Thank Social Media For The Next Phase In Human Evolution

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What do you do with your down time?

The average Canadian watches more than 25 hours of television every week (depending on which survey or research report you believe). On top of that, the average Canadian is also watching close to 12 hours of online video every month. Comparatively, the average American is watching close to 40 hours of television every week and about four to 12 hours of online video (the difference is probably related to both connectivity and culture). As busy as your life may seem, imagine what you could do with all of that free time? Let’s agree that no one is ever going to ditch television (or watching YouTube videos) completely. What would happen if you suddenly had half of that time – which would be close to 60 hours every month? Would you watch more episodes of America’s Got Talent or The Bachelorette?

We have to be able to recognize that television culture has done a lot more to us – as a civilization – than simply to entertain and (sometimes) educate the mass populous.

Television has changed who we are. We sit in front of this box as a way to kill time and as a way to relax (although we should be hard pressed to see how anyone could relax watching the news on Fox or Lock-Up). In its primal form, TV is probably a lot closer to what Paleolithic man did after eating and in between hunts -which is waiting to die (sorry for being so morbid, but it’s true).

The act of actually creating something vs. sitting around and consuming content is one of the pivotal components that make the Internet and Web culture such a huge shift in the media landscape and who we are as a people.

That is the crux and main thrust behind the newly published business book, Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and generosity in a connected age, by Clay Shirky (Penguin Press, June 2010). In Cognitive Surplus, Shirky argues that now, instead of just sitting idly by and watching TV, this (fairly) new technology mixed in with Social Media can put our "untapped resources of talent and goodwill to use at last." Basically, television was (and still is) the main driver that is sucking this cognitive surplus out of humanity. The book isn’t about turning off the boob tube to become an activist, but it is about the potential for human beings to see, do and create a whole lot more. Much like Shirky’s first book, Here Comes Everybody – The power of organizing without organizations (Penguin Press, 2008), Cognitive Surplus is not only a pleasure to read because of Shirky’s writing style, but it is a much needed, deeper look into what is happening now online.

Social Media and the advancement of things like the iPad, smartphones and more places us – as a civilization – in the middle of a new renaissance period.

And, it’s hard to know that we’re in the middle of a new renaissance period until after it is over and we have had the time to sit back, review the results and reflect on these many changes. No one will argue that business, technology and media have changed dramatically in the past two decades because of the Internet, but the question now becomes: what are we going to do with our free time now that we don’t have to simply be a passive audience (or as NYU professor and media pundit Jay Rosen defines us, "the people formerly known as the audience")?

A glaringly obvious example of how to harness this cognitive surplus is Wikipedia (love it or hate it).

Suddenly, it is not incumbent on a group of PhDs and peer review to decide what constitutes the collection of knowledge and information that human beings have discovered. And suddenly, we can all contribute, edit, add, revise and yes, debate not only the content, but its accuracy. Shirky explains that Wikipedia took about 100 million hours of cumulative thought to build when compared to the reality that on average Americans watch about 200 billion hours of television every year. "That represents about 2,000 Wikipedia projects worth of free time annually," the book argues. "Even tiny subsets of this time are enormous: we spend roughly 100 million hours every weekend just watching commercials."

It turns out that even a massive project like Wikipedia takes up only a small amount of our cognitive surplus when broken down.

Now, we can do even more amazing things, projects and initiatives because of our connectivity and the publishing platforms that the Internet affords us. The question becomes this: are human beings naturally lazy or are we naturally hungry to replace our primal hunting instincts with a new hunt for information, content curation, creativity and publishing? As Shirky points out so eloquently in Cognitive Surplus, "Access to cheap, flexible tools removes many of the barriers to trying new things. You don’t need fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus; simple phones are enough. But one of the most important lessons is this: once you’ve figured out how to tap the surplus in a way that people care about, others can replicate your technique, over and over, around the world."

This could well be the next phase of human evolution…

How we use our time to connect, share and build things (ideas, movements, social change, businesses, political change, helping those in need, etc.) in an era where everyone is connected and we push toward the last mile of connecting even those who are not in the developed world.

