Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Author Clay Shirky places internet usage within a historical perspective from what it means to have spare time. You see, until the 1950's, people spent all their time working and with their local communities - that is, those people reasonably close by. But in the 50's, the television was becoming rather popular. Combining this new form of entertainment along with the new schedules that American families were beginning to adopt (go work at the factory or the firm, then come home), America became addicted to the sitcom. A side-effect of this new addiction was that people became less interactive with one another, confining themselves in front of their own televisions. Another side effect was that we became strictly consumers; there was no convenient way to interact with a sitcom. This gorging on television was a result of a time surplus, but there was no way to tap into that collective resource.

Fast-forward to the last fifteen years, and you'll see a different kind of surplus. People are now using their time online through a wide variety of interactive services: social media, forums, comment sections, etc. With the means to tap into extra time and allow people to create and interact, we now have what Shirky calls a cognitive surplus. That time, energy, and brain power can be spent with things as silly as LOLCats, or these resources can be spent on social and political change.

One of the "poster-child" services for this ideal is Wikipedia, which is literally collecting the knowledge of the masses. Shirky also points out Grobanites for Charity, Josh Groban fans who agree on charities to give to. Or, perhaps one of the biggest successes in cognitive surplus would be the Linux operating system and the accompanying Apache server system.

By contributing to a cause greater than him- or herself, each group member can feel connected to a community. This new source of connection and interaction creates loyalty between members and between the member and the cause.

An obvious effect of this is that companies want to tap into this exchange of time and energy, but that doesn't mean that the process always turns out well. Take People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People competition. The magazine decided to let fans vote on the list in 2009, but they had also allowed fans to add a write-in vote. Hank, the Angry Drunken Dwarf from the Howard Stern Show was the runaway winner and wrestler Ric Flair came in second. Groups don't always behave in the way that we expect, and they can see through tacked on experiences of "community."

Looking at the Larger Implications

Reviewing this book makes me realize that the value of this book is less in the specific quotes and examples found in the text as it is the application of these ideas. We all know of plenty of examples where community involvement online made something successful or powerful in ways that mere information could not accomplish.

The fact is, we are desperate to contribute to something meaningful. That might mean that we want to goof off and contribute something funny to help ourselves and others feel better about life. It may mean that we help look through imagery of the Boston Marathon to track down suspects. The various means and causes that we can use this cognitive surplus for are endless.

The question, then, is what will we do with this abundant resource. We all like to claim we have no time for anything extra, but the truth is that we make time for the things that are most pressing. Are we using our cognitive surplus in the way that we want to use it? Not that we all have to use our time to save the rainforest with online petitions, but do we see value in what we do?

Secondly, can you build something that will engage a community? Can you help foster a community to make positive change? There are many skill sets needed to make a community thrive (online or off).

Find Out More about Cognitive Surplus

Check out Cognitive Surplus on Amazon, at your local bookstore, or at your library. I personally find a ton of great stuff in my library (section 303 in the ol' Dewey Decimal system), so you don't have to spend money on this stuff.

CommunityMichael Roberts