Cognitive surplus, by Clay Shirky
Cognitive surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age
Shirky compares the total time expended to build Wikipedia (ca. 100 million hours by 2008) with US yearly TV watching (200 billion
hours), in his August 28 keynote at Wiki-Conference NYC
is the latest book by US writer and consultant Clay Shirky
, adjunct professor at New York University
. The book's thesis is that in most industrialized countries an increase in free time and improvements in education since World War II have been generating a huge "cognitive surplus", defined as the aggregate of educated people's "free time". While this potential has so far mostly been wasted on watching television, in our "connected age" modern communication tools enable us to put it to a much more productive use, by collaborating for mutual and societal benefit.
Wikipedia is a prime example of such a collaboration, and Shirky was one of its earliest observers: In his April 2003 talk "A group is its own worst enemy", where he warned of the fundamental group dynamics that tend to threaten online communities, he singled out Wikipedia as a group that had avoided such threats. In his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, Wikipedia figures as a key example. (Shirky has been on the Wikimedia Foundation's Advisory Board since 2007 and was consulted for the WMF's Strategic Planning project.) In Cognitive surplus, Wikipedia is less prominent, but the book is filled with insights, anecdotes and research results that make it an excellent read for Wikimedians who want to reflect on the successes and challenges of the Foundation's projects.
Wasting or using free time
Cognitive surplus grew out of an April 2008 talk (the transcript provocatively titled "Gin, television, and social surplus"). Shirky is following a decades-old tradition of criticizing TV as a passive medium, poignantly expressed in his exchange with a TV producer to whom he had described the intense collaboration of Wikipedians:
||she sighed and said, "Where do people find the time?" Hearing this, I snapped and said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from." She knew, because she worked in the industry that had been burning off the lion's share of our free time for the last fifty years.
For Shirky, even playing (collaborative) computer games such as World of Warcraft is a more participatory activity than watching TV; but not all collaborations enabled by the Internet are equally beneficial to society. He contrasts examples such as Wikipedia and Ushahidi (a platform where Kenyan citizens collaborated to track outbreaks of ethnic violence) with Icanhascheezburger.com, a website for making Lolcat images, which he calls a candidate for 'the stupidest possible creative act', but at least one that bridges the gap "between doing nothing and doing something" and has a collaborative element. (While writing the book, Shirky considered "LOLcats as soulcraft" as its title; Ragesoss offered an interpretation.) Shirky calls the making and sharing of Lolcats a "communal" collaboration, i.e. one that is mainly benefiting participants, while communities such as Wikipedia generate "civic" value for the outside society. One of the book's main points is that although technological advances more or less guarantee there will be communal activity, transforming cognitive surplus into civic value requires active effort. In his NYC talk, he framed this difference in required effort as a spectrum from "Let it happen" to "Make it happen"; a notion that Sue Gardner quoted last week with respect to the different levels of facilitation required from the Foundation regarding the already established English Wikipedia and the still developing Hindi Wikipedia.
The second chapter examines the new means by which people can aggregate cognitive surplus. The basic theme – that the Internet has radically reduced the cost for communicating, and particularly for publishing – has been elaborated many times; but Shirky still manages to present it in a fresh, clear narrative, by focusing on what he calls "Gutenberg economics", where the act of publication carries a high financial risk and the decision on what to publish is therefore crucial. After remaining in force for the past five centuries, this economic principle is no longer valid. Just as Gutenberg's invention of movable type had precipitated a sharp drop in the costs of making a book, and consequently a drop in the average quality of books ("before Gutenberg, the average book was a masterpiece"), the Internet caused a drop in the average quality of published content, but compensates for this with room for experimentation and diversity, such that "the best work becomes better than what went before".
Motivating and cultivating collaboration
Why exactly do people share and collaborate? Shirky's discussion of several research results from psychology and behavioral economics might be of great interest to Wikimedians. Edward L. Deci's "Soma" experiments found that intrinsic motivations – "the reward that an activity creates in and of itself" – can be "crowded out" by an extrinsic motivation such as a financial reward. Some recent attempts to increase participation in Wikipedia could be interpreted as supplementing intrinsic motivations (editing Wikipedia for fun) with extrinsic motivations such as winning prizes or passing a university course. Might the avoidance of crowding-out effects become an important concern in such projects? Signpost readers might remember the frustration of Muddyb, a Wikipedian from Tanzania and a bureaucrat on the Swahili Wikipedia, about the lack of motivation of the participants in Google's "Kiswahili Wikipedia Challenge" after the prizes had been distributed:
||Nearly all of them are gone now and left a lot of [low quality] articles ... they don’t care because they were there for laptops and other prizes (no need to be rude, but it hurts me pretty bad).
According to Deci, there are two kinds of "personal" intrinsic motivation: a desire to be autonomous (to be in control of one's actions) and to be competent ("to be good at what we do"). These are complemented and reinforced by two kinds of "social" intrinsic motivations (according to Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum): a desire for a connectedness (membership) and for sharing (generosity). These two pairs – personal and social motivations – are summed up nicely by Shirky in the two messages "I did it" and "We did it", which he says form a feedback loop that applies to Wikipedia and most other uses of cognitive surplus. However, at his NYC keynote Shirky remarked that these four can sometimes also be in competition. For example, the desire for connectedness might make one welcome new members into a collaboration and learn from them, but at the same time this exchange might make one feel less competent than before.
