Customer Reviews: Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators
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VINE VOICEon June 27, 2010
Clay Shirky captured the ethos of social media with his book "Here comes everybody." He follows that book up with one that concentrates on the fundamentals of turning our cognitive surplus into value. Cognitive Surplus provides a compelling and clear description of the fundamentals of social media and collaboration as well providing principles that are guiding developments and innovation in this space.

There are many books out there that either describe the social media phenomenon or profess to provide a `recipe' for success. Neither of these approaches can provide you with the insight needed to effectively experiment and deploy social media for the simple reason that social media is changing too fast.

The book is organized into seven chapters that outline a complete way of thinking about social media.

Chapter 1: Gin, Television and Cognitive Surplus sets the context of social change and evolution of free time. This chapter sets the context for the rest of the story giving you the perspective to think through the issues.

Chapter 2: Means discusses the transition of the means of production from one of scarcity controlled by professionals to abundance and the participation of amateurs.

Chapter 3: Motive captures the essence of the reasons why people contribute their time, talent and attention to collective action. Here Shirky talks about issues of autonomy, competence, generosity and sharing.

Chapter 4: Opportunity recognizes the importance of creating ways of taking advantage of group participation. This chapter contains discussions of behavioral economics and the situations which generates group participation.

Chapter 5: Culture discusses the differences between extrinsic rewards - where people are paid to perform a task and the culture of intrinsic rewards - where compensation comes outside of a formal contracted pay.

Chapter 6: Personal, Communal, Public, Civic this chapter brings it all together giving the book a solid foundation illustrated by compelling examples.

Chapter 7: Looking for the Mouse is as meaty a chapter as any in the book. Normally the final chapter wraps up, but here Shirky discusses 11 principles associated with tapping into cognitive surplus. These principles are among the best in the book.

This book gives you a way to thinking about how people contribute their time, attention and knowledge and therefore how you can think about social media. In my opinion, this is THE BOOK to read if you are new to the subject of mass collaboration, social media, Web 2.0 etc. Here is why:


Shirky provides a comprehensive discussion of the fundamentals of cognitive surplus and how those fundamentals have changed over time. This provides the reader with a solid foundation to translate their experiences and understanding into a new media.

The book does not talk about specific technologies. I do not think I read the term blog or wiki too often. This is strength, because frankly the technology is changing is too fast. Shirky does discuss the reasons why applications like Napster met with such success.

The book has a gentle blend of academic and journalistic writing. There is real depth of thinking in the book. One example is the discussion about the fallacy of Gen X being different or irrational. At the same time the writing is clean, well organized and easy to read.

The book provides a thoughtful discussion of the principles that drive social media and give the reader a framework that they can apply to their own situation. A word of warning, you will have to think about your situation and these ideas


Readers looking for a recipe will be somewhat disappointed as Shirky recognizes that social media solutions will continue to depend on design principles more than detailed processes.

The book occasionally falls back into a policy mode as it describes social trends and societal implications. This can draw you off the main argument from time to time.

This book is dense with great insight and thinking. I list this as a challenge for people who are looking for quick read. You will get more than a simple 12-step process from reading this book.


Overall recommended for anyone who wants to understand the social media and mass collaboration phenomenon. This book is strongly recommended as a first book to start reading about social media.

Business executives reading the book can gain a deeper understanding of social media that will help them avoid the - we're on Facebook so therefore we are social solution.

Technologists will initially be disappointed as this is not a technical book, but I ask them to read the book carefully and think about how technologies create the means to bring collaboration together. After all, successful social collaboration involves a unique blend of social and technical systems. The technical piece is significantly more straightforward than getting the right social systems and this is what this book is all about.
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on June 29, 2010
My TIVO hates Clay Shirky. In his piercing new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age Shirky asserts that the technological revolution has enabled us to work together to conquer challenges big and small, if we'd just watch less TV and commit to participating in something other than our own mental decay.

TV watching on a per capita basis has increased for 50 years in a row, and that staggering amount of time has come largely at the expense of human connectedness and innovation. Before TV we entertained ourselves by interacting, making and doing, whether it was paper airplanes, a game of Yahtzee, or family harmonica night.

