Derek Sivers

Cognitive Surplus - by Clay Shirky

Cognitive Surplus - by Clay Shirky

ISBN: 1594202532
Date read: 2010-12-10
How strongly I recommend it: 5/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

I always love Clay Shirky's insights into the internet culture. This is about how all the spare time people are using to add to Wikipedia or create YouTube videos is previously time they were passively watching TV. Perhaps passive watching was a temporary habit that lasted 80 years, and now we're going back to a more participatory culture?

my notes

Gin consumption was treated as the problem to be solved, when it fact it was a reaction to the real problem - dramatic social change and the inability of older civic models to adapt. What helped the Gin Craze subside was the restructuring of society around the new urban realities.

Milkshake Mistakes:
(Story about McDonalds consultant not understanding why so many people bought only milkshakes in the morning: because it was breakfast for them. Just because milkshakes weren't meant for breakfast they hadn't considered that.)
The first was to concentrate mainly on the product and assume that everything important about it was somehow implicit in its attributes, without regard to what role the customers wanted it to play - the job they were hiring the milkshake for.
The second mistake was to adopt a narrow view of the type of food people have always eaten in the morning, as if all habits were deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents.
Neither the shake itself nor the history of breakfast mattered as much as customers needing food to do a nontraditional job - serve as sustenance and amusement for their morning commute - for which they hired the milkshake.

When we talk about the effects of the web or text messages, it’s easy to make a milkshake mistake and focus on the tools themselves.

It’s also easy to assume that the world as it currently exists represents some sort of ideal expression of society, and that all deviations from this sacred tradition are both shocking and bad.

But pure consumption of media was never a sacred tradition; it was just a set of accumulated accidents, accidents that are being undone

The story of Ushahidi holds several different lessons:
People want to do something to make the world a better place.
They will help when they are invited to.
Access to cheap, flexible tools removes many of the barriers to trying new things.
You don’t need fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus; simple phones are enough.

Once you’ve figured out how to tap the surplus in a way that people care about, others can replicate your technique, over and over, around the world.

Anyone seeing a lolcat gets a second, related message: You can play this game too. Precisely because lolcats are so transparently created.

The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act.

As long as the assumed purpose of media is to allow ordinary people to consume professionally created material, the proliferation of amateur-created stuff will seem incomprehensible.

But what if, all this time, providing professional content isn’t the only job we’ve been hiring media to do?
What if we’ve also been hiring it to make us feel connected, engaged, or just less lonely?

The sharing, in fact, is what makes the making fun.

Grown men and women sitting in their basements pretending to be elves: at least they’re doing something.

To participate is to act as if your presence matters, as if, when you see something or hear something, your response is part of the event.

Participation is inherent in the phone, and it’s the same for the computer. When you buy a machine that lets you consume digital content, you also buy a machine to produce it.

If you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they’ll sometimes take you up on it, even if they’ve never behaved that way before and even if they’re not as good at it as the pros.

The likelihood of an event is the probability of it happening times the frequency with which it might happen.

Where I grew up, the chance that someone would want a single slice of pizza at three in the afternoon was too low to take a chance on.
At the corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Sixth Avenue, on the other hand, you could build a whole business on those odds.
Any human event, however improbable, sees its likelihood grow in a crowd. Big surpluses are different from small ones.

More is different: When you aggregate a lot of something, it behaves in new ways.

What are the chances that a person with a camera will come across an event of global significance?

We are increasingly becoming one another’s infrastructure.

We increasingly learn about the world through strangers’ random choices about what to share.

The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody.

Media is the middle layer in any communication, whether it is as ancient as the alphabet or as recent as mobile phones.

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.

Because we have to coordinate with one another to get anything out of our shared free time and talents.

The cognitive surplus, newly forged from previously disconnected islands of time and talent, is just raw material. To get any value out of it, we have to make it mean or do things.

PickupPal provides parallels our cognitive surplus in general. When each person has to solve the commuting problem entirely on their own, the solution is each person owning and driving their own car. But this “solution” makes the problem worse. Once we see the problem of commuting as a matter of coordination, however, we can think of aggregate solutions rather than just individual ones. In the context of carpooling, the number of cars on the road becomes an opportunity, because each additional car is an additional chance that someone will be going your way. PickupPal reimagines the surplus of cars and drivers as a potentially shared resource.

