Cognitive Surplus Book Review

Cognitive Surplus is a very catchy title for a very engaging book. The definition of the term is essentially the extra time and energy people put into producing things, namely social media. Clay Shirky argues this appears silly at first glance but is actually quite intellectual. Shirky does a fantastic job framing the idea of cognitive surplus. There’s a mind-blowing over 1 trillion hours of free time in the United States each year. Most of this time is spent online doing what he calls a “media triathlon” of consuming, producing and sharing. Prosumers, addressed by Andrejevic as both producers and consumers, are Shirky’s subject.

His book is broken down by means, motive, and opportunity in addition to a few token chapters elaborating on the previously described foundation for understanding social media.
Clay Shirky’s work describes social media in terms of social construction, a term coined by Baym we have discussed at great lengths during class. It is the idea that technology has no effect on us because we have total control over how we interact with it. Just a few examples of social construction in Cognitive Surplus are the Ushahidi and the protests against the removal of an American imported beef ban put on by teenage girls. Ushahidi is a web service “developed to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence in Kenya.” Often, these acts were isolated with only those there knowledgable about what happened. This service allowed people to send in what was happening in their area and collectively form a database full of aggregated information. This information was then used globally by their government, as well as other countries. Similarly, South Korean girls protested the government’s ban removal not because they were told to, but because they decided to. Where did they obtain information and a vested interest in politics to coordinate this uprising? On the website of the most popular Korean boy band, DBSK (24-25). This goes to show that despite the fact the boy band was not promoting anything but their music, the teenagers took it upon themselves to use a music forum for other purposes. By collaborating online, actions were able to be taken. Users of social media are anything but passive, according to Shirky.

The ideal audience for this book is the world of academia. An educated individual interested in the discourses surrounding media would appreciate it much more than someone who’s just looking for a fun beach read. While the book consistently provides interesting facts, it lacks explanation in many of the subjects touched upon. Shirky does not delve into the users’ means, motive and opportunities in using social media. For every example he gives, there is a lack of context making it difficult to understand the whole story. For example, there is is no explanation as to why the South Korean girls decided to protest the uplift of the meat ban and not something else. Couldn’t it have been anything? Additionally, what makes all the users the same? What’s to say every person put in the situations he describes will do as he says they do? Despite Shirky’s discussion of prosumers, he assumes no individuality when discussing users. His examples are good and really interesting but leaves the reader asking many questions.

Shirky also does not focus on the digital divide. Although all of his arguments and ideas are applicable to those who have access to a computer on a daily basis, what about the teenagers in Africa who are lucky if they get fresh drinking water? Shirky generalizes the global-ness but I think it may not be as global as he thinks. 

Several concepts addressed reflect class topics and discussions. Most notably, the anthropological YouTube video first watched in class touches on the notion of user-generated content. At the book’s core is the fact that consumers are are also producers. People love creating and sharing because it’s a social experience.

Shirky is clear in the idea that “Our social media tools aren’t an alternative to real life, they are part of it.” This echoes the much discussed topic in class used to surround the Second Life documentary as well as the YouTube video. The connections formed online shouldn’t be discounted because they are just as meaningful as the real ones.

Also, Shirky converses about the hot topic of whether those engaging in online communities should be doing all the free labour for marketers. He says “the revenue goes not to the content creators but to the owners of the platform that enables the sharing, leading to the obvious question: why are all these people working for free?” Andrejevic asks the same question because he, too, knows that by producing content exploitation comes into play. He though makes a distinction between YouTube, which is created solely for user generated content with the intention of sharing and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Shirky doesn’t specify sites in his broader discussion of prosumers.

Weak ties are obviously formed online which relates to Haythornthwaite, who says the benefits are new social contacts. This is important because the online world wouldn’t exist without them.

What I think is important to take away from this book, though, is that the trillions of hours spent on free time has to be a communal and collaborative process, otherwise it’s a waste of time (57). Clay Shirky makes this point clear, thus Cognitive Surplus can be a learning experience if you have the surplus of time to read it!


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