonderful outline of the what, why, and how of our society’s Cognitive Surplus – the only question left is “what now,” which can only be answered by each of us.

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