A lot of new kinds of media have emerged since Gutenberg: images and sounds were encoded onto objects, from photographic plates to music CDs; electromagnetic waves were harnessed to create radio and TV. All these subsequent revolutions, as different as they were, still had the core of Gutenberg economics: enormous investment costs. It’s expensive to own the means of production, whether it is a printing press or a TV tower, which makes novelty a fundamentally high-risk operation. If it’s expensive to own and manage the means of production or if it requires a staff, you’re in a world of Gutenberg economics. And wherever you have Gutenberg economics, whether you are a Venetian publisher or a Hollywood producer, you’re going to have fifteenth-century risk management as well, where the producers have to decide what’s good before showing it to the audience. In this world almost all media was produced by “the media,” a world we all lived in up until a few years ago.

Publishers still perform other functions in selecting, editing, and marketing work (dozens of people besides me have worked to improve this book, for example), but they no longer form the barrier between private and public writing.

Publicity, publicize, publish, publication, publicist, publisher.
They are all centered on the act of making something public, which has historically been difficult, complex, and expensive.
And now it is none of those things.

The easier it is for the average person to publish, the more average what gets published becomes.
But increasing freedom to participate in the public conversation has compensating values.
The first advantage is an increase of experimentation in form.
Even though the spread of movable type created a massive downshift in average quality, that same invention made it possible to have novels, newspapers, and scientific journals.

Abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with. Because abundance can remove the trade-offs we’re used to, it can be disorienting to the people who’ve grown up with scarcity. When a resource is scarce, the people who manage it often regard it as valuable in itself, without stopping to consider how much of the value is tied to its scarcity. For years after the price of long-distance phone calls collapsed in the United States, my older relatives would still announce that a call was “long distance.” Such calls had previously been special, because they were expensive; it took people years to understand that cheap long-distance calls removed the rationale for regarding them as inherently valuable. Similarly, when publication - the act of making something public - goes from being hard to being virtually effortless, people used to the old system often regard publishing by amateurs as frivolous, as if publishing was an inherently serious activity. It never was, though. Publishing had to be taken seriously when its cost and effort made people take it seriously.

An activity that once seemed inherently valuable turned out to be only accidentally valuable.

By 1951 the answer was plain to see. The public had no need to choose between a flood of trash and a growing collection of classics. We could have both (which is what we got). Not only was “both” the answer to Swados’s question; it has always been the answer whenever communications abundance increases, from the printing press on.

We can’t have “an ever-expanding list of classics” without also trying new forms; if there was an easy formula for writing something that will become prized for decades or centuries, we wouldn’t need experimentation, but there isn’t, so we do. The low-quality material that comes with increased freedom accompanies the experimentation that creates the stuff we will end up prizing.

All revolutions are different (which is only to say that all surprises are surprising).

Media is the connective tissue of society. Media is how you know when and where your friend’s birthday party is. Media is how you know what’s happening in Tehran, who’s in charge in Tegucigalpa, or the price of tea in China.

Media is how you know about anything more than ten yards away.

All these things used to be separated into public media (like visual or print communications made by a small group of professionals) and personal media (like letters and phone calls made by ordinary citizens). Now those two modes have fused.

When someone buys a TV, the number of consumers goes up by one, but the number of producers stays the same.
On the other hand, when someone buys a computer or a mobile phone, the number of consumers and producers both increase by one.

With the new services, which enable amateurs to share work, the revenue goes not to the content creators but to the owners of the platform that enables the sharing.

Consider, as an alternative comparison, a local bar. It’s a commercial operation, but the products it sells are invariably cheaper at home, often by a considerable margin; much of the service offered by the staff amounts to opening bottles and washing dishes. If a beer costs twice as much from a bar as it does from a store, why doesn’t the whole business just collapse as people opt for cheaper beer at home? Like the owners of YouTube, the bar owner is in the curious business of offering value above the products and services he sells, value that is created by the customers for one another. People pay more to have a beer in a bar than they do at home because a bar is a more convivial place to have a drink; it draws in people who are seeking a little conversation or just want to be around other people, people who prefer being in the bar to being home alone. This inducement is powerful enough that the difference is worth paying for. The digital sharecropper logic would suggest that the bar owner is exploiting his customers, because their conversations in the bar are part of the “content” that makes them willing to overpay for the beer, but none of the customers actually feels that way. Instead, they willingly reward the owner for creating a socially welcoming environment, a place where they will pay extra for the chance to associate with one another.

Amateurs aren’t just pint-sized professionals.

