Review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

Before picking up Clay Shirky’s latest work, Cognitive Surplus, I had never heard of this term. Cognitive surplus is what “lets us treat free time as a shared global resource, and lets us design new kinds of participation and sharing that take advantage of that resource.” (pg. 27) Modern times and technologies have caused people to shift from in-person communal activities to seeking out communities that match their interests more directly online. Shirky begins his book by analyzing a time when the general populace initially became consumers – when an audience would happily sit in front of a television and receive professionally produced content that was presented to them. From there the next five chapters guide the reader through an understanding of why the affordances of the computer and the internet have given all people, particularly the  opportunity to become prosumers – a hybrid of a producer and a consumer – why this matters, and the benefits of this new ability. The final chapter explains ways to improve the likelihood of success for a social media site.

While Shirky clearly possesses vast knowledge of social media, and emphasizes an understanding of the personal versus public uses of the medium, I feel as though the ultimate purpose of this work seemed difficult to decipher. For the greater part of this book Shirky discusses ways that the internet has been used, particularly by groups, in order to develop or find communities of like-minded individuals who all seek to accomplish something great or share their interests. Whether the user’s goal is to find people suffering from a similar illness that can give them medical advice as with Patientslikeme (155), to make another person smile with a Lolcat (18), or to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence on Ushahidi (17), these diverse goals have now been made more achievable thanks to the internet. The entirety of the book emphasizes the importance of these groups and those like them, and I feel like Shirky loses this sentiment by seemingly changing the book’s purpose in the final chapter. Cognitive Surplus analyzes social media as a whole, but I feel as though it becomes much more about social networking sites and how to ensure their success as the book concludes, which while exposing the applicability of some of the ideas previously mentioned in the book, still feels out of place. It appears as though Shirky is just preparing the start of his next book instead of truly concluding this one.

Furthermore, I would have loved to have seen Shirky incorporate some of Alice Marwick’s ideas from the article “If you don’t like it, don’t use it. It’s that simple” ORLY?This article discusses that while members of the general public may seem to participate in technological refusal, she does not buy into this theory of being able to opt out of technology. In this article Marwick claims “Members of a community have a responsibility to criticize and suggest alternatives to things they find problematic.” In order to discuss Marwick’s work Shirky would need to take a step back and analyze Nancy Baym’s four social discourses of technology and how they apply to the different groups discussed in this book. While it is evident that much of Shirky’s work is based on the discourse SCOT (the social construction of technology), I would have been interested to see how Shirkey could have brought in Marwick’s findings and comparatively discussed the domestication discourse of both social media and the internet as a whole.

Critics like Farhad Manjoo have claimed that, “Shirky’s analysis is too often abstruse and scattershot,” and that he, “lapses into academic jargon.” Even random online reviewers on sites like Amazon have argued that “the book is dense with great insight and thinking.” I feel like these critics have a different idea of who the target audience of this book is than I do. While reading Cognitive Surplus I felt as though it was written for academics, or at the very least for an audience that had some understanding of social media. Until the final chapter I had not expected Shirky intention to be to teach the reader how to utilize social media, but instead I thought his goal was to discuss the change we have made from consumers to collaborators – how it has happened and why it is so successful.

Despite the qualms I may have about the way the book concluded, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Cognitive Surplus and felt as though author Clay Shirky had beautifully flowing transitions that connected his ideas and that that he did a spectacular job creating parallels amongst different types of social media sites that strengthened all of his points. My only other concern was that most of the other examples presented described only the positive results of social media, which seemed a bit one-sided at times. Instead of looking at social media from all angles, it appeared as though Shirky chose specific examples to support his points without seeking out anything that may contradict them. Despite this, I found much of Shirky’s work to be extremely compelling and would highly recommend it to young academics looking to gain a broader understanding of social media beyond social networking sites.


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