The main gist of Clay Shirky‘s latest book, Cognitive Surplus, is that amazing things are now possible since society is waking up from its television-induced stupor of the last 60 years. The industrial age and media shift of the 1950s gave us skads of free time — a cognitive surplus — but we weren’t ready and didn’t have the mechanisms, in general, to do anything good with it. So we became couch potatoes. Now, with the emergence of a social web, collaboration and connection as possibilities, the world awaits our good deeds.

Shirky doesn’t so much predict we’re all now going to help the poor and drive revolutions in government and technology because we’ll be challenged by intellectually stimulating free time rather than the sense-numbing kind. But he makes an academic argument that the opportunity is there for the taking.

He writes:

“Creating real public or civic value, though, requires more than posting funny pictures. Public and civic value require commitment and hard work among the core group of participants. It also requires that these groups be self-governing and submit to constraints that help them ignore distracting and entertaining material and stay focused instead on some sophisticated task. … This work is not easy and it never goes smoothly.”

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky

Cognitive Surplus is a fascinating look at the reasons behind the emergence of social change agents brought about by new technologies and opportunities created through collaborative mechanisms like social media. It points to historical references of parallel incidents of cognitive surplus and explains how those societies used them. If you want to understand societal shifts and how today’s population is changing both with and because of it’s use of available technologies, this book delivers.

But the two biggest notions I came away thinking about the world through Shirky’s eyes were these:

  • As many people who will use their cognitive surplus for noble causes will use it for less so (like Farmville).
  • True socially-infused movements cannot be forced.

Provided Shirky’s portrayal of the state of our society is right, and I believe it to be, these ideas are both good and bad news for marketers. First of all, people will continue to want junk. And who better to produce it that marketers? For every person who gravitates toward a Grobanites for Charity effort that emerges to raise money for a good cause, there will be 100 who want to be mesmerized by some silly online game or entertained by puking college students on YouTube.

I would propose that all those good and noble people spent the later half of the 20th Century watching PBS. The rest of us were watching “I Love Lucy,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Dallas” and (ashamedly), “Cops.” Guess which audience is bigger?

Shirky spends a good deal of prose proving the point that we as a species, without rules, restrictions or the encumbrances of fees, fines or market conditions, are inherently good. While social networks can provide some wireframe of that level of unfiltered world, human beings, their governments and even well-intended group administrators will more often than not let those pesky hurdles in. It’s not that we aren’t good, but that our environment seldom facilitates that goodness.

It’s not that I think Shirky is wrong. His points are validated through tales of Linux and Apache and even LOLcats. (Okay, it’s not a social change-agent, but it at least makes us laugh.) But, like many a social media purist, his possibility world of Kumbaya-building Utopia is a stretch.

This bodes well for marketers, though. Today’s reality crap and Bieber-craze sensations that fuel pop culture will be replaced by more collaborative exploits in a socially connected web. That means there will be ad space and that companies can fake being human well enough to lure in the target audience every now and again. Commercialism and capitalism has a place in this world.

The bad news for marketers is that Shirky’s examples quietly illustrate that we can’t force meaningful social activities. They happen organically, if not accidentally. So instead of trying to build branded communities and produce “viral” videos, our best bet is to just be hanging around when something cool happens and be there, not conducting the train.

Still, Shirky gives us hope. He tells us we’ve got a lot of free time on our hands now that we’re migrating away from (and our younger generations aren’t even starting on) TV addiction. We have a golden opportunity to be transformative as a people, not wait on transformative technology to do it for us.

The question remains: Will we take ourselves up on the task.

Cognitive Surplus is available on Amazon (affiliate link, as are the others here) or at your local bookstore. It’s good. Go get it.

NOTE: Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the free review copy of the book and the image above.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://www.seospidy.com seospidy

    nice Post

  • http://todhd.com TODHD

    He is a very smart dude with a lot of knowledgeable insights

  • http://thoughtwrestling.com/blog Mark Dykeman

    I've been a Shirky fan since I heard him speak in a radio interview about cognitive surplus well over a year ago. I've put off getting this book because, quite frankly, I don't expect to find anything in the book that I haven't already heard him talk about in some other way. Nonetheless, I'm a little more interested in actually reading the book after reading this article.

    This idea of “forcing” socially-infused movements… timely thought considering this week's debates about influence, thanks to Fast Company and that online seminar that you participated in this week. Can you really influence a tired, stressed out soul to partake in a good cause for the collective, or society, when he or she is still struggling to fulfill his or her basic needs (re: Maslow)?

    When you visit one of Shirky's key themes, which is that TV shows soaked up available brain cycles that could have been used for other purposes if the tools had been there, was the motivation really there for most people? You could make a case that time spent drinking gin, watching TV and other potentially wasteful pursuits went in that direction instead of constructive pursuits because, quite frankly, there's a need that doesn't really get addressed in Maslow's theories: the need for mindless escape. Or maybe it's a desire. I don't know. However, there are tons of people who flock to mindless stuff, so I think there has to be something there. Plus, Maslow did focus more on healthy, well-adjusted people instead of the average person, so there's a potentially huge hole there anyway… but I digress…

    But not really, because I think that there are still tons of people who don't have the energy to do too much constructive stuff after hours because they're expending so much energy just to scrape by.

