Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review: Clay Shirky's New Book, Cognitive Surplus

Chances are that if you are reading this blog, you already know who Clay Shirky is. If not, it's probably a good idea that you do because Shirky is one of the leading voices in the digital space writing, consulting and teaching about the social and economic effects of internet technologies. In addition to being an esteemed professor teaching at NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, he's also the author of the renowned book, Here Comes Everyone, among others.

Two years after publishing Here Comes Everyone, Shirky builds on his groundbreaking thesis in a new book aptly titled Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. While the focus of his last book was the role that online tools played in the explosion of social media adoption (Facebook just announced that it hit 500 million members), Cognitive Surplus spends a majority of its focus the role that culture and psychology play in driving this new phenomena.

The book starts off with a provocative opening chapter titled, Gin, Television and Cognitive Surplus -- inspired by a similarly named speech and Shirky blogpost back in 2008.* In this initial chapter, we rewind back to London's Gin Craze of 1720 where Shirky describes a city in the grips of a massive spike in gin consumption. Essentially, gin was cheap, easy to drink and most importanly, helped country folk who were working hard to assimilate into city living, "take the edge off." What I like about Shirky's gin example (along with many others in the book) is that he not only explains why the government's proposed solution (making gin illegal) had little impact on the level of gin consumption but rather that it was the assimilation of rural folks into the urban population over time that ultimately reduced the reliance on gin.

Throughout the book, Shirky uses other fascinating examples of "social" at work pointing cases like Howard Stern fans helping elect Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf as People.com's 1998 Most Beautiful Person and Georgia Merton and Penny Cross's "couchsurfing" experience across Europe. What's unique about Shirky's style is that he gets at impetus of why people are doing these things, in many cases providing well-documented research by folks like research psychologist Edward Deci's "Soma" experiment or professors, Güth, Schmittberger and Schwarze's Ultimatum Game to explain what motivates people.

At the end of the day, the reason I agreed to read and review this book is because I am an avid believer in the fact that while social media is not about tools or technologies. Instead it's roots are grounded in a fundamental set of human behaviors that have existed for centuries... if not millennia, and these behaviors are now being shaped and changed by the availability of extra time -- a cognitive surplus have you -- and powered by new social technologies like blogs, wikis, Twitter and Facebook. Shirky drives hard on this concept in Cognitive Surplus and spends his time explaining the psychological and cultural drivers behind the phenomena. To me, it's this approach that has a much better chance of resonating with senior management and thus might help them better understand why they should be embracing rather than eschewing social media.

In summary, if I were to rate this book I would give it a solid A. It's a quick read (just over 200 pages) and it's chock full of new and exciting examples that help provide a better understanding of the "why" behind social media. It's also a book that should appeal to both social media veterans along with marketing folks that are new to the space. If you want to buy the book (I don't get anything if you do), it's readily available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

While this review barely scratches the surface what you'll learn in the book, this 13 minute TED video from earlier this summer should help whet your appetite.

What I neglected to mention up front is that thanks to the efforts and coordination by the fine folks at TLC Book Tours, this post is one in a series of reviews by a dozen prominent marketing bloggers. To read some of the other takes on Shirky's new book, Cognitive Surplus, take your pick from the list of smarties below...

*I learned about the origins of the name of the first chapter from my friend, Jake McKee


  1. I love that Shirky has taken historical examples and applied them to today's social media. It drives home the fact that history is repeated over and over and over.

    I watched the video, and Shirky makes me feel like this is such an exciting time to live!

    Thanks for being on this tour!

  2. Great topic for a post Aaron, I love it! I also am a big believer in the idea that if people are engaged to DO something besides purely passive consumption, they will at least try. Shirky's point that if only a small percentage of the population concentrated even a portion of their "cognitive surplus" (free time) to creating instead of consuming, a huge shift will take place. If incentivised to do so the shift can happen faster and more conclusively. At the same time, it is fascinating to ponder WHAT is the change coming? Shirky says, the whole is so complex that it becomes difficult to see what a change might be as it is happening.

    In The Cluetrain Manifesto, Christopher Locke points out that corporations are simply made of people (or was he discussing Soylent Green? I get confused ;) ) and that given the opportunity to speak in human terms, in a human voice, they will speak their truths and do their best to get the job done and take responsibility, as long as the yoke of the oppressive corporation is removed. But what he is getting at (to me anyway) is that WE are our own oppressors. We are the ones who silence our own voices, tell ourselves we don't matter and decide that simple consumption is fine. Speaking up is too risky and too much energy spent.

