Cognitive Surplus

Cognitive Surplus

Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (2010)
By Clay Shirky

With new digital technology and social media, there is a surfeit of intellect, energy and time – what Shirky calls a “cognitive surplus”.

People are embracing new media that allows us to pool our efforts at vanishingly low cost. This resulted in online reference tools like Wikipedia or life-saving reporting of acts of violence by Kenyans in

Shirky offers some ways to improve the odds to gain successful control of this cognitive surplus.

1. Starting
Start small. Start with a system that is small and good and work on making it bigger. Projects that will work only if they grow large generally won’t grow large.

See how your users react to the opportunities you give to them through the website. If you want different behavior, you have to provide different opportunities. In the first place, make assumption that people would be happy to create something of value for each other.


2. Growing

A hundred users is harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand.This middle scale makes it too big to operate as a single group but too small to become socially self-sustaining. The key transition from one size to another lies in the culture. Once a culture is established, it is helpful or suspicious, accepting or skeptical, it is hard to change. The key is to recruit the first dozens of users people who will embody the right cultural norms.

Example Facebook users cluster into much smaller groups, with dozens of friends. Those clusters are considerably more involved with one another.

Every service that wants to harness the cognitive surplus at a large scale faces certain trade offs. You can have a large group of users. You can have an active group of users. You can have a group of users all paying attention to the same thing. Pick 2, you can’t have all three at the same time.


3. Adapting

The faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt. Organizations can use all kinds of proxy measures to study what their customers or users or patrons are doing,. These methods help organizations understand their user motivations directly. Success sometimes cause more problems than failures. 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.


Shirky’s books offers a lot of information. Maybe too much information that I can absorb. The video below summarises some of the main points that he highlight in the book.




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