A new framework for understanding social media

“One thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than as a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time,” according to Clay Shirky in his book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. The time which people are no longer spending passively watching television can now become what the author calls “cognitive surplus”.

People who used to spend most of their free time consuming are now voluntarily making and sharing things. Most of the “user-generated content” that they are making and sharing is of low quality, but this is the start of a “participatory culture” rather than a passive culture. The means for this change is provided by social media tools; the motivation is people’s intrinsic need for autonomy and competence; and the opportunity is created by the patterns of our lives as social creatures.

The book provides a very interesting explanation for the successes of Wikipedia, open-source software and similar things which rely on careful co-ordination of large-scale volunteer efforts. I found the chapters on motives and opportunity less interesting because much of the material has already been covered in other books on behavioural economics. On the whole, though, I think that the book does provide a valuable framework for understanding the new age of social media.

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