One function of the market, in other words, is to provide platforms for us to engage in the things we value doing outside the market, whether those platforms are bars or websites.

(The past:) If you were a citizen of that world, and you had something you needed to say in public, you couldn’t. Period.

The choice for the police had previously been Should we tell the public something or nothing? By 2005, it had become Do we want to be part of the conversation the public is already having?

Extrinsic motivation like being paid can crowd out an intrinsic one like enjoying something for its own sake.

Hypothetical government proposal to site nuclear waste storage in their region, were split about equally on the question. When Frey rephrased the question to include the possibility that the government would pay the citizens for housing the waste, however, they shifted to three to one against the proposal.

How many places are there where someone’s free choice of activities matters much to anyone but the individual? In an age when our free time and talents are joint resources, the answer is “Everywhere.”

A study of video games concluded that the principal draw for the players was not graphics and gore but the feelings of control and competence the players could attain as they mastered the game.

Verbal rewards for completing Soma configurations like “That’s very good” or “That’s much better than average for this configuration” produced improvements in performance, improvements that persisted even after the verbal feedback ended. Verbal feedback seems like it should be just another extrinsic reward, like money. When it is genuine, though, and comes from someone the recipient respects, it becomes an intrinsic reward, because it relies on a sense of connectedness.

Something designed by an amateur can actually create better conditions of membership than a professional design can, in the same way lolcats sends the message You can play this game too.

You likely wouldn’t dare set foot in a House Beautiful kitchen, because the design doesn’t exactly scream Come on in and help!

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.

Amateurs are sometimes separated from professionals by skill, but always by motivation; the term itself derives from the Latin amare - “to love.” The essence of amateurism is intrinsic motivation: to be an amateur is to do something for the love of it.

Digital folk art - the amateur production of words, sounds, and images designed to be engaging or amusing and intended for amateur circulation rather than inclusion in any formal publication.

Go to a newsstand and buy a magazine on a subject you care nothing about. If you read Vogue, get Guns and Ammo; if you read Golf Digest, pick up Tiger Beat; and as you read, imagine what someone who liked that magazine would think about your interests.

Creators are looking not to reach some generic audience but rather to communicate with their soul mates, often within a sense of shared cultural norms that differ from those of the outside world.

If you only pretend to offer an outlet for those motivations, while actually slotting people into a scripted experience, they may well revolt.

When a surprising new thing happens, instead of asking Why is this new? we can ask Why is it a surprise?
Many of the unexpected uses of communications tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy.

Theory-induced blindness: adherence to a belief about how the world works that prevents you from seeing how the world really works.

A surprise, in other words, is the feeling of an old belief breaking.

Many of our behaviors are like memorizing phone numbers, held in place not by 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.

Every surprising bit of new behavior described here has two common elements: people had the opportunity to behave in a way that rewarded some intrinsic motivation, and those opportunities were enabled by technology but created by human beings. Those bits of new behavior, though, are extensions of, rather than replacements for, much older patterns of our lives as social creatures.

That network of California skateboarders created an environment where people who liked skateboarding could get better at it together. A sense of membership, of belonging to a group that is animated by a shared vision or project, can spark a feedback loop in which autonomy and competence improve as well. People who are part of a network where they become better at something they love tend to stay. As the group’s ability to learn and work together gets stronger, it attracts more participants.

The hothouse environment of a collaborative circle can make the ideas and achievements of the participants develop faster than if the participants were all pursuing the identical goals without sharing.

Behavioral economics is demonstrating that humans don’t always act in self-interested ways, and that transactions themselves have an emotional component.

We are incapable of behaving as if we weren’t members of a larger society, and as if we didn’t gauge the effects of our actions with membership in that society in mind.

One of the great bulwarks of ethical standards in a society is people’s willingness to punish others who defect from norms of fairness or good behavior, even when meting out that punishment costs them something. This is exactly what responders do in the Ultimatum Game when they reject low offers, and because society enjoys the benefits of this individually costly behavior, it is called altruistic punishment. People derive pleasure from punishing wrongdoing, even if it costs them time, energy, or money.

Every mode of communication that once had to rely on market pricing can now have an alternative that relies on open sharing.

When we assume people are principally selfish, we design systems that reward selfish people.

Systems that assume people will act in ways that create public goods, and that give them opportunities and rewards for doing so, often let them work together better than neoclassical economics would predict.

Social production: people you don’t know, making your life better for free

The private sector, where a task will get done when the group to do it can be assembled and paid for less than their output will fetch in the market.

