To Read or Not to Read: Cognitive Surplus Edition

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Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators by Clay Shirky opens by explaining what London citizens did with their free times during the 1700’s: get really drunk. Today, people have even more free time, but choose to spend it a little more wisely… with the Internet. So, less sloppy stumbling around, but much more eyes glued to a screen. This book explores how this new abundance of free times allows people to use online media to create and share information for the betterment of humanity. The author examined this concept through the study of people’s means, motives, and opportunities, devoting a chapter to each. Social media allows us to do good for others, and Clay Shirky uses various strong examples to back this claim up, like, for example, the charity created by Josh Groban’s online fan club and Ushahidi, a site where people can post about ethnic violence that is occurring in Kenya.

Cognitive Surplus explores how the ideas of empowerment and community are key to understanding why Internet users choose to perform how they perform online. “Media that supports public participation, sharing, and discussion is a novelty.” (Shirky, 183) This ties to the YouTube video, “An anthropological introduction to YouTube,” where the ability to create user-generated content and collaborate across time and space is discussed, being that this ability empowers Internet users to be producers. Shirky uses the example of Ushahidi, which allows regular citizens to become journalists, while helping to stop violence. Anyone can be a journalist, so it bends the standard rule of professional versus amateur. Now, anyone’s story can be just as important as those in The New York Times. Websites like this also create a sense of community by allowing their users to be interactive and a part of a group that would have otherwise not been available in the physical world.

Clay Shirky also does well in explaining why doing good on the Internet requires more than just empowerment and community though. The reason why people can post reviews on Zagat.com is because publication no longer requires permission and thus, anyone can be a producer online now. Media scholar Mark Andrejevic, introduced the idea of a “pro-sumer,” or one who is both a producer and a consumer. “People now speak out on issues a million times a day, across countless kinds of communities of interest.” (Shirky, 49) The Internet is now a two way media, where the same person can both produce content and do the usual action of consumption. Through producing and consuming, one can connect to others and share their own personal feelings, as Shirky discusses. This relates to Caroline Haythornwaite’s idea that one can form new connections on social media that would not have before existed. People can use these connections for a better world, such as Ushahidi, or for a better individual life, such as Couchsurfing.com, which connects strangers to find couches to stay on while traveling.

While this book is very interesting and has plenty of examples to back up the author’s main ideas, there are a few problems that need to be pointed out. Shirky does not hint enough at the concept of the digital divide, as author Nancy Baym discusses in her book about digital media. He appears to assume that all who are reading the book have access or an understanding of the Internet. There are many reasons that some may not have access to online media, like monetary cost, location, or even unawareness of use. While the book’s intended audience may be an educated person who is aware of the fundamental uses of social media, it is wrong to assume all will be this way. By doing this, the author is cutting off a large portion of potential readers. Also, in the book, Shirky states that one has to study people to understand their desires and actions, but this is not done to its fullest potential in his own book. A whole portion of the novel revolves around the idea of motive, but when, for example, he mentions the Groban fans as a case study, Shirky does not explain the backgrounds of these fans, like location, education, age, race, etc. Eszter Hargittai, another media scholar, is an example of someone who has effectively done this: when studying the adoption of social networking sites by youth, she looked at each’s socioeconomic background, relationships, location, and race.

So, is this book worthy to be read by you? Having now seen the major themes of the book (empowerment, community, and personal production) and some of the flaws, it is up to you to decide. I personally found this book very interesting and would recommend it for people wanting to learn more about the social benefits of online media. While it may not going into enough detail about the individuals using this cognitive surplus, it gives varied examples that are not only fun to read about, but also beneficial in shaping the reader’s use of social media.

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