Business, Society - Written by Denis Hancock on Monday, September 14, 2009 10:06 - 6 Comments
Cognitive Surplus and Social Media
Last week I read Tom Davenport’s piece in HBR called “Are Social Media Contributing to the decline of civilization.” The basic idea is that commentators in the future may point towards the tendency of many people to spend time “browsing and tweeting” about the likes of Tila Tequilla as a key turning point in the breakdown of our society (if, indeed, society breaks down). As I kind of mention in my comment on the post, this inspired me to go back and re-visit Clay Shirky’s discussion of the “cognitive surplus” and think about it in relation to social media.
For those that may not recall, Clay came up with a pretty cool angle in relation to the Architecture of Participation (you can read a “lightly edited” transcript of a speech describing it here). The underlying argument was that just like gin was the critical technology of the industrial revolution (the transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden people needed to get drunk to cope), the sitcom was the critical technology of the 20th century (the increase in free time was so sudden people filled it with TV shows).
From that base, he went on to explain that we’re now waking up from this collective bender, and the “cognitive surplus” wasted on watching television can be put to better uses in a new Architecture of Participation. So, as the argument goes, if you wonder where people find the time to make an edit on Wikipedia, it’s probably from taking it away from all that time wasted watching Gilligan et al. In this argument, doing “something” – no matter how trivial it may sound (see: LOLcats) – is better than doing “nothing”.
So the question I’ve been struggling with is how the use of social media is playing into this cognitive surplus argument. While social media is often seen as synonymous with the age of participation, as I’ve argued before (see here and here), in many cases people are using as a new medium to passively absorb content – often in bite sized pieces. While a few people get busy contributing, co-creating, etc., I believe many more don’t. And one might argue that when it comes to the passive absorption of content, social media actually represents a step backwards in human development – we get smaller and smaller bits faster and faster, at the expense of bigger experiences that take more time to develop and absorb.
Now perhaps this is just part of a still evolving process that remains in its early days – over time we’ll all figure out how to “better” deploy or cognitive surplus away from activities that waste time. But perhaps many of us won’t – and the reality is that many (and perhaps most) people don’t want to use their cognitive surplus for more valuable activities.
I often think about this around 9 pm each night. You see, I get up around 6 am to start my day. The bulk of daylight hours are spent at work (and commuting back and forth), and then the bulk of the remainder is spent with my daughter. Once she’s asleep, the last thing I generally want to do is participate in anything. I’ve been up and active for 15 hours, I’m tired, and I just want to relax – watch TV, read something, whatever.
Now I’m lucky in that throughout the day, I have the opportunity to engage with social media in a variety of different ways – one of the perks of the type of job that I have. So I can blog, tweet, comment, offer up ideas, and all kinds of stuff like that. But I know many people who work in jobs that don’t allow that – not because the workplace rules are too rigid, but because the demands of their jobs keep them acutely focused on the task at hand. Teachers, doctors, nurses, accountants, senior executives, small business owners, carpenters, etc. They don’t have a lot of free time throughout the day (noting that many do use social media as part of their job in one way or another, which I’m excluding from the “cognitive surplus” discussion) and they have similar demands on their time at home. If I ask them if they’d like to co-create something at the end of their long day, they might just punch me in the face.
These people do use social media during their “down time” though. But as I informally survey them, a lot of the activity is closer to the passive, “wasting time” side of the fence that’s not that dissimilar from watching TV. But instead of fully developed stories and plot lines, it’s often sifting through a collection of short messages, silly games, and the like. And it leaves me wondering whether how many of us use or “cognitive surplus” is really going to change, and if so whether it will end up being for the better. Really not sure.
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