    My concern is that Shirky's ideas, like Maslow's, may be applicable to a minority of the global population, which I think you've indicated above.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Good thoughts, Mark. I think I would agree that Shirky's ideas here are
      applicable to a minority, but again he doesn't come out and say the world
      will be a fantastic place now that we're not watching TV. Rather, I think
      he's hoping for that, which I applaud him for. The book is a good read and a
      compelling, well-researched argument that we have something in front of us
      that could be huge. He does end the book with, “Here's how we can help
      foster good in this environment” advice, but still leaves it all hanging at,
      “We could do it … ” crickets.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Good thoughts, Mark. I think I would agree that Shirky's ideas here are
    applicable to a minority, but again he doesn't come out and say the world
    will be a fantastic place now that we're not watching TV. Rather, I think
    he's hoping for that, which I applaud him for. The book is a good read and a
    compelling, well-researched argument that we have something in front of us
    that could be huge. He does end the book with, “Here's how we can help
    foster good in this environment” advice, but still leaves it all hanging at,
    “We could do it … ” crickets.

  • http://www.serengeticommunications.com/ bethharte

    Jason, I think there might be misunderstanding in my tweet about 'doom and gloom for marketers.' I meant it as a compliment… Your review of the book is one of the first that has actually made me think about bumping this book to the top of the reading list.

    The one thing I find interesting and have been thinking about is how people really use social networks that ARE NOT tied to the social media community. I'd venture a guess that most people don't follow the 'social media rules' some have tried to instill and they use social collabortion in ways we haven't even recognized yet. All of those crazed online Bieber fans we scoff at may one day provide a kidney to someone else because of the connection they made years before over a pop singer. Or, that's just crazy talk. But, I am betting not.

    Kotler recently released Marketing 3.0, which reflects on a bit of what Shirky is saying (from what I can tell from your review, of course). I don't think marketers are ready for Kotler's and Shirky's new marketing mindset (value over all else). But, some of us are… ;-)

    Alas, this comment could be 100% off…as I have yet to read the book. But, thanks for getting the ol' brain thinking this late in the afternoon.

    Beth Harte
    Serengeti Communications
    @bethharte

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Always glad to make people think. And if you buy the book because of me,
      please tell Clay so. Heh.

      • http://www.serengeticommunications.com/ bethharte

        Oh, I will… And then I'll be callin' ya for my kickback. ;-)

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Always glad to make people think. And if you buy the book because of me,
    please tell Clay so. Heh.

  • http://www.serengeticommunications.com/ bethharte

    Oh, I will… And then I'll be callin' ya for my kickback. ;-)

  • http://www.serengeticommunications.com/ bethharte

    Oh, I will… And then I'll be callin' ya for my kickback. ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/Ovurmind Viktor Ovurmind

    For years we have been lab rat of marketers, now we can be our own lab rat. It is only through purposeful and/or personal experiment that we can determine this as an experience. Whether we gain cognitive surplus or lose in cognitive deficiency is then up to our own vivid imagination, coupled with a sense of humor that we become arbiters of our own interactive life.

    [v.o.M.]

  • http://twitter.com/AnHerkommer Andreas Herkommer

    I don't like the idea of going out there to educate people. Even if the majority may prefer dumb over quality, I still think first of all we should try to learn from them. Even the dumbest person can teach us sth, just depends on our perspective on what he's doing. Take a rock concert: there will certainly be many people I'd consider dumb on first impulse. But then sth happens, everbody tuning in on that sound because it's so good it makes barriers of mind and taste and education irrelevant. Why not go for that sound-quality in what we do: Let it rock, make them connect! Can be done in ways that matter and count, I think. There's lots of awefully good music and films and stuff that we all can connect with. Mayb it's about doing our stuff in ways that are fun, not just meaningful, doing it with guts, not just brain …

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the feedback, Andreas.

  • http://twitter.com/jaygarmon Jay Garmon

    First, I’m a Shirky fanboy, but I’ve not yet had time to consume the whole book. Second, Jason, you make a point that Shirky himself has made in person and non-book writings many times, which is that the general public now has the option (and the tools) to use their cognitive surplus to create, rather than simply consume, media. His 2008 TED talk hits on that theme pretty clearly: http://blip.tv/play/gshVtNIUAgNow, some very tiny percentage of us will use that surplus to create Wikipedia. The rest of us will use it play Farmville. More specifically, those two groups aren’t mutually exclusive.The larger point is that even with the excess of Farmville herds over Wikipedia articles, we still get Wikipedia in the bargain, so that’s a net gain. Moreover, even playing Farmville is better than just watching Green Acres, because at least Farmville involves interaction (however inane) rather than mere passive consumption. That’s a social gain, if only in that it creates acceptance of creating a deliverable in our spare time. Indoctrinating that social standard is beneficial for everybody.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Well said, my man. Though I'm sure we could fuel an entire SMC Louisville
      session debating the social positives of Farmville. heh.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Jason,

    I just finished Cognitive Surplus and am happily resigned to the fact that I’ll never be the smartest Clay in New York, unless Mr. Shirky moves to Nebraska.

