Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Cognitive Surplus (Penguin Press, 2010) is a sequel of sorts to Shirky’s popular 2008 book Here Comes Everybody. Shirky writes on his website that he “stud[ies] the effects of the Internet on society,” and both titles examine group dynamics on websites like Wikipedia, MySpace, and Twitter. In Cognitive Surplus, Shirky argues for the potential of collaborative new media to organize people to have a positive impact on society, and he supports his theories with examples of charitable organizations, social justice initiatives, and open-source software. Shirky is a professor of new media and journalism at NYU, and, though his arguments lack empirical rigor, his case studies are persuasive.

Shirky argues that forty-hour workweeks and rising prosperity have given us a “cognitive surplus”—that is, excess free time we used to otherwise spend watching television (Chapter 1). Since the Internet has democratized to the tools of media production, passive consumers have switched into active participants.

Using landmark psychology studies and behavioral economics, Shirky builds the case that people will often create for nonmonetary reasons. To the editors of Wikipedia or the teenage girls behind Grobanites for Charity, more important than monetary compensation are shared values and engagement in a community. Shirky also points out that individuals will often take on challenging tasks in order to master them or feel autonomous. Shirky’s hopeful thesis, quite simply, is that the Internet fosters collaboration that can use our free time for social good.

Shirky analyzes how fans of the South Korean boy-band Dong Bang Shin Ki organized to overturn trade legislation; how Nisha Susan’s Facebook group, the Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, changed women’s rights in India; and how open-source software like Linux and Apache get produced. Most relevant to business readers is his last chapter, where he offers a set of guidelines for fostering digital collaboration:


  1. Start small: “Projects that will work only if they grow large generally won’t grow large” (194).
  2. Ask “Why?”: “Designers have to put themselves in the user’s position and take a skeptical look at what the user gets out of participating, especially when the motivation of the designers differs from that of the user” (195).
  3. Behavior Follows Opportunity: “What matters is how [users] react to the opportunities you give them” (196).
  4. Default to Social: “The careful use of defaults can shape how users behave . . . . By assuming that users would be happy to create something of value for each other, Delicious [a social bookmarking site] grew quickly” (197).
  5. A Hundred Users Are Harder Than a Dozen and Harder Than a Thousand: “A small group where everyone knows everyone else can rely on personality to arrange its affairs, while a large group will have some kind of preexisting culture that new users adopt. In the transition between those two stages is where culture gets established” (198).
  6. People Differ. More People Differ More: “In participatory systems, . . . the behaviors of the most active and least active members diverge sharply as the population grows . . . . [Developers] can take advantage of this divergence by offering different levels of involvement” (200).
  7. Intimacy Doesn’t Scale: “Yahoo.com host millions of mailing lists, to which tens of millions of people subscribe, but people are either on a mailing list or they are not—the lines around the individual clusters are clearly drawn. . . . [The] allegiance [of those users] is to the local cluster of people on their mailing list” (201).
  8. Support a Supportive Culture: The riders in an Amtrak quiet car are “willing to police the rules themselves, because they know that if an argument ensues, the conductor will appear and take over enforcement” (202).
  9. The Faster You Learn, the Sooner You’ll Be Able to Adapt: “When . . . Flickr.com was experimenting most actively with new features, it sometimes upgraded its software every half hour . . . . Meetup.com . . . has its designers watch people trying to user their service every day, instead of having focus groups every six months. . . . [S]uccessful uses of cognitive surplus figure out how to change the opportunities on offer, rather than worrying about how to change the users” (203-204).
  10. Success Causes More Problems Than Failure: “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.”
  11. Clarity is Violence: “Culture can’t be created by fiat. . . . [T]he task isn’t just to get something done, it’s to create an environment in which people want to do it. [Allow groups] to accrue more governance as they grow” (205).
  12. Try Anything. Try Everything: It is impossible to predict what will be successful, so try everything and allow users to experiment (“the only group that can try everything is everybody” (207)).