What are you going to do with all of this free time? What do you make of Clay Shirky and his concept of Cognitive Surplus?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. This blog post is also a part of a Blogger outreach program by TLCBooktours. They sent me a review copy of Cognitive Surplus and invited to join this group of distinguished Bloggers participating in Shirky’s blog tour. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. Mitch,
    A great post as always, I believe though, that as much as there are consumers there is a need for creators. If everyone becomes a creator and stops sitting around and ingesting the media that is around, there will be no one who is actually around to consume it.
    Then when you look at Wikipedia and cognitive surplus, the problem is some people just don’t *want* to be a part of that surplus, they would rather just sit at home and be a part of the consuming society. Can you blame them?
    Yes social media is an odd step for the role of people in society, but where does the stream of consciousness take us as a whole? Who should participate?

  2. I look forward to reading this book because the concept is intriguing. However, from what you have described, I wonder if stating that social media represents the next stage of human evolution may be just a bit hyperbolic. (This may be the case were our thumbs to become both thinner and smarter, however.)
    Social media is responsible for the creation of more content than we could ever hope to consume. And while some content pushers wouldn’t have done so without the accessibility it affords (me for example) my guess is that this has just provided more distraction and diversion for the vast majority who prefer to “watch”.
    How many of those people who are sitting passively in front of their TV’s 25 to 40 hours a week are interested in creating content? Or am I missing the point?
    Shirky explains in his Wikipedia example that all this free time sitting in front of the boob tube represents millions of hours worth of Wikipedia like projects every year. Also adding that “we spend roughly 100 million hours every weekend just watching commercials.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)
    There are those (myself included) who tweet and update while watching TV, but I would venture that most people aren’t ready to replace their “primal hunting instinct with a new hunt for information, content curation, creativity and publishing.”
    Those who are creative and/or information whores will find ways to satisfy those needs. In that regard, social media has become creative “crack” – easy to acquire, and very difficult to quit.
    But to become hooked, you need to have that addictive gene to begin with.
    There will always be people who have a need to express themselves. But there are many more who are readers, listeners and viewers; as there were many more eaters than hunters.
    Social media is a creation amplifier. It allows us to plug in and have our thoughts broadcast around the world. Whether the ability to do so creates a ‘cognitive surplus” or not is a question that I look forward to exploring in Clay Shirky’s book.
    BTW. Enjoyed last mediahacks – sounds like you had a great lunch!

  3. We are currently at three tiers of consumer:
    1. Consume.
    2. Create.
    3. Combination of the two.
    Is it not possible that the evolution of media is one where where the consumer and creator are one in the same (they sort of are that already), and it’s more about the levels of consumption vs. creation? Let’s also not forget that Social Media can (and should) be about simply sharing, commenting, editing, etc… The infamous 1% rule (1% of the community will be the ones creating the most content for it) must be shifting as people do use platforms like Facebook and Twitter more where the consumption comes from how much creating is being done.
    In all of that confusion, we have to admit that media consumption habits are changing because we are beginning to embrace our cognitive surplus.

  4. I have to admit.. the first thing I thought of while reading this post was “I gotta catch up on programs. Maybe I should take the day off”
    Fortunately, I don’t always give in to impulse, and switched to “where’s my Kindle. I need to finish Clay’s book”
    Awesome examples of what we are capable of. Reminded me of the frustration I would feel on back when a job required me to be in a city across a big bridge at 9am. Not being a commuter, I never got used to sitting in line to creep across the bay. The only thing I could do back then was calculate the collective time loss.
    That WAS productive. I may not have found the right answer, but realized that I wanted to find every possible way to avoid these time sucks.
    Since then, we have cell phones, Internet, etc to fill in any 2 seconds we aren’t actively engaged.. and for the times I need to disengage and let the creative process gestate 🙂

  5. I think you’re right. Content creation does not replace consumption. I do think that the option to create content is what’s new and will change the world – as we know it today – in the long run. We can also look to current events to see how consumer content creation has changed the game/story (Haiti, the Gulf of Mexico, elections in Iran, etc…).
    The big idea for me is not which direction consumers will go (passive vs. active), it’s the fact that they can be active at all (which they couldn’t really do not that long ago). We’re also habitually used to being passive consumers of content, what if that habit breaks and we do, indeed, change and embrace this cognitive surplus. Imagine how different the world could look.

