Clay Shirky’s book focuses on the cognitive surplus: concisely defined, the immense potential humanity now has because of its trillion of hours or leisure time to devote however it likes. The shift is manifest in social interaction online – a preferable activity, Shirky says, than wasting time watching television (which was the main time drain of the 20th century).
Shirky discusses the change in “media,” from a profession and industry that produced exclusively for consumption to a word with a meaning to encompass the new digital environment. Now, anyone with a digital camera or device can contribute “news,” become a well-regarded “expert” in their chosen niche or expertise, and engage in a discussion around anything that traditional media glosses over (either selectively, in order to retain their advertising revenue, or because there simply isn’t enough space/time/perceived interest). His very excited revelation, shared by the billions of people who participate socially somewhere online, is “You can play this game, too!”
While his differentiations are not arbitrary and seem to be positively guided, Shirky spends a large amount of space in this book differentiating between private, public, and civic social production. His claim is that civic production creates some real, societally necessary good or change from its efforts. I disagree with how cut-and-dry he presents the three categories.
While I think his description is idealistically true, it seems a bit subjective. Fundraising for charity or organizing a neighborhood-led cleanup effort is arguably a goal with civic improvement aspirations as the motivating force core. But what about communities that raise money for lobbies in a government setting, or devote their time and energy to political causes on one end of the spectrum or the other? What is civic improvement, and what is civic regression, and where do you set the shift from one to the other?
Shirky refers to lolcats as a community and phenomenon that’s for private benefit – it’s funny, but it’s not for the social good, regardless of how clever it is or how many laughs each meme generates. I think Shirky might have some trouble defending the sorting of causes into one category or the other.
However, I do think this book is worth reading for community managers out there, if only for the discussion of psychological motivation for participation in the many online communities where there is no tangible or monetary reward for individual efforts. The major takeaway within his discussion is human emphasis: If you devalue human interaction in your online community, be it through a change in appearance/usability, the addition of advertising to “monetize” the site, or the institution of fees as a punishment for negative behavior, you’re likely to experience a decrease in devotion and use. Shirky discusses this tendency as the underpinnings of social production – the open-source creation of value by a group for its members, using neither financial motivation or managerial oversight to coordinate the efforts of individual participants.