A book on the internets, in hardcover

It was with a bit of nostalgia for my college days (where I majored in media theory) that I picked up Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus for this week. Were Clay and I friends, I might tell him he could have picked a less intimidating title, one that wouldn’t make people frown when I tell them what I’m reading. The name won’t scare off anyone who picked up Surplus for the author himself (or anyone who makes a habit of reading manifestos on the merits of new media), but it might scare off some readers who would otherwise be greatly served by hearing what Shirky has to say.

If you’ve got even a little inner media wonk, this is a truly fascinating book. If you don’t, or if you’re turned off by a title that includes the word “cognitive,” then just hang around me, as I’ve spent the better part of the last week describing Shirky’s central ideas to friends, most of whom have at least pretended to find them interesting. Without going into too much detail, the gist of Cognitive Surplus is this: Over the last 50 years, we’ve had a steady increase in free time, most of which we’ve spent watching television (oh, sweet television). It’s only in the last five or so years that we’ve seen the proliferation of media that doesn’t command passive viewership, but rather engagement. In the short termβ€”and for those people who still insist Twitter is about 140-character sandwich descriptionsβ€”this just means a lot of frivolity online. But it can also mean great things. If every person in the world has one hour of free time per day, the power of all that time combined is pretty enormous. And if each of those people spends that hour engaging/interacting/contributing instead of consuming, we get things like Wikipedia. Like Twitter-enabled political unrest. Like nonprofits soliciting donations from a worldwide fan base. Like CouchSurfing.com. In other words, it doesn’t all have to be about what you’re eating.There are many more elements to Shirky’s argument, and I’m running the risk of not doing it justice by simplifying it this much. But the central idea, or at least the one that I think would best serve the residual doubters of social mediaβ€”not just in terms of cultural importance, but as an agent of changeβ€”is that the way we interact now isn’t worse, it’s just different. Shirky gives plenty of examples, most of which I enjoyed enough as “Aha!” moments that I won’t give them away here. Instead, I’ll refer to a relevant though unrelated quote that’s encouraged me to make or embrace change in my own life (read: attempt using my stove): “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”

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