  6. While I agreed with Clay, there was something about the television argument that bugged me. People watched a lot of tv back then and it was passive because there was no way for them to share what they thought and felt. Now, I watch a ton of tv, but it’s social. I’m on twitter talking about it, there are tons of websites that deal with this type of social viewing (, televisionwithoutpity, etc.)
    In March Nielson released some figures showing that people are increasing their usage of television AND internet together. (
    So maybe back then television was a time suck, but I think the reason young people (I’m a Gen Y) started decreasing their television viewing a few years ago was that it was passive and boring to do alone. I stopped watch television a while ago and have only started up again because it’s become such a fun social thing to do with friends all over the world. I’m definitely not passively just sitting there anymore.
    As social networks increase our ability to discuss, share and experience content together (Lost Finale anyone? Madmen Twitter Party?) it will just change the way we define “watching tv.”
    Maybe I’m crazy.

  7. Mitch,
    What’s old is new again! This concept of moving from passive to active participation – leveraging the cognitive surplus seems a variation on the work of Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan saw television is a stage in passive retribalization. Web 2.0 and social networking represents the next step: active retribalization.
    There is no question that these tools can help leverage the wisdom and effort of crowds to solve social problems. “Citizen developers” are creating solutions for improved governance. Like Wikipedia, the combination of enough concerned people globally interconnected can create the appropriate critical mass – in this global village.

  8. Always thought provoking Mitch. You just showed one aspect of our obesity problem and dumbing down problem. I think TV gives us escapism of various forms since we have so many stresses in life (Europe has less due to 1] not worried about war like we do 2] the big social safety net). On to Social.
    This is a phrase I use often: Social Media Technology is a Revolution in Interpersonal Communication.
    We don’t need brands/agencies in this space. Though they have invaded it. We need people. We need discovery. We need content. We need technology. We need wonder and excitement. I actually think selling/renting the technology is the best business model. But it is changing how we view life and the world and how we interact with it. And I agree with the Consume & Create. Its what drives us in the space. We truly enjoy the fact that we are inputting into the experiences of the whole.
    And we need cheap technology. Your last comment about the last mile connecting even the third world. Nokia sold 442mil phones last year at an average price of $62. Connectivity for the 3rd world is coming. One day devices like the IPhone will be selling for $62 due to Moore’s Law. It will be a good thing for democracy and capitalism.

  9. Simply having the choice to connect, communicate, and share ideas easily on a global scale is what is changing the world as we know. Every time we log on to Facebook or tweet, we are creating content and consuming it. The best part is that we are in charge. We now have the ability to be creative with like minded individuals around the world. This will eventually lead to major innovations in all industries. I also think more and more people are realizing that being creative is usually a lot more entertaining and satisfying than relying on traditional media sources.

  10. I’m a huge proponent of “everything is ‘with’ not ‘instead of,'” that being said, I think we’re all diminishing the power of passive media. For some reason we equate being passive with “lazy” or bad, and that’s not the case at all. I don’t know about you Rahaf, but I look forward to that time (usually around 10 pm) when I put the MacBook and iPhone done and just let content of TV wash all over me – while I do nothing but consume.
    It’s not a zero sum game.
    Just because you can Digg the news it doesn’t mean that people want to read, cut and paste, login, comment, rate and decided on what’s more important to read/watch. It’s nice to have someone edit/distill it all down too.