    I wonder that this isn't JUST learned behavior from "the opiate of the masses" that traditional media is, but also a legacy of an education system that prefers quiet fealty and consumption of washed, polished, approved facts to be accepted as universal truth without questioning. The greater opportunity we are afforded by online social networks is to do more than simply look at each other's pet and kid photos and comment on how good dinner was at the new restaurant down the block to our friends. It is to wonder, ask others for their interpretations and opinions about anything, EVERYthing in this world and decide, or not, what makes each of us a better spouse, parent, child, human...

    If the 80/20 rule (where of 100 people only 20% will do the real work and rest will simply ride) applies, then in the face of Shirky's assertion that we are entering a new age of usefulness and stepping out of our blind passive, consumptive stupor, will that 20% be the whole who will bring it all about? Will the other 80% continue to simply consume and sit and watch TV, or more realistically, look a the pet and kid pictures and comment on the meals? If commenting on the mundane everyday is the total sum of the majority's input to the system and the society, is this enough? Does this take us back far enough to the Agoura of ancient Greece to shift the populace to a new "old" way of purchasing and interacting as Humans, not as metrics?

    Aaron, you state: "To me, it's this approach that has a much better chance of resonating with senior management and thus might help them better understand why they should be embracing rather than eschewing social media." If its not giving away too much, I'd like to read why you feel there is a better chance of resonating with management? Are companies beginning to recognize that opening the palm of giving and receiving ( the two way conversation) will be a more effective way of earning new and more dedicated customers than the tight fist of "we know what's best for you, don't ask WHY." of push marketing?

    Its a great thought exercise that gets at the heart of the entire thrust of the internet, but is it enough to move us forward as a whole people to the next level?

    Sorry I'm a little rambling, but there are so many sides and the implications are huge and complex. This conversation touches EVERYTHING and changes it all. Thanks for reviewing this book, I'm looking very forward to getting a copy to read it myself.

  3. Man Darin hijacking your blog...again. Sigh. Actually it was a great comment. Hire him as your back up.

    Thank you for sharing. I never read business books. Though I was given Flip the Funnel for participating in a BtoB seminar. But I do enjoy people who are thought leaders and would love to read one of his books.

    BTW I read non-stop. I just read so much for business from periodicals/websites (economist, B Week, Fortune, blogs, industry trade pubs etc) its hard to then read books work oriented.

    But this was a great review. Thank ye!

  4. Chiming in belatedly here. Sorry...

    -Trish, thanks! And thank you again for including me in this project.

    -Darin, a) I think you wrote my post better than I did. b) Nice job on the Soylent Green reference... "Soylent Green is... is... PEOPLE!" c) to answer your question (perhaps a longer post on this later), I've found that when senior management understands that something has roots in history and thus isn't nearly as scary as it initially seemed (like e-mail), then they are more inclined not to give it the Heisman. Shirky doesn't start with the "look at all these new shiny objects (social tools) that the cool kids are using - you should too" approach but rather talks about the historical evolution and psychological roots. As someone reading the book, you find yourself nodding your head a lot and affirming, "yeah, that makes sense" vs "over my dead body will my company ever use Facebook."

    Thanks for the great comments guys. And Howie, I'm in the same boat you are although having three kids has cut down on any kind of reading. However, I've started reading some really good business books lately and what I'll tell you is that reading for pleasure and reading business books doesn't need to be mutually exclusive as long as you pick the right books.

  5. As you explained it in your comment Aaron, I totally got your line of thinking and agree. Sometimes setting the tone and historical stage of something is necessary to preface the conversation about a (seemingly) new technology. Shirky does this brilliantly. I also was dragged right in by him. This to me comes from the combination of hard facts and fine storytelling being used.

    This is very similar to how Walt Disney (and subsequent company) uses story and visuals to place the viewer in a relevant experience and then drive home the brand message in the wrap up. One leaves a ride in Tomorrowland or EPCOT singing a little song with the brand name right in it. Strong stuff because now faced with that brand's latest technology or product, you're ready to sign right up, after which you now OWN that experience and tell your personal community.

    Regarding reading business vs. pleasure: I have a plethora of both that I read concurrently, but the most interestingly impactful was re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my wife and 13 year old. WOW! I missed a lot as a schoolkid. We're making sure our boys don't miss those details!