Social production is the creation of value by a group for its members, using neither price signals nor managerial oversight to coordinate participants’ efforts.

Commons-based peer production: work that is jointly owned or accessed by its participants, and created by people operating as peers, without a managerial hierarchy.

One of the weakest notions in the entire pop culture canon is that of innate generational difference, the idea that today’s thirtysomethings are members of a class of people called Generation X while twentysomethings are part of Generation Y, and that both differ innately from each other and from the baby boomers. The conceptual appeal of these labels is enormous, but the idea’s explanatory value is almost worthless, a kind of astrology for decades instead of months. Generations do differ, but less because people differ than because opportunities do.

Theories of generational difference make sense if they are expressed as theories of environmental difference rather than of psychological difference.

The decision not to make someone else’s life better when it would cost you little or nothing has a name: spite. The music industry, in order to preserve its revenues, wanted (and still wants) all of us to be voluntarily spiteful to our friends.

Positive deviants are those who behave better than the norm, even when faced with similar limitations or challenges.

In 1973 Mark Granovetter showed in a seminal paper, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” that people tend to find jobs through casual acquaintances rather than through close friends or family.

Putting a price on something previously outside of market logic can change it fundamentally.

Prostitution: men are not only paying for sex, they are also paying the women to go away afterward.

Invisible College had one big advantage over the alchemists: they had one another.

The alchemists had failed uninformatively. As a group, the alchemists were notably reclusive; they typically worked alone, they were secretive about their methods and their results.

Erroneous beliefs were as likely as correct ones to be preserved over generations. In contrast, members of the Invisible College described their methods, assumptions, and results to one another, so that all might benefit from both successes and failures.

Open source aphorism: Good community plus bad code makes a good project.

Learners who share their observations and frustrations with their peers learn faster and retain more of what they’ve learned than those who study alone.

Managing inconvenience, big or small, often involves creating a particular class of worker.
College professors, restaurant reviewers, librarians, and file clerks all help keep the inconvenience to manageable levels for everyone else.
When things that used to be inconvenient stop being inconvenient, though, the old accommodations have to be renegotiated, including the role of those workers: when you can get advice about a restaurant from the aggregate view of people who’ve actually eaten there, the value of the critic as a source of recommendation is reduced.

As more people come to expect that amateur participation is always an open option, those expectations can change the culture.

We can now turn massive aggregations of small contributions into things of lasting value. This fact, key to our current era, has been a persistent surprise. At every turn, skeptical observers have attacked the idea that pooling our cognitive surplus could work to create anything worthwhile.

The downside of attending to the emotional life of groups is that it can swamp the ability to get anything done; a group can become more concerned with satisfying its members than with achieving its goals.

Members internalize the standards of the group and react to behavior that undermines those standards.

(Over-trusting blogging girl was killed, backpacking:) They believed, wrongly, that human motivations are basically benign. The couch surfers, on the other hand, understood that some people have motivations to do harm, that this creates real risks, and that you have to mitigate those risks somehow.

In a free culture, you get what you celebrate.

Public value requires not just new opportunities for old motivations; it requires governance, which is to say ways of discouraging or preventing people from wrecking either the process or the product of the group.

People will behave if they sense that there is long-term value in doing so, and short-term loss in not doing so.

Voluntary groups need governance so that we can defend ourselves from ourselves; we need governance to create a space we can create in.

Our best chance for finding good ideas is to have as many groups as possible try as many things as possible. The future doesn’t unfold on some preordained track; things change because someone figures out something that is possible right now, and pushes to make it happen.

We’re lousy at predicting what we will do with new communications tools before we try them.

Creating the most value from a tool involves not master plans or great leaps forward but constant trial and error.

It’s easy to imagine a service that will be useful if a lot of people are using it.
It’s hard to create a service that will be useful when only a few people are using it.

Projects that will work only if they grow large generally won’t grow large.
People who are fixated on creating large-scale future success can actually reduce the possibility of creating the small-scale here-and-now successes needed to get there.

To get to a system that is large and good, it is far better to start with a system that is small and good and work on making it bigger.

New ideas seem clearer and more obviously good to the founders and designers of a service than to potential users.

Take a skeptical look at what the user gets out of participating, especially when the motivation of the designer differs from that of the user.

