November 7, 2011

Cognitive Surplus – A Potent New Force for Social Change

clay-shirkyThe rapid growth of the Internet and the low cost of collaborative technology (e.g., Facebook and other social media) offers us an extraordinary new opportunity to apply our creative energies to the world’s problems.  Clay Shirky, social media commentator and author of Here Comes Everybody, has written a book, Cognitive Surplus, which explores the implications of this.

Shirky defines cognitive surplus as the free time we have available to us.  It grew out of the forty hour work week.  In the second half of the last century, this cognitive surplus had few outlets and was channeled mainly into consumption.  Most of our free time went into watching television. Media production costs were high; as a result, what got produced and how it got distributed was the province of experts.  We were consumers, an audience, a collection of target markets.

Today the Internet and social media have given us new ways to connect and apply our creativity that are not constrained by geography or economics.   Online collaborative communities can organize around the need to solve specific problems.  These range from the social to the scientific.  These communities tap into and are driven by the generosity and intrinsic motivations of the individuals who participate. As Shirky points out, these communities are not chaotic; members establish their own rules and governance.

The emergence of these online communities offers the tantalizing prospect of directly funneling time, talent, and energy toward the solution of social and political problems in a way that bypasses institutional inertia and politics.  What’s exciting about the emergence of low cost online tools for collaboration is that they provide us with both awareness and the power to act; we become both audience and actor.  For would-be social entrepreneurs who want to tap into the cognitive surplus, Shirky provides some guiding principles for successful communities, based on his study of these communities.  These were nicely summarized by Valeria Maltoni over at Conversation Agent:

  1. Start small — See if it works, first. And the best way not to have an idea killed prematurely is by testing a small version of it, then bring results to the table.
  2. Ask “why?” — It’s still surprising how this is often overlooked. Why would people do this, whatever this is that you want them to do, over something else? Why will they choose you/this system?
  3. Behavior follows opportunity — Can you design a system that provides opportunity people understand and find valuable?
  4. Default to social — Social value is stronger than personal value, so allowing people to see what others are sharing and bookmarking is a better setting to encourage adoption.
  5. A hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand — The middle ground between large and small can be confusing for users trying to figure out how to interact with each other.
  6. People differ. More people differ more — As in they will have different behaviors, things they like to do, etc., so think about tiering levels of involvement.
  7. Intimacy doesn’t scale — You either have large groups all paying attention to one thing, or people split into smaller active groups.
  8. Support a supportive culture — This taps into people’s sense of fairness.
  9. The faster you learn, the faster you’ll be able to adapt — And the best way to learn is by watching how people behave using the tools at hand.
  10. Success causes more problems than failure — Planning down to the details and potential problems you will have is a poor substitute for experience; planning won’t teach you how to solve the problem that arises while you do.
  11. Clarity is violence — This point is about putting process in front of experience and before its time; regulate something too soon, and you won’t know what you’re regulating.
  12. Try anything. Try everything — The applications are many and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that works in every instance.

angry-birdsYou would be forgiven for questioning whether our cognitive surplus will actually be applied in this manner.  After all, consider that Angry Birds, a popular game for smart phones, consumes 1.2 billion hours of that surplus each year.  But in fact, when the surplus is so large worldwide, it doesn’t take much of a shift to make a huge difference.  Using data from ComScore, Adam Hevenor created a table (see below) which shows the difference that applying just 1% of our collective average time online toward socially meaningful activities would make.

With such a potential reserve of creative energy, the prognosis for the beneficial use of our cognitive surplus is hopeful; the impact could be astounding.



1 Comment
  • T.J., November 8, 2011 Reply

    Thanks for using Adam's table from his blog post; we had hoped that it would be useful for those of us who like to see the numbers to let the reality sink in :)

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