But at least in places with electricity, we've largely retreated into our heads, with the flicker of TV as the endless soundtrack.

But all is not lost, if you just commit to turning away from Starsky & Hutch, and toward the opportunities for greater good.

In this meticulously researched book, Shirky suggests that the historical barriers to collaboration (principally time, expense, and the ability to easily find like-minded people) have been largely stripped away, enabling us to make better use of the unused brain cells (our cognitive surplus) made dormant by TV addiction.

The book includes several compelling examples of groups creating and maintaining impressive online collaborations, without a profit motive in sight. Harnessing the power of the collective (crowdsourcing for social change) is a thread woven throughout Cognitive Surplus, and its viability requires two of Shirky's assertions to be accurate.

First, that our default state as a species is to create and share and collaborate, and we are just now moving back toward normalcy, aided by the vast increase in content creation and sharing mechanisms. Second, that making collaboration more convenient will inexorably cause it to become more commonplace.

Shirky makes a great case for it to be so, citing LOLCats as an example of widespread human collaboration and creation - albeit devoid of the type of society-enhancing mission and outcomes he hopes is the eventual result of this movement.

"Many of our behaviors...(are) held in place not be desire but by inconvenience, and they're quick to disappear when the inconvenience does. Getting news from a piece of paper, having to be physically near a television at a certain time to see a certain show, keeping our vacation pictures to ourselves as if they were some big secret - not one of these behaviors made a lick of sense. We did those things for decades or even centuries, but they were only as stable as the accidents that caused them. And when the accidents went away, so did the behaviors."

Shirky is realistic in his assessment of collaborations strengths and weaknesses. His chronicle of an online study group at Ryerson University is a perfect example of the ramifications of widespread interconnectivity that society will be wrestling with into the future.

The rise and role of the "non-professional" is another very interesting concept in the book, as an increase in participation naturally leads to an explosion in content created by people that haven't been vetted by the traditional means of degrees, apprenticeships, or ownership of a broadcasting license. Shirky points out that consumer-powered review sites like Yelp are just as valid as a critique from a professional restaurant reviewer, although perhaps for different reasons based on the collective knowledge and biases of each source.

As I see it, the recipe for improving the world through collaboration has three steps:

1. More people making stuff (100 million bloggers can't be wrong)
2. More people sharing the stuff that they make (3 billion photos per month uploaded to Facebook)
3. People that make and share coming together to tackle larger initiatives

I'd say we're somewhere between steps two and three, and Cognitive Surplus provides many examples of success at each stage of the process.

In a sea of "me too" books about social media, Cognitive Surplus stands out as about so much more. Who we are. Who we want to be. And who we could be if we put down the remote and worked together, with technology as the enabler.

I'm a bit of a change addict. I'd go to a different restaurant every day, if it was viable. I almost never read a book twice, but Cognitive Surplus will be an exception. It's the rare book that captures where we are and where we're going, while making you think and still being accessible.

Bravo, Clay.
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on July 20, 2010
I often find Shirkey to clearly summarize what everyone is thinking of around the evolution of (social) media, but this time he only made half of the book excellent. The book has two parts:

1. Can be summarized well in the quote "the wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource, and lets us design new kinds of participation and sharing that take advantage of that resource". Great points, but in fact pretty much what was between the lines in Here Comes Everybody.

2. a How-to-use-the-cognitive-surplus-of-the-planet-guide - some great points, but this format does not suit the standards Shirkeyisms. It is way too much of a list of ideas, some around game mechanics (intrinsic motivations of people - think Foursquare/Gowalla), some around group dynamics and external motivations (think Facebook), and some just repeats of how new media (if you must say it, say "social media") is different than old media, summarized well by the quote: "intimacy trumps skill. For similar reasons, I sing "Happy Birthday" to my children, even with my terrible singing voice, not because I can do a better job than Placido Domingo or Lyle Lovett, but because those talented gentlemen do not love my children as I do. There are times, in other words, when doing things badly, with and for one another, beats having them done well on our behalf by professionals".

