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Business, Society - Written by on Monday, September 14, 2009 10:06 - 6 Comments

Denis Hancock
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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Mike Dover
Sep 14, 2009 10:16

Interesting post. The issue of cognitive surplus seems to apply more to contributors than lurkers.

For example, the person that follows a lot of people on twitter but doesn’t tweet much or the person that loves Wikipedia as a resource but never makes any edits, probably doesn’t feel any pressure to add something at the end of a hard day.

Sep 14, 2009 12:06

Thank you for this interesting post.

One thing that comes to mind contemplating what you say here is, if we assume that people after a ‘long day’ want to “waste time” and do that using social media instead of TV – the likelihood that they’ll be contributing something, a tweet, say, or a short comment, or a ‘lile’ or whatever can be done within a few seconds, is much higher than with TV, isn’t it?
So maybe we’d need to look a bit closer to what is meant by ‘making a contribution’. Maybe it’s the uncountable very small ones that, in the end, make a lot of difference?

Moto Browniano » Blog Archive » Il tecno-culturame
Sep 14, 2009 12:54

[...] [...]

David Ticoll
Sep 14, 2009 14:06

Hm, this and Mike’s last post… a whiff of revisionism in the air…

Luna Flesher
Sep 14, 2009 14:56

Social media changes the world of consumption and production quite a bit, though. It is the opposite of a zero sum game: instead it is an exponential positive feedback loop.

In the real world, wealth comes when each person produces more than they consume. In the online world, that becomes irrelevant. Things produced never go away, no matter how many times they are consumed. It’s a good thing that only 20% of internet users produce anything, because there is already more content supply than there is demand.

This is also driving shorter consumables. “TLDR” is a common forums acronym, which stands for “too long, didn’t read”. It’s debatable as to whether this is good for society or not, but the driver is for shorter consumables so there is time to consume more.

As long as real-world supplies keep on being produced so we can have our necessities (food, shelter, clothing, and internet connectivity), I’m not worried about the over-production of senseless videos, songs, blog posts, and memes. Besides, when considering the health of society, what’s the difference between LOLCats and The Simpsons? The Guild and 90210? People used to spend 40 hours a week on non-interactive 60-minute brain zombification broken into 10-minute chunks by 30-second blubs. Now they spend 40 hours a week doing basically the same thing… only this time, everyone has a chance to contribute now and then.

Cognitive surplus « Sinapinsiemen
Nov 30, 2009 16:47

[...] Hmm. Dennis Hancock on tosin pessimistisempi: [...]

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