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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 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 November 12, 2012
Bertha Arenas
Clay Shirky/ Cognitive Surplus

For the first time in history, the amount of television being watched by a younger generation is decreasing rather than increasing annually. Why? Because time is being poured instead into interactive media, and above all into online activities. The key word here is "activities", for the defining feature of new media is action. Clay Shirky makes a strong case for how our tv obsessed culture until now uses most of its free watching television and how this activity is dramatically changing since the inception of the internet and growing rapidly. Our habit of watching tv is a reaction to the industrialization of society which presented a new concept, free time and the television industry has been a way that we have pass this time Shirky argues.The internet and new media has given us some of that time back and Shirky's thesis in that this is creating cognitive surplus, a power to collectively create, gather, explore and participate in a real and powerful way without much productions costs or risks thanks to the internet. However, not everyone is on board with the current revolution and Shirky argues that the collective value and power interactive media provides needs and should be increasingly utilized. Not only for the personal value, entertainment and bringing people together but for the civic making the world better.
It's hard to argue that a switch from the passive observant citizen to the active, participatory, engaging, and reciprocal power the internet provides isn't significantly better than tv watching with uses little cognitive skills.
This new cognitive surplus that we have can now be applied in various ways via the internet, but whether that is creating lol cats, sharing pictures with friends on Facebook, publishing your writing on a blogging site, or having a dialogue about current events or a personal hobby it all forces us to be more participants in our existence, to share, and even to create, to produce and publish media ( like writing, music, pictures etc) which is if you think about it is just better than sitting in front of the tv.
The book is presented with the various ways in which this newfound cognitive surplus is becoming part of society, part of daily life not separate from as it is sometimes seen.
Means: laptops, Smartphone, ipads etc
Motive: Being engaged or part of things that bring us pleasure is a strong motive and the internet allows us to find more easily than ever whatever those might be. Whether it is chezz, Victorian literature, Starwars, Baseball there are many ways to be engaged.
Opportunity: Billions of hours of free time free " by combining our surplus free time if it is to be useful"
Culture: " But some kinds of value can't be created by markets, only by a set of shared and mutually coordinating assumptions, which is to say by culture" Shirky gives a great example of the invisible college 136.
What I found most interesting about Shirky's arguments was perhaps we are seeing new media as something separate from ourselves and foreign to the natural order of human behavior when in reality the internet is rapidly becoming more part of our "real life" where use to interact with our world, meeting with friends arranged through facebook, letters and message sent through social media or email versus the traditional way, paying our bills through online banking, etc. Not only is thinking of the internet as a separate world no longer applicable. Perhaps what I found most interesting about Shirky's arguments was that the internet and social media in most basic human psychology appeals and satisfies our shared human need, to gather, to connect, to create, to have a voice and opinion and to see, what is out there.
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on February 28, 2012
Currently, the world's educated population has in excess of one trillion hours of free time each year. For many years, television has been the primary use of this free time, accounting for an average of over twenty hours a week per person. A shift is occurring; the old media that was created by professionals for consumption by others is being replaced by media that everyone can produce, share and, consume. For the first time in human history, people live in a "World where being part of a globally interconnected group is the normal case for most citizens" (p.24).

Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators is a must read for nonprofit leaders and anyone interested in understanding how technology has the potential to change the world for good on a scale far beyond any scale used to measure previous collaborative ventures for bettering humanity via the use of volunteers. Less of a "how to" and more of a "what could be" book, Cognitive Surplus empowers readers to imagine a different kind of world in which people intentionally and strategically partner with others around shared interests. To facilitate this type of new thinking, Shirky explores the overall motive, means and opportunity related to our current cognitive surplus alongside stories of how groups have already successfully leveraged a portion of it for good.
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on July 26, 2014
This guy always has good stuff to say.

This book is a remarkably human exploration of how we think, and what we do with our free time, as well as suggesting ways to afford our advancement through user experience.

The only reason it has 4 stars, instead of five, is because it tends to have what I consider to be a somewhat Pollyanna-ish view of human nature.

I'm not a die-hard cynic, but I've been around the block enough to know how truly effective humans are at sticking the spokes of advancement.

The biggest value of this book (and, I suspect, a lot of his stuff) is to help us geeks feel a bit better about what we do.
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on September 2, 2010
What? the term "Cognitive Surplus" doesn't rock your world? Mine either, but this book is still a good read. SURPLUS is about the spare energy we have available to do things we find rewarding, outside of work and other obligations. And while the title sounds academic, the book blends thoughtful ideas about how we use social media with enough context to appreciate them. It's also dotted with good examples that seem fresh, rather than "forced" as in some books.

Unlike some writers, if Shirky tells a story, you can bet it will be original and have more than passing relevance and interest. The first story is about heavy gin drinking in 18th century London, which Shirky somehow links to social media. Nicely done. Shirky pulls from many places to make his points and seems especially keen on social psychology. As a result, he does more than tell us what's happening with social media...he always looks to help us understand "why" and what may be underpinning how people act. This book made me want to learn & do more with social media...and not just because of the booz references.

If you're looking for some ideas and inspiration, this is good book for that. Ditto if you just want to better understand what's shaping the broader trends in social media. Just know that it's not a how-to book and also that Shirkey's perspective is not entirely balanced. As a big supporter of what's possible with social media, he's sometimes apt to give more credit to social media's impact than may be due. For an interesting counter-perspective, google Malcolm Gladwell's article titled "Small Changes."
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on September 26, 2010
Before going into essence of the review, let me first point out that Clay Shirky had selected not very cleverly the title of the book, while the name of book lures your thought more to the psychology or self-development zone ... Which is a terrible and wasteful mistake ...

... The book is really focusing on the social media trends and their impact on how business and society is running. Besides plotting some interesting (and not much discussed) trends that make you think how to leverage that out in your area of interest/concern.

What is the strongest point of the book however is the author's genial stories from past that illustrate why age of social media was no question to come. Honestly, we all know that social media are here and that they will cause profound change, Therefore, just limiting yourself to commenting that would be waste. However, author took an extra mile and brought clear examples from past (reaching back to 19th century) that bring round-the-corner view of facts that make social media possible. My high compliments.

If you are bored about bla-bla on social media, this is book for you. It uncovers real principles and inspired me to several business cases and innovations.
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on July 19, 2017
Clear thinking
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on October 10, 2010
Cognitive Surplus: the collective intellectual capacity made available due to technological advances that enabled citizens of the world to do something else other than watching TV.

"That doesn't mean we'll stop mindlessly watching TV. It just means that consumption will no longer be the way we use media. And any shift, however minor, in the way we use trillion hours of free time a year is likely to be a big deal." Ch. 1 (Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus)

Shirky does a masterful job at citing real-world examples (PickUpPal, Ushahidi, PatientsLikeMe, Responsible Citizens) to make his case that in today's connected society is not only about collective sharing but also motivation and common interest or purpose. Also, the Ultimatum Game research in the discussion concerning group governance, the Soma Cube puzzle research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and Gneesy and Rustichini's "A Fine is a Price" research in the Culture chapter was simply fascinating.
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on November 28, 2010
This is an excellent book that examines from a sociological perspective just WHAT THE HECK HAS HAPPENED to our culture since the advent of real-time communication/social media as we know it. From living in a TV-fed zombie-like culture to suddenly being able to cultivate our free-time in more interactive, collaborative ways, Shirky does an excellent job at breaking down what's happened to our society, and speculates on where it might be going. Highly recommended for anyone, especially those with a deep interest in technological anthropology.
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