Book review: Cognitive Surplus, by Clay Shirky

How can individuals be persuaded to join worthwhile online communities? Chris Bilton enjoys this pragmatic guide.

by Chris Bilton
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age
Clay Shirky
Allen Lane £20.00

How many of the hours we spend surfing websites and posting blogs actually amount to time well spent? For Clay Shirky, social networking is both a massive waste of time - the 21st-century equivalent of watching bad TV - and a potential source of community, creativity and civic value. In his latest book, his aim is to show how our 'cognitive surplus' (all that time spent looking at 'funny' YouTube videos) can be converted into something useful.

Virtual communities and social networking are not new phenomena. Shirky's central assumption - that we have an unprecedented surplus of 'free time' - is not entirely convincing; multi-tasking, home-working and BlackBerries might equally push us into a cognitive deficit. What makes this book interesting is his analysis of the motives that draw individuals into new forms of collective action. Its focus is not so much our cognitive surplus as the seemingly irrational 'generosity' that underpins it.

Shirky's first observation is that one-off, trivial interactions have collective consequences. Yes, a lot of people waste time doing silly things on the internet. But, connected together, these inputs add up to a collective resource that we can use for more sophisticated and constructive ends. Technology has lowered the entry barriers for participation. Online relationships are no different from other forms of community - but there tend to be more of them, because clicks and buttons are easier to negotiate than meeting people offline. And, as Shirky reminds us, 'more is different' - the cumulative effect of all these interactions is a shift towards a more engaged, connected culture - a long tail of participation.

Unlike a lot of web 2.0 enthusiasts, Shirky understands that technology is only exciting and transformative if people allow it to be. Participation is not the result of a generational shift from couch potatoes to cyber-activists. It depends on intrinsic motivation. Motives that may start out selfish or trivial can lead us to altruistic, generous outcomes. We want to be appreciated, to be noticed, to be amused, to feel part of something. Shirky describes how fans of the US musician Josh Groban get together to raise enormous sums for charity. They do so not because they want to change the world but because they want to celebrate their shared experience as fans.

He recognises that the most effective communities are led not by well-resourced professionals but by amateur enthusiasts. This enthusiast culture is harder to sustain as communities grow bigger and more successful. Amateurs are motivated by collective respect and reputation, not the individual self-interest of neo-classical economics. Once money enters the equation, the goodwill and mutual trust that bind them together start to disintegrate.

Professionalisation also threatens the welcoming, DIY aesthetic of amateur endeavours. As the messy web page is replaced by slick graphics, the barriers to entry for new participants become higher. And the amateurs start to treat their work more like work - something to be parcelled out and paid for, not freely given. As communities grow, they attract freeloaders who profit from the input of others without contributing themselves. Individuals turn in on themselves, focusing on narrow short-term goals instead of collective longer-term or 'sophisticated' goals.

All of this makes it hard to sustain virtual communities, harder still to monetise them. Shirky does not offer a solution to this, other than to emphasise the importance of building a shared participatory culture. Nor does he argue that online communities are a panacea, or that all forms of community are good. We are all fundamentally selfish as well as fundamentally social. Participatory cultures don't just happen; they must be worked at and managed.

In his excellent final chapter, Shirky gives a pragmatic users' guide to online communities, combining practical tips with a useful summary of his main arguments.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Shirky doesn't oversell what he has to say. The tone is cautious, occasionally sceptical rather than outspoken and polemical. He doesn't just tell stories, he refers to academic sources and scientific experiments to back up his arguments. He doesn't just describe websites and projects that work (though he's an engaging raconteur); he tries to analyse the motives and methods that drive them.

Businesses (and 'big society' politicians) will read this book to understand how to build participatory, innovative cultures and to involve their consumers and users. Shirky gives a sane and pragmatic guide to those seeking to turn random me-too networking into a force for collective social change.

We might be able to use our free time to get what we collectively need, not just what we individually want. But the process will not be easy. The main lesson here seems to be to start small and hope that small groups and experimental projects will percolate outwards - but recognise too that communities hold together only if there is a strong participatory culture to unite them. These groups, communities and cultures will need to be actively managed. As always, the devil is in the detail.

- Chris Bilton is director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick and co-author (with Stephen Cummings) of Creative Strategy: reconnecting business and innovation (Wiley)

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