A year ago, a cousin of mine named Kimberly who works as a flight attendant was in the state of Washington for a night in between shifts. She was with a friend whose family owns a resort on the edge of a national forest and they decided to go hiking. They followed the trail but somehow got lost in the darkness. When they tried to call for help on their cell phones, their call out service wasn’t working. Their internet service was working, however, and Kimberly posted a quick status for help on Facebook with the name of the resort they were staying at before her phone died. I happened to be on Facebook at the time and at first thought it was a joke, but I Googled the name of the place just to make sure and discovered that it was indeed on the border of a forest. I called the resort and alerted her friend’s parents that my cousin was lost and they immediately called the police and park rangers and were able to find them in a few hours before the temperature dropped below freezing.
Social media, quite literally, saved my cousin’s life.
This would not have happened without the new media technologies that are available today. Clay Shirky examines this new media and what we do with it in his book Cognitive Surplus. Cognitive surplus is the extra time that we have not doing things like going to work and sleeping and what we do with our mind in that time. This surplus is something we’ve always had, but what changes is what we do with it. In the 20th century, that time was spent watching TV and being mindless consumers of media. Today, we still consume media but it is now being implemented in a more social and collaborative way with social media. We use social media to for the most mundane stuff like creating Lolcats, to the more ethical projects such as Ushahidi. And yes, we use social media to sometimes save lives.
Through many examples from all over the world and through all different sorts of social networks, Shirky presents a vision of new media as more humanistic and representative of a shared collective than we may have previously thought. He is able to convince us of the social quality and even need for something such as Lolcats, because even by putting funny text on cute pictures of cats, we are at least doing something and becoming creators and sharers of our own media. Gone are the days when we would mindlessly consume media that other people decided for us. We are now the producers of our own time, and we ultimately decide how we want to use it.
This concept of an intrinsic need for collaborating and sharing is not a new one. Shirky believes that we have always been social creatures and gives us examples of collaborative efforts all through history that mirrors what we do on social media today. For example, he details the acts of five philosophers in 1645 when they decided to create a college of no permanent location called “The Invisible College.” Their goal was to simply meet and acquire knowledge through their collective brainpower and within a few years they had produced “advances in chemistry, biology, astronomy, and optics. By sharing their assumptions and working methods with one another, the collegians had access to the group’s collective knowledge and constituted a collaborative circle.” (137-8)
Today, we can arguably call that Wikipedia, where people all over the world share their knowledge and work together to create factual information for a massive variety of subjects. The technological affordances that we have created for ourselves allows us to do these same things that occurred in 1645 on a much broader scale. This is similar to Nancy Baym‘s first of four major discourses of new technology–social construction–in that we shape technology and we decide what to do with it. We created Wikipedia, and through a collective human effort, have created a world bank of information for the good of everyone.
Shirky also examines the phenomenon that is people creating their own original content for new media for free. The way social media network sites work is that a platform is created–Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Tumblr…–and the rest is left up to the public to shape its content. Why would people create this content and entertainment for free when there are industries that get paid for producing content? Shirky’s answer is this:
The barriers are low enough that any of us can publicly seek and join with like-minded souls. The means for harnessing our cognitive surplus are the new tools we have been given, tools that both enable and reward participation. Our motivation for using these tools are the ancient, intrinsic ones, motivations previously remanded to the private sphere but now bursting out in public. (95)
This brings me back to the very first day of our class when we watched An Anthropological Introduction To YouTube where the researchers were trying to understand community on YouTube and what motivates people to create their videos and to view other peoples’ videos. The answer is that the platforms, and in extension all social media platforms, allows people “the freedom to experience humanity without fear or anxiety.” People can have deep, intense connections with others without actually having to be with them in their everyday lives. For the first time in history, we have the ability to connect with almost everyone, worldwide.
“Cognitive Surplus” is an incredible study on human nature that may be at times idealistic and a touch too positive. My only criticism is that I would have loved to see more concrete examples using current social media sites such as Twitter and Tumblr. Shirky rarely even mentions Facebook. This book is for new media scholars and students, not for marketers; it is not a “30 Days To Social Media Success” book. I highly recommend reading this complex study that is, strangely, very easily digestible. Shirky has a way of making complex subjects easy to understand with unique and interesting examples.