I wish Shirkey would have developed the book as two separate books.
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on June 24, 2011
Cognitive Surplus is a very narrowly defined book that offers up few thoughts of interest and mostly dwells on information that likely is already known by many using social media, or those like myself who have read a few books about the media, including some of the heavyweights (McLuhan, Boorstin, Gleick, etc.).

The author Clay Shirky looks at social media through the means, motives, and opportunity of users. Criminologists will recognize these are the three key elements of any investigation of a crime. It's a mildly imaginative methodology for Shirky's purpose which is to examine how the global surplus of cognition, made possible by our relative abundance of discretionary time, is being put to use through activities organized around social networks.

Frankly, I have a tough time defining the audience for this book. There is precious little uncovered here that would inform, or interest, even more intellectual users of the mobile net, or so I would imagine. I know from discussions with my 15-year-old son that there's not much here. I think I can cover it with him as I chauffeur him around tomorrow.

For instance, Shirky makes a point of informing the reader that the mobile net gives users control over expressing themselves, whether it's artistic, professional, or even bumming a ride to work over a carpool platform. This freedom is being used in a lot of silly pursuits, but also in exercises to organize democratic activities, shed light on global news events, or ease daily living. In a stab at profundity, Shirky uses the metaphor of social connective tissue to describe the social network, which in his estimation is primarily mobile.

But if there's little for those who populate the social network, then there's less for those whose work and reading informs there understanding of the net. Disclosure: I'm an IT analyst, but have never researched or analyzed social media. That said, there was confirmation of what I already knew, but not a single idea that was new to me.

There are much more informative books on the net and social media (I've reviewed some of them) for those interested in understanding the phenomena that is shaping our age.
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on June 27, 2010
Although it is a very good topic, I think it could have been written in article form instead of a book. He has many different examples of how the internet has changed social media as a whole but basically comes to the same conclusion with every example. "Instead of consuming media we can now produce and consume."

The first chapter is very illuminating as Shirky takes you through London at the very start of the industrial revolution. Most of the citizens of London were commuting from the suburbs to the city for work. To meld into this new social setting and lifestyle they drank gin. A lot of gin. This was their "social lubrication" to get through life in dirty, polluted, new city life. They were using their free time to drink. 8 hours of work, 8 hours of drinking, and 8 hours of sleeping.

For the past 50 years, post-industrial revolution; post war era, the educated population of the world has been using most of their free time to consume television. This 8 hours of work, 8 hours of TV, and 8 hours of sleep has been our social lubrication and use of most free time. Over 1 trillion hours of TV is watched per year when it could be used for other, more productive activities.

This is where the rest of the book takes off with example after example of how the internet has given ordinary people the opportunities to speak back to the media and government. With camera phones being owned by millions of people, anyone can take a picture or video of anything they are near and post it on the web.

There really are many good examples of how new technologies have given the lay man the opportunity to 'be heard' or produce media that they otherwise would not have been able to. But as I said earlier he always comes to the same conclusion after each example. Anyone who reads this review is utilizing the power of new technologies and communications. As more and more people write reviews for books, others can decide which book they want to buy or if the particular book they've been thinking about buying is not what it is hyped up to be. This is the beauty of the internet. Not only can we read reviews and see what other people are saying, we can order a book that would have been otherwise difficult to obtain. These are the beauties of new communication technologies that are going to revolutionize the future.

I canceled my cable subscription a long time ago because it is a waste of time and money, after you read this book you may be tempted to do the same. And this book actually inspired me to write this review, its my first :) The pooling of information and opinions is going to revolutionize society as a whole, and we are the children of this revolution my friends. Heck, the computer I am typing this review on was built a few months ago. I researched computer parts for almost a month on the internet, ordered the parts off of the internet, learned how to build it by going to google and typing in "how to build a computer" then connected it to the internet and can communicate instantly with any of my friends who are also online, send an email, order books for further knowledge, order another telescope (when I can afford it) to see more of the heavens, and even go to college online, online dating, online streaming movies. We have access to the worlds super library at the click of a mouse and the touch of our fingertips.

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VINE VOICEon January 28, 2012
Right off the bat, my biggest complaint about Shirky's book is that there is really no clearly stated thesis. I think a thesis is there, but it is not very obviously there - more implied. And because of this, the argument appears to dart here and there more than flowing in a linear fashion.