    Your review is excellent. A few points that I think are important…

    The LOL-cats thing is interesting. Shirky argues pretty effectively that even if LOL-cats are lowest on the spectrum of value of things we create with a tiny portion of the trillion available participatory hours (with say, Wikipedia being much higher up the value scale) there is an important differentiation between creating a LOL-cat and sitting on the couch “consuming” Seinfeld or COPS. Once you’ve created something and put it out there for the world to see, you’ve crossed a bridge. Seth Godin would say you’ve “shipped”, even if you only shipped a LOL-cat. Then it becomes easier and easier. Your 100th blog post was easier to ship than your first and also much better.

    It may be semantics but I disagree a bit with your analysis that meaningful social activities happens in any way accidentally. Organically yes, (as you note) but not accidentally. Ushahidi was obviously at all an accident. It took the woman who started the blog and fervently kept it up and the programmers who volunteered to build it.

    Videos can go viral accidentally, yes. Marketers can’t force a viral video. We agree on that. But meaningful social activities don’t. Where real value happens, someone is always conducting the train or at least they got it started.

    You’re right that marketers can’t fake it but I think they need to do more than wait around for it to happen.

    Keep leading, buddy.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      I think my point was that marketers come to the table thinking they can
      force big social movements around their brands, benefiting in the end. Yes,
      social movements around causes and important issues take work, but that
      wasn't what I was referring to. I was cautioning marketers that allowing
      your customers to create movements around your brand organically is probably
      better than trying to force them to do it in a brand community or other such
      activity. The bridge marketers need to gap is how to fan those flames
      without burning the community down. Make sense?

      • clayhebert

        Right. We're just delineating a marketing event or campaign vs. a social movement. Two different animals that many marketers try to see as the same thing. Ushahidi worked because of technology + human generosity and because it wasn't led by a marketer or a brand. We agree – marketers can't force this stuff.

  • trish

    Your review and the comments have really got me thinking!

    You said, “…our best bet is to just be hanging around when something cool happens and be there, not conducting the train.” One of the things I love about blogging is some of the really cool, organic events and projects that flow from blogging communities. It's not marketers forcing anything, it's people seeing a need and filling it. I would say that I'm much more influenced to do good and charitable things because of my blogging friends, because people influence each other in their behavior.

    Being so connected to the Internet makes me curious to see how people take this 'cognitive surplus' and use it for good. I guess if I had to choose someone watching TV or hanging out on Facebook actually connecting with others, I'd probably choose Facebook. At least on Facebook there's the potential for them to get motivated to get involved with a cause, whereas watching TV doesn't afford that opportunity.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the comment, Trish. Appreciate your stopping by.

  • http://edwardboches.com/ Edward Boches

    Good review of a good book. I think the real take away form Shirky is this: media in general, was never created for marketers. Certainly the wall space above urinals wasn't. Nor was Facebook, Twitter, blogs or anything else. As “connective tissue” that lets us share, comment, spread, distribute, create, publish, connect and yes, sometimes simple veg out, media doesn't need marketers at all. Neither do the people who use it. We use it for the things that matter to us: we want to learn, join, search, advocate, and sometimes purchase. Brands need to unlearn a lot and learn even more if they're to have any impact on consumers as they (particularly the next generation) move farther and farther from being viewers and spectators and more and more toward being creators and distributors. In doing so they will, inevitably generate a lot of crap as well as ideas/content/movements of virtue. And as the web allows, each of those two types of content will be discovered and sought out by the people who want what each has to offer. Lesson for brands? Forget messages. Forget platforms. Start with what a consumer wants from a category, a product, technology and media. And then be there not simply to offer it, but to inspire it.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Well said, sir. Thanks for stopping by again.

  • http://edwardboches.com/ Edward Boches

    Good review of a good book. I think the real take away form Shirky is this: media in general, was never created for marketers. Certainly the wall space above urinals wasn't. Nor was Facebook, Twitter, blogs or anything else. As “connective tissue” that lets us share, comment, spread, distribute, create, publish, connect and yes, sometimes simple veg out, media doesn't need marketers at all. Neither do the people who use it. We use it for the things that matter to us: we want to learn, join, search, advocate, and sometimes purchase. Brands need to unlearn a lot and learn even more if they're to have any impact on consumers as they (particularly the next generation) move farther and farther from being viewers and spectators and more and more toward being creators and distributors. In doing so they will, inevitably generate a lot of crap as well as ideas/content/movements of virtue. And as the web allows, each of those two types of content will be discovered and sought out by the people who want what each has to offer. Lesson for brands? Forget messages. Forget platforms. Start with what a consumer wants from a category, a product, technology and media. And then be there not simply to offer it, but to inspire it.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Well said, sir. Thanks for stopping by again.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Thanks for the comment, Trish. Appreciate your stopping by.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    Thanks for the comment, Trish. Appreciate your stopping by.

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  • K. Mutua

    I have read several reviews of this book, and this is by far the most well-written review one in that it gave me a fairly good understanding of what to expect of the book. Now I am going to buy and read it for myself

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