  11. One Laptop Per Child – One Mobile Per Child… we’re getting there. I can feel it and I know that the “powers that be” want it to.
    I also would not diminish how much we do love having brands active in these channels. Prior to Twitter introducing their advertising platform (Promoted Tweets), there was some research which indicated that over 20% of all tweets mention a brand. I think people do want to be more connected to the brands they like, they just want less bad advertising.
    More on brands and Twitter via Paid Content over here:

  12. This is the sort of stuff Chris Anderson (from Wired and the author of The Long Tail & Free) has written about. I believe it’s also the concept behind his next book. He calls it the Next Industrial Revolution (moving bits and bytes through collaboration online). The Wired cover story is right here:

  13. Glad to come across your blog. I have no idea how anyone watches that much TV per week. I literally watch zero – aside from sports and intriguing documentaries every so often.
    I am an avid consumer of online content though across a variety of channels and love that I can choose to expand my consumption to an international arena with ease thanks to the Social Media tools that allow everyone to participate.
    I’ll be interested to read Clay’s book too but only wish that this would extend outside of the US in terms of analyzing how Social Media has effected behaviour around the world.

  14. If you do some general online searches, I am confident that you can find research and statistics about how Social Media has affected behaviour around the world. eMarketer might be the perfect place to start, and I believe that Razorfish also does some interesting research into this area.

  15. It can’t be bad thing, but I don’t think that we should then regard being passive as something wrong or lazy. It just means that we now choices in an area where we once did not.
    Prior to all of this Social Media and publishing stuff, I had to pray that a magazine or newspaper editor would find my content worthy of publishing. Suddenly, I can publish and build my own audience – not driven by ad sales but by communities of interest.

  16. or maybe What’s has been here since the begining, we’re realizing. Collective mind is transcendent consciousness. This is a Buddhist concept amongst others, and of course a doctrine discussed in physics and mathematics…

  17. Oh la la… You did not have to go there…
    At first I though you would be writing about biotic environments, singularity, step evolution, emotional interconnectivity and complexity theory.
    Then I just felt you’re just selling your business.
    If you consider social media as a meta-social layer on top of the physical digital network, then yes, we can talk evolution. Nevertheless, content consumption, creation, social interactions, knowledge sharing, time sharing are just thin slices of this layer.
    Exponential increase of technology and social interactions will definitely create something. Not sure what though.
    Clay has extraordinary insights and he’s a brilliant thinker.
    Cognitive surplus has always pushed the boundaries of human civilization. I would not go that far as talk about human evolution.

  18. I think we do all evolve (or, at least, begin to) when we take all of that Cognitive Surplus and start doing things… real things. Especially things that make us better at being human. From how we use our brain to the great discoveries that can come out this surplus.
    As for biotic environments, step evolution, emotional interconnectivity and complexity theory, I’ll have to check what that’s all about on Wikipedia first before commenting 😉

  19. You said that you never know that you were in a renaissance until you’re *out* of the renaissance. I guess that’s why Shirky makes me so excited, because he’s made me open my eyes and see what’s going on around me in social media. Even being entrenched in social media (heck, it’s part of my business!), it’s sometimes hard to see how these social shifts are happening. I mean, Wikipedia is just a constant, just a given. But to think about the time it took to build Wikipedia to what it is now compared to the time folks spend watching television is really eye opening.
    Hand in hand with this is Warren Buffett’s $60 billion dollar challenge. In talking about this, Buffett says that the money he’s giving away doesn’t change his lifestyle at all, nor does it affect his children. But it’s easy for him to giveaway money when it doesn’t impact him at all, but what’s valuable to a non-profit than money? Time. I hope that we can take this cognitive surplus and use it to help make this world better.
    Thanks for being on this tour, Mitch!

  20. Thanks for inviting me to take part. I would have read Shirky’s book at some point, but having to take part in this book tour made it happen sooner… and I’m appreciative of that. Thank you!

  21. I noticed that you are really active in the comments of this post. Is that a result of your discussion with Avinash K last week? I think that passive consumption of media won’t go away, but as he tools for interactive consumption continue to become more accessible we will see continue growth in the ways that our cognitive surplus can be tapped. When it’s easy to comment on something that is seen, heard or read, more and more people will.

  22. I don’t know if it was one, specific, thing that set me off to dive into the comments. To be honest, it just feels “right” at this point, so let’s see how it goes.
    I think one of the additional thoughts around Cognitive Surplus is that we don’t know the true affects of it on our society yet. Many new initiatives, platforms and other things will be created because of this, so it’s going to be more fun to see what’s new due to Cognitive Surplus versus what it has already given us.

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