So, here is what I understand Shirky's position to be:

Back in the days of TV, it used to be thought that people just preferred being consumers to producers, and that what we did in our free time was trivial hobby stuff, done for our own pleasure but rarely for others' benefit. Humans, we thought, were not sharers, but consumers, by nature.

Now, all of the above seem to be proving wrong. We like to share with others. What we do at home in our free time is not just the selfish stuff of hobbies, but that we enjoy connecting with and doing for others... when we have a medium to do such things. And the internet is just such a tool. It lowers the cost of sharing (it is no cost to me when someone wants to download a photo I post, because I still have a copy of it, don't need to go through any physical activity to get it to them, etc). And the internet may even intensify people's willingness to do (and share) things of social value, by putting me in contact with others to whom work I produce might be valued and important (where before, I may have taken pictures of birds for my own pleasure, now I have channels where I know others can benefit from the pictures I take.)

Of course, Shirky's picture isn't necessarily all roses either. First, a good amount of the sharing that goes on on the net is, to put it nicely, trivial, and some of it may be positively dangerous (networks of proud anorexics, and terrorists, have formed online, after all.) And Shirky is not saying that the web is proving that humans really are endlessly altruistic, either. But Shirky's big message is that maybe the view that humans value consuming more than producing, privacy more than publicity, and doing for pay rather than doing for intrinsic motivations (autonomy and competence are his big two; I think there are others, like approval from others and purposefulness), are accidents of the past rather than "the way we are" by nature. Maybe the internet is changing how we are, how we use our free time, and the incentive structures that shape what we do.

I am giving this book three stars for a few reasons. First, as mentioned, it is a bit scattered and could have been much stronger with editing and focus. Second, I think Shirky is a bit prone (in the style of Malcolm Gladwell) to overstatement, even when he tries not to be. The biggest instances is Shirky's idea that the internet is showing us how much we value sharing and are prone to do so when there is no real cost to us. Yes, I agree, but this is only partly right. We also like to consume, and are prone to free-riding (which the internet also lowers the cost of doing). Shirky discusses free riding, but very briefly, and in a way that basically just mentions that it exists. But many free services onlline have either had huge problems soliciting enough donations to make it worth their while (wikipedia, for instance), taken in advertising in order to make money (Youtube), or taken to charging for use of their previously free material (many newspapers now charge where they started out not doing so). So, yes, people like to share now that the internet has lowered the cost of doing so, but this same lowering of cost also shows that people really also like to consume without contributing. I'm sure that Shirky understands this duality, but his talk of the former well outstrips his talk about the latter. (As previously mentioned, I also think that his boiling down of intrinsic motivation to a desire for autonomy and competence as WAY too reductionistic.)

In the end, this book is much more interesting than not. Shirky is conversational and easy to understand, but his ideas definitely traipse into the abstract and philosophical. So, it needs to be read with care. Aside from tendency toward a bit of myopia, though, I think it is a really interesting book.
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on July 18, 2011
"Cognitive Surplus" is a fancy term for free time (of educated people in the industrialized world). Shirky points out that ever since industrialization got underway in early 20th century, most middle class educated masses got a lot of free time on their hands. But a majority of this free time got taken up by television. It was not that being passive consumers of material produced by a few professionals is what we all like, but there weren't many alternatives. But now the rise of "social media" has suddenly made available to the public a tool to satisfy our innate desire to share and be part of a community. It's not that YouTube and WikiPedia have suddenly made educated human beings more creative and generous, but these tools have enabled us to behave in our natural social way, which wasn't possible earlier.

Citing examples of social sites forming a broad spectrum, form the no-use-for-the-society-what-so-ever, through OpenSource software projects like every-author's favorite Apache Web-server, through, through Pakistan's (Responsible Citizens) to Ushahidi () the social network that allows people to upload first hand reports of electoral and other violence in Africa and other places, he illustrates his point amply.

This book suffers from the same malady that Malcolm Gladwell's books suffer from: there is only enough material for a magazine article there. But in order to make a book out of it, these authors repeat the same stuff over and over, and explain simple points laboriously as though teaching a moron. That makes it quite irritating, even though the subject matter is interesting and there are nuggets of new information here and there.