Shirky addresses the "digital sharecropping" criticism formulated by Nicholas Carr, who argues that just as land owners used to exploit farm workers without pay, allowing them only a share of the crops they had grown themselves, today's owners of online platforms reap the value that the participants of online communities generate without pay. Shirky mostly dismisses these complaints, which "arise partly from professional jealousy", by arguing they are a misapplication of Gutenberg economics: the participants are not workers driven by financial incentives (external motivations), but contributors motivated by a desire to share. However, Shirky notes the AOL Community Leader Program, where a "change from a community-driven site to an advertising-driven site" robbed volunteer moderators of such motivations (and prompted a class action lawsuit that concluded this May, after 11 years), as a case where the "digital sharecropping" term is justified. Historians of Wikipedia will recall how concerns over possible advertising on Wikipedia prompted the Spanish fork in 2002.
Popular at the time, but not yet realizing the full intellectual potential of the printing press: Illustration from the romance book "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
" (1499), used in Shirky's NYC keynote
Chapter four, titled "Opportunity", describes the ways in which such motivations, enabled by the new collaboration tools, lead to successful "social production" (the example that Shirky devotes most room to is the Apache HTTP Server project). One interesting notion here is that of "combinability", further explored in the fifth chapter, which describes the kind of "culture" that according to Shirky must be fostered to enable society to benefit from its cognitive surplus. As a lucid comparison, he describes the Invisible College in 17th century England, a collaboration of scholars which played an important role in the scientific revolution, later morphing into the Royal Society. Shirky's main point here is that Gutenberg had provided the technical means for this kind of collaboration long before, but it was brought about only by a change in culture – from that of the alchemists, whose secretive attitude made them repeat each others' errors, to the open scientific communication we know today, that enables scholars to combine their knowledge better. Shirky cites economist Dominique Foray who posits four conditions that must be met for a community to combine knowledge effectively, regarding:
- The size of the community
- The cost of sharing the knowledge
- The clarity of the shared information
- The cultural norms of the recipients
It is clear that the Internet helps to reduce the cost of sharing and to enlarge the number of possible participants. "Clarity" might refer to forms like recipes or standard description formats. Here again, Shirky argues that "culture", the fourth condition, is the most crucial one, relating to "shared assumptions about how [the group] should go about its work, and about its members' relations". The term community of practice has been coined for groups that have developed a certain form of such a culture. Shirky does not mention Wikipedia in this respect (citing free software projects instead), but it is not hard to see that it might be worthwhile to apply Foray's criteria and the notion of a "community of practice" to Wikipedia – British historian Dan O'Sullivan has written an entire book called "Wikipedia: a new community of practice?" (see Signpost review).
Wikipedia is a collaboration of "civic" value, not just a "communal" one such as exchanging Lolcat images
In the sixth chapter, Shirky comes back to the difference between projects like Wikipedia and platforms like I Can Has Cheezburger?, or between collaborations that provide civic value for society and those that only reward their members. He revisits a main topic from his 2003 "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy" talk: The results of group dynamics researcher W. Bion, who identified three ways in which the emotional needs of participants often derail collaborating groups from pursuing their shared goal (see Wilfred_Bion#Basic_assumptions): The group can degenerate into blind veneration of an idol (Tolkien in a Lord of the Rings newsgroup), into quasi-paranoid defense against real or perceived outside threats (Microsoft among Linux fans in the 1990s), or into "pairing off" when the members are mostly concerned with forming romantic couples "or discussing those who form them". Groups have to respect the emotional needs of their members (Shirky notes that even an extremely hierarchical group such as the military "is deeply concerned about the soldier's morale"), but if they aim at more and provide civic value, they need to develop some sort of governance. Again, the Wikipedian reader might reflect how Bion's insights relate to Wikipedia policies.
In the final chapter, Shirky ventures to give some more direct advice on how to start successful social media platforms. However, he cautions that it is not possible to formulate an overall strategy for harnessing cognitive surplus – experimentation is still essential to find "the most profound uses of social media".
Assessing Shirky's ideas
The book's basic themes have some inevitable overlap with those of "Here Comes Everybody". However, by introducing the notion of cognitive surplus, Shirky manages to provide a fresh perspective.
Shirky's frequent use of examples and anecdotes has often been criticized (for example by Evgeny Morozov ). Indeed, some examples in "Cognitive Surplus" may fail to convince by themselves, such as when Shirky contrasts the restrictions that advertisers' expectations place on women's magazines (as criticized by Naomi Wolf in her 1991 book The Beauty Myth), with an edgy blog post about casual misogyny from 2009. While, say, Cosmopolitan may not have published such a text in 1991, it is entirely imaginable that it could have run in more specialized feminist magazines (say Spare Rib or off our backs) before the Web, where it could equally well have attracted the "thousands of readers" that Shirky reports for the blog post. Or consider the anecdote that concludes the book: A four-year-old girl watches a DVD, jumps off the couch and searches behind the TV, saying she is "looking for the mouse" – a striking emblem for a young generation that expects media to be participatory. However, snarky Internet commenters have remarked that the programme the child was watching, Dora the Explorer, frequently features imagery borrowed from computer desktops, including mouse-pointer-like arrows and "clicks", which makes her action less striking. But it would be wrong to say that Shirky relies on his anecdotes and examples to prove his points. Their real value lies in illuminating and clarifying ideas, especially for readers like Wikipedians who will be able to test those statements against their own experiences. And especially in the middle chapters, the anecdotal approach is balanced by a multitude of established research results. Finally, Shirky has proven his insight not just in hindsight. Observers of free encyclopedias may recall the clear predictions that Shirky made about Citizendium's model of collaboration at the time of its foundation in 2006, which appear to have been largely vindicated since then (as observed some months ago by researcher Mathieu O'Neil, see Signpost coverage: Role of experts on Wikipedia and Citizendium examined, or in my own talk about Citizendium at Wikimania 2009).