Upon the release of his divisive 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky was besieged by media professionals: "what will happen to our careers in the brave new world of amateur media?" they asked. As a struggling freelance writer, I empathize. But as Shirky argues in his latest book, Cognitive Surplus, that’s not the crucial question before us. In fact, the problem he poses is so critical, it’s counterproductive to approach this book from a defensive point of view. Shirky is concerned with a much more fundamental societal challenge: will we harness the publishing, sharing and collaboration innovations the internet offers to enrich the commons, or settle for Facebook updates and lolcats?

For the first time in history, Shirky argues, we have the tools to harness society’s “cognitive surplus” — the trillions of hours of free time that residents of the developed world enjoy, time that has steadily increased since World War II. Increases in GDP, education and life span provided a riches of free time, but prior to the internet, it was squandered in front of televisions. The internet democratized the tools of production and distribution, while the network made the benefits scalable: value comes from the combined cognitive surplus of millions. We’re familiar with early products of this surplus: on the silly end of the scale, lolcats and funny Youtube clips; on the more significant end, Wikipedia and the Apache Web Server.

Due to ingrained attitudes, many still scoff at the amateurs producing cat macros or writing Wikipedia entries, but as Shirky notes, the social engagement that the internet encourages is far from new or unusual. Prior to the twentieth century, he writes, “participatory culture would have been a tautology.” Before the advent of broadcast media, all culture was participatory. The expectation that the masses prefer to passively consume media broadcast into our home represents a historical blip, the result of many historical accidents. The social web has reversed that trend. For nearly a century, humans craved the intrinsic rewards that result from participatory culture–membership, engagement, connection–but these desires were thwarted by the limitations of broadcast media. The social web satisfies these long-dormant needs, Shirky argues.

Such observations about the transformations of internet culture and social media, controversial upon the release of Here Comes Everybody, are now self-evident to anyone with a sober view of current trends. In Cognitive Surplus, Shirky elevates the stagnating debate between advocates of old and new media by offering a new definition of the medium that is elegant in its simplicity: “media is the connective tissue of society.” Media is no longer merely the professionally-produced content we consume: it spans from international news broadcasts to the birthday party invites we receive on Facebook. In the 20th century, these constituted two very different forms of communication: public and personal. That distinction no longer exists.

The opportunity cost to create and broadcast media is drastically reduced. It’s as easy to post a lolcat as it is to report breaking news; as immediate to share a photo with friends on the other side of the world as it is to show it to a neighbor. In the new media climate, with a “dramatically lengthened…radius and half-life of sharing,” sharing takes on a number of forms. Shirky identifies the four types of sharing that the social web allows: personal sharing, communal sharing among a small group, public sharing to create a communal resource such as Apache, and civic sharing, in which a group actively tries to change society. It’s these last two types that Shirky is concerned with incubating: as any Facebook user knows, it’s not difficult to induce individuals to engage in personal or communal sharing. Sharing that impacts significant social change requires much more care and organization.

A common criticism of Shirky is that he’s a blinkered tech-utopian, but in Cognitive Surplus, he doesn’t offer a strictly idealistic vision of the future. Certainly, he sees limitless potential, drawing a comparison between projects such as the Apache Web Server and the Invisible College, the 17th Century cadre of intellectuals whose free and open exchange of ideas led to the adoption of chemistry and the end of alchemy. Yet he fears this potential will be squandered: “Out of the mass of our shared cognitive surplus, we can create an Invisible University,” he writes, “many Invisible Colleges doing the hard work of creating many kinds of public and civic value–or we can settle for Invisible High School, where we get lolcats but no open source software, fan fiction but no improvement in medical research.”

This won’t be easy, he notes. Current societal structures often reward selfishness, and are often at odds at the shareable mindset of the social web. Nor do they take into account what Shirky argues is an innate human desire for connection and belonging, and common sense of fair play. Other pitfalls lie in scaling collaborative groups from small to large, a process often fraught by poor organization, the tension between the wants of the individual and the wants of the group, and the tendency of some to reap the benefits of the group’s efforts without contributing. Yet it is crucial for these projects to scale if we are to reap the benefits of the cognitive surplus.

How will we accomplish this? Shirky is smart not to prescribe step-by-step rules, acknowledging that historically, attempts to predict the future during times of upheaval are rarely accurate. Instead, he offers a broad outline of practices that he believes will incubate this cognitive surplus: we must encourage trial and error, and embrace mistakes, he exhorts. We cannot throw our lot in with media and traditionalists, who continue to fight battles that have already been decided: instead, we must give the radicals the space to innovate and fail, to embrace the confusion of the age and innovate within it.

Shirky is, of course, painting with a big brush: anyone who comes to the book searching for a twelve-step guide to societal change via social media will be frustrated — as will media professionals searching for a cure to what ails their businesses. These are not questions that Shirky has an answer for, and his argument suggests that it would be a fool’s errand to make such proclamations in times of radical transition.

While Cognitive Surplus is an effective and at times exhilarating manifesto, Shirky also makes some convenient rhetorical leaps, perhaps overestimating how committed the majority of social media users are to the commons: in my experience, for every Facebook user who contributes a large amount of content to the network, there are many more happy to passively consume, as if it was merely friend-programmed television. While Shirky acknowledges that every collaborative group will have its share of freeloaders, I suspect he is overly optimistic about what proportion of the population has the desire or time to contribute. Witness the cultural half-life of blogs: while there has been an explosion in self-publishing, the ratio of active-to-abandoned blogs suggests that the majority of Internet users would rather consume than contribute. Or consider the assessments that only 1-2 percent of Wikipedia’s millions of users contribute to the encyclopedia. That’s a lot of people who are willing to passively consume other people’s content, and for those users, I doubt the social web is as transformative as it has been for the portion of the community who have embraced its potential.

Regardless, if only a portion of the online community contributes to the commons, the sheer scale of the network ensures that we can accomplish great things. Compared to the entire online population, the number of people who developed the Apache Web Server is small — but for a programming project, it’s enormous. A relatively small portion of society has built the backbone of the internet, a public good that we all benefit from. In Cognitive Surplus, Shirky presents a cogent and accurate assessment of the moment we’re living in. While some will try, you can’t fault Shirky for clearly observing the cultural transformations occurring before us. He articulates a daunting yet critical challenge: it’s time to put aside yesterday’s battles, and harness these sharing and collaboration tools for the social good. “Knowledge is the most combinable thing we humans have,” Shirky writes. The crucial question before us is how, and for what purpose, we will combine that knowledge.

Teaser credit: Will Lion

Paul M. Davis


Paul M. Davis

Paul M. Davis tells stories online and off, exploring the spaces where data, art, and civics intersect. I currently work with a number of organizations including Pivotal and

Things I share: Knowledge, technology, reusable resources, goodwill.