The other highly annoying thing with these books is that they all refer to the same case studies. If you have read Dan Ariely's original "Predictably Irrational" and a couple of I-have-a-pseudo-theory-based-on-other-peoples-research books like Daniel Pink's "Drive", it gets quite repetitive. The only reason I still read such books (usually written by professional writers or journalists who have no expertise on the subject matter) is that it's a one-stop-shop to learn about a topic quickly, instead of reading 10 original books/papers.

The real value in Cognitive Surplus is the last chapter named "looking for the mouse" (in a TV: a metaphor for the new generation taking interaction in media for granted). Here Shirky ties in all the various slightly different threads he weaves in the previous chapters together and provides a coherent summary of his thesis. In addition, he provides some practical tips for would be social networking innovators based on his experience in dabbling with this stuff.

The bottom-line is, if you are neck deep in "social media" already, you may not learn much here. If you haven't participated much in this revolution so far, or if you haven't read any of the popular social science, behavioral economics books of the past few years, this will be a good read. If the middle of the book starts to bore you, jump to the last chapter. You won't miss much.
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on September 17, 2010
I agree with one of the other posters who mentioned that this could have been an article instead of a book. He seems to be trying to capitalize on the Malcolm Gladwell style. Problem is Gladwell is much more appealing in style and application to the world as a whole. Shirky's examples are dull and academic. I give him credit for the wide variety of examples he chose, but his style did not keep my attention.

He obviously has the authority to comment on social media, but I don't think this is a book for the masses, maybe for one of his classes. I didn't really see what his point was, other than at the end where he talks about improving the odds.

I wouldn't recommend this book.
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on August 27, 2011
At the outset, this book poses an interesting question : What would happen if people would watch less T.V. and would use that time for other, more active pursuits? Hence the title Cognitive Surplus: It refers to the tremendous potential inherent in the amount of hours currently stored in passive T.V. consumption, which can potentially be applied to other possibilities. Mr. Shirky claims that the freeing up of this surplus is already happening - that the digital natives are turning away from T.V. towards other media that allow for more interaction. The remainder of the book contains many interesting stories, musings, and analyses. However, for me it has a sort of disjointed feel to it, as if it is a collection of columns. Each chapter contains a number of sections, all of them quite short, and about different topics. When coming at the end of these sections, I often wondered: "yes, and now what"?, but then the next one, on a slightly different topic would already start. Hence, for all the interesting info that it contains, the book lacks tightness and continuity.
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on June 22, 2015
I've read a dozen books in the digital-social-collaborative intelligence space, and this is worth more than all of them put together.

The layout will be familiar to anyone who enjoys Malcolm Gladwell or (some of) Steven Johnson: a couple of interesting historical stories to provide some broad context, followed by an explanatory framework that is reinforced by references to a wide range of sources in psychology, sociology, history and economics. The chapters on Means, Motive and Opportunity lend a much more useful way to understand collective efforts such as Wikepedia, Apache, etc, than you'll find anywhere else. Shirky goes a bit further, though, in the last third of the book, to explore more fundamental dynamics and to set the stage for where things could and should head in the future. He concludes with some thoughtful insights from his own experiences with social software -- really practical stuff that all social entrepreneurs should be thinking about.

There are points where the assertions (and writing) are not as simple as you often encounter in Gladwell, but that stems from a refusal to oversimplify some fairly messy realities. If I have any complaint, it is that after teeing up the difficulty (and importance) of finding ways to build groups that add public and civic value, Shirky's suggestions in the final chapter are a bit loose and feel more slanted toward commercial applications. Nonetheless, it's more helpful than anything else I've read on the topic. Why this book isn't mandatory reading from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley is completely beyond me. The only reason I can think of is that it actually came out at the wrong time -- too late for our initial infatuation with Facebook but too early for the latest wave of startup sexiness. Also, the author's previous book was somewhat interesting but not nearly as good, so he might have been facing a bit of an uphill battle getting attention for this followup. Who knows. This book exists and you should read it.
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