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Social Media in Government Reading Discussion: Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus”

This week, we read Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus

Why I assigned this book

There are a few different kinds of value that government agencies can wring from social media. The first is simply to use it as a venue for engaging citizens. Another is to listen to citizens as they talk to one another. Still another is to break down intra-agency barriers to sharing information. But one of the highest values can be attained by using social media to collaborate with citizens and across agencies. What that often means is asking people to donate their time and talents to civic projects. And Clay Shirky has a term for donate-able time and talents: cognitive surplus.

In Shirky’s book, readers hear about all sorts of ad hoc groups that have come together to achieve some purpose: fans of Josh Groban, who want to donate to charity in Josh’s name. Wikipedians who want to add to the store of available human knowledge. Programmers who wanted to help stanch political violence and ended up creating Ushahidi. All of these people gathered tiny amounts cognitive surplus from many individuals and focused them on a problem, resulting in an unforeseeable solution.

There is another word for tapping into the cognitive surplus of citizens and focusing it on a civic project: crowdsourcing. Many agencies have held contests of one sort or another that are themselves efforts to harness and direct cognitive surplus. What Shirky’s book does is give us a name for the resource we are trying to harness, show us distinctions in how it is currently being spent, and begin to explain some of the means by which we can direct it.

Four ways to spend cognitive surplus

As detailed in the first chapter, cognitive surplus was created when an educated population had enough free time that their talents were essentially lying fallow for hours a day–time often spent watching television. With the advent of the internet and social media, however, the barriers to donating one’s cognitive surplus fell precipitously. People could then donate their time and talents without leaving the home, or even putting on a pair of socks. Shirky differentiates between four kinds of sharing:

  • Personal – benefits the person who is doing the sharing, but few (if any) else. Examples: Lolcats, Planking, other meme sites. Channel: Web sites, blogs
  • Communal – benefits the group with whom content is shared, but few (if any) outside the group. Examples: PatientsLikeMe, Google Groups. Channels: bulletin boards, listservs, social networking sites
  • Public – benefits anyone who accesses the tool, content, or data created. Examples: Wikipedia, Apache, Unix. Channels: FTP servers, managed/moderated UGC sites, databases
  • Civic – benefits everyone, even if they don’t directly access the too, content, or data created. Examples: Ushahidi. Channels: Civic sharing often creates its own channels.

And how can we motivate people first to donate, and then to move up that ladder? We’ll read more about this in a couple of weeks, in Jane MacGonigal’s Reality is Broken, but Shirky gives us a start with, but showing that people’s desire for:

  • Competence – people want to do something that they’re good at, and they want to get better at it.
  • Connection – people want to do things that connect them to other people like them (homophily, it’s often called)
  • Meaning – people want to do things that create or confer importance greater than the sum of its participants
  • Recognition – people want to do things through which they can gain the attention and earn the respect of their peers.

So what?

There are three take-aways from this book:

1. People can and do donate their cognitive surplus; thus
2. Civic leaders need to deploy tools that make it easy for people to do so; and
3. Civic leaders need to create incentive structures that appeal to people’s motivations for donating, specifically:

  • Enhancing and demonstrating competence
  • Creating and augmenting connections
  • Participating in meaningful work
  • Garnering recognition and praise from one’s community.

Since our government strives to be of, for, and by the people, harnessing dormant cognitive surplus frees up capital (financial as well as human) to allocate to other tasks. The better we understand the nature of cognitive surplus, the more effectively we can use it.

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