Every social media user can already create any number of things online, whether it’s a piece of writing or a photo or a video, and they can join any number of online communities dedicated to discussion of things they care about. Given this riot of opportunity, you have to give your users a specific one that rewards their intrinsic motivations, preferably both personal ones (like autonomy and competence) and social ones (like membership and generosity).

Default to Social

Careful use of defaults can shape how users behave, because they communicate some expectation.

Backflip concentrated on personal value and assumed social value was optional. Delicious, on the other hand, made social value the default. By assuming that users would be happy to create something of value for each other, Delicious grew quickly, since the social value attracted new users, and their subsequent use of the service created still more social value.

Social systems have two modes - dynamic and dead.

Once a culture is established, whether it’s helpful or suspicious, accepting or skeptical, it is very hard to change. The key is to recruit as the first dozens of users people who will embody the right cultural norms.

Whatever culture has taken hold by the time you get to a hundred users has a good chance of remaining in force when you get to a thousand (or a million).

A visible willingness to enforce the rules, in other words, actually reduces the amount of energy the people who run the train have to expend on policing, because the riders are willing to coordinate a response among themselves, knowing they can count on predictable support.

The faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt

Success causes more problems than failure

True long-term difficulties come from success, because successful services heighten expectations and attract people who want to take advantage of the goodwill of others (by doing things like sending spam) or see the project fail.

Plan for such problems in advance, in order to be ready for them.

If you want to solve hard problems, have hard problems.
Defending yourself in advance against the possible ramifications of success has strong diminishing returns.
As a general rule, it is more important to try something new, and work on the problems as they arise, than to figure out a way to do something new without having any problems.

The task isn’t just to get something done, it’s to create an environment in which people want to do it.

Solving the problems as they arise means not putting a process in place until you need it.

Groups tolerate governance, which is by definition a set of restrictions, only after enough value has accumulated to make the burden worthwhile. Since that value builds up only over time, the burden of the rules has to follow, not lead.

The single greatest predictor of how much value we get out of our cognitive surplus is how much we allow and encourage one another to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everyone.

What is the ideal way for a new technology to be integrated into society? Let’s divide this problem into a few different scenarios.
1- One would be “As Much Chaos as We Can Stand”: we let any would-be revolutionary try anything they like with the new technology, without regard for existing cultural or social norms or potential damage to current social institutions.
2- Another scenario would be “Traditionalist Approval”: the fate of any new technology would be put in the hands of the people responsible for the current way of doing things. It would be like leaving it up to the monks to decide how to use the printing press or to the post office to decide what to do with e-mail.
3- A third scenario - call it “Negotiated Transition” - assumes a balanced conversation between radicals and traditionalists: radicals can propose uses of the new technology, then negotiate with traditionalists about how to take advantage of the new while preserving the best of the old.

The right answer is actually the first one, “As Much Chaos as We Can Stand.”

When someone runs a bookstore, or a newspaper, or a TV station, it’s advantageous to have those people think of their work as being critical for society, even if it isn’t.
This sort of commitment is good for morale and leads people to defend useful and valuable institutions.
However, that intellectual asset turns into a liability in times of revolution precisely because those deeply committed to old solutions cannot see how society would benefit from an approach incompatible with older models.
Paradoxically, as we have seen, people committed to solving a particular problem also commit themselves to maintaining that problem in order to keep their solution viable.
We can’t ask people running traditional systems to evaluate a new technology for its radical benefits; people committed to keeping the current system will tend, as a group, to have trouble seeing value in anything disruptive.

Radicals won’t be able to create any more change than the members of society can imagine.

The upper limit of “As Much Chaos as We Can Stand” is thus the time and energy required for social diffusion.

The radicals will be unable to correctly predict the eventual ramifications because they have an incentive to overstate the new system’s imagined value and because they will lack the capacity to imagine the other uses to which the tools will be put.

Proponents of the new and defenders of the old can’t merely discuss the transition, because each group has systematic biases that make its overall vision untrustworthy; radicals and traditionalists start from different assumptions and usually end up talking past each other.
The actual negotiated transition can happen only by letting the radicals try everything, because given their inability to predict what will happen, and given the natural braking functions of social diffusion, most of it will fail.
The negotiation that matters isn’t between radicals and traditionalists; instead it has to be with the citizens of the larger society, the only group who can legitimately decide how they want to live, given the new range of possibilities.

We’re looking for the mouse. We look everywhere a reader or a viewer or a patient or a citizen has been locked out of creating and sharing, or has been served up passive or canned experience.