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Here Comes Everybody: A Preview

April 28th, 2008 by Max Gladwell · 9 Comments

We look at Clay Shirky’s recent Web 2.0 Expo speech, “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”, as a primer for the full review of his book, “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations”.

We discovered Here Comes Everybody on a live interview with the author at the recent Web 2.0 Expo. We immediately ordered it and are about half-way through…pursuant to writing a full and relevant review for Max Gladwell. It’s particularly compelling because it gets to the heart of what we’re all about, namely using the social web to improve our collective quality of life. Much of this requires organization, and Web 2.0 has effectively re-written the rules and assumptions of organizing. Shirky made a speech at the Expo and then blogged the transcript. Following are some key excerpts:

The premise of the speech is that we’ve invested a lot of time watching TV over the past half century. This happened out of a necessity to fill the free time that a 40-hour work week affords…to fill what Shirky calls “the cognitive surplus.”

And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.

What if the world’s cognitive surplus could be filled with something more productive, fulfilling, and ultimately valuable? As you’re probably aware, this shift is well underway.

If you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

Sounds like a lot of time and effort until you consider the full magnitude of the cognitive surplus and the vast potential it holds.

[People spend] two hundred billion hours in the U.S. alone, every year [watching television]. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads.

If you’ve ever had casual conversation about social networking or online gaming, especially with the uninitiated, someone usually asks, “Where do these people find the time?” Or they discount these endeavors as wastes of time altogether. Somehow, though, watching television is considered an acceptable or reasonable use of time…because that’s just what people do and have done for so long that we don’t think of watching CNN or Lost in the same way we think about Twittering, Digging, or Facebooking.

Shirky boils this down to a basic principle: “It’s better to do something than to do nothing.” Still, it doesn’t have to be one way or another. We enjoy our one-way shows and the escapism as much as the next person (though we’re in our 30s). This isn’t an indictment of television, per se, but rather an observation of what’s possible if we reallocate some of those resources. What can we accomplish when you combine the tools of the social web with this tremendous asset known as our cognitive surplus? One can only dream…and dream big.

[The cognitive surplus is] so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 10,000 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

What if there was an entire Wikipedia dedicated exclusively to solar energy? How about one for next-generation biofuels, geothermal, and conservation? Imagine a Wikipedia-sized resource devoted to reducing waste, upcycling, and recycling. And one for poverty, human rights, green building, diet, fitness, preventative medicine, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and autism. Any topic or challenge that can tap into the cognitive surplus, together with the bottomless well that is human experience, is a candidate for its own Wikipedia of knowledge, information, and interaction. Odds are, the solutions we seek will bubble to the surface.

Then consider that kids ages 10 and younger will never know a world (or a world wide web) where they were not able to share, produce, collaborate, socialize, contribute, and create through the social web (or whatever they end up calling it, if they call it anything at all). Shirky uses an excellent anecdote:

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, “What you doing?” And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, “Looking for the mouse.”

In our pursuit to improve our collective quality of life, one of the first steps is often as simple as this: looking for the mouse.

Update: The Video

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Tags: Web 2.0