The rise of the amateur: Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

The world has a trillion hours of participatory value up for grabs each year. Its called cognitive surplus and what we do with it, how we harness its energy, how we transform it into something of value… is almost entirely up to us. The “us” being talked about here is the educated world, people that have access to these media tools like cell phones and computers that are rapidly transforming the media landscape. Media tools have made it possible for us to move beyond our 20th century couch potato consumer personas into both creators and sharers of media. In his book Cognitive Surplus, social media theorist Clay Shirky discusses how we can use the world’s free time and talents to make the world a better and more cooperative place.


The culture that is created among various groups of users that are making use of their free time and talents by working on shared projects is important because it determines what kind of value will emerge from this combined cognitive surplus. In order for cognitive surplus to even have value, we have to make it mean or do things by working together. This kind of collaboration has resulted in “projects that range from the amusing to the culturally transformative”(Shirky 63).


We are motivated to be a part of these shared projects by both personal and social reasons. On a personal level, it is autonomy and competence that propel us to participate. We have the desire to determine what we do and how we do it, and we also have the desire to be good at what we do. That being said, motivations can also be social. Social motivations are centered around two main categories: the first being connectedness or membership and the second being sharing and generosity.

We want to share and be a part of something. We want to meet others like us, people who share the same vigor and passion for an activity, cause, belief or way of life without the geographical constraints that existed for so long.

What is amazing about this sharing is that it allows endless possibilities for continual learning. With the rapidly changing media landscape it is important to be able to adapt because almost no one gets it right the first time. In fact, Shirky says that “if successful users of cognitive surplus required designers to get it right the first time, you’d be able to count the successes on the fingers of one hand”(263).

We create opportunities for one another, but this isn’t something new. It is something we have always done but the difference today is that “the internet is an opportunity machine”(128). In the past, when pursing a goal in the public space required a considerable amount of work and effort, the majority of amateurs opted out and instead operated in relatively private circumstances. The internet gives smaller groups a way to create new opportunities and present these opportunities to “the largest set of potential participants in history”(129).

I think in her book “Personal Connections in a Digital Age”, Nancy Baym would categorize this concept of cognitive surplus as a form of social shaping of technology because as Shirky points out, “what really drives users to participate is the motivation to share, technology is just the enabler”(Shirky 79). We are using the technology to shape what kind of value, whether its communal or civic, we create by committing our free time and talents.

That being said, one of the concepts I find most interesting about Shirky’s book is the way he approaches this idea of the “pro-sumer”. The “pro-sumer” is a term created by Mark Andrejevic to describe the way in which people have become both the producers and consumers of information. What is different about Shirky’s take on the pro-sumer is that he focuses on how we as producers, creators, and sharers of user-generated content can make a positive difference in the world. He doesn’t talk about how this is “free labor” or “exploitation”, but instead discusses the means, motives and opportunities that provide a foundation to produce, create, and collaborate with others to build a better world.

I think though, that saying he fails to address the digital divide might be a bit of a stretch. While yes, he doesn’t discuss this issue, we have to remember that he is writing to an audience that he refers to as the educated world with access to media tools. In fact, maybe Shirky’s theory of cognitive surplus might help to create a way in which we can bridge the gap that currently exists with the global digital divide. The extent to which we are able to create civic value from the world’s cognitive surplus might allow us to start making improvements on issues like the digital divide and changing society for the better. Just a thought…


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