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Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age Hardcover – Jun 10 2010

4.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press (June 10 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202532
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202537
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.2 x 21.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 717 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #345,327 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"An informed look at the social impact of the Internet." ---Kirkus --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Clay Shirky teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he researches the interrelated effects of our social and technological networks. He has consulted with a variety of Fortune 500 companies working on network design, including Nokia, Lego, the BBC, Newscorp, Microsoft, as well as the Library of Congress, the U.S. Navy, and the Libyan government. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, Harvard Business Review, Business 2.0, and Wired, and he is a regular keynote speaker at tech conferences. Mr. Shirky lives in Brooklyn.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book has incredible insight into what Shirky calls our "Cognitive Surplus" - this excess of free time being put to good use when we are given a medium that allows us to do so. The internet is the best thing that happened to me; the TV sure as hell wasn't!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A great book on groups psychology, online communities, the new media and making good use of people's available free time and enthousiasm for contributing to something useful or valuable, more or less. Additionnally, this book increases you faith in humanity. There's a lot of young and professional people out which would rather create stuff or solve problems online rather than watch tv, waiting for you to make it possible or easier for them.
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Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
I eagerly purchased this Clay Shirky book based on listening to podcasts of his thoughts on the future of the newspaper business. The man's comments were insightful, he reeked intelligence. While I am sure he still does, it is difficult to tell in this audio effort as he chose to not narrate this book. I found myself drifting through vast sections with no memory of what had been spoken.
Regrets, as had I bought the hardcover I would have still heard his voice and likely been once again spellbound.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars 91 reviews
158 of 163 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Recommended as THE book to understand the fundamentals of social media collaboration June 27 2010
By Mark P. McDonald - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Clay Shirky captured the ethos of social media with his book "Here comes everybody." He follows that book up with one that concentrates on the fundamentals of turning our cognitive surplus into value. Cognitive Surplus provides a compelling and clear description of the fundamentals of social media and collaboration as well providing principles that are guiding developments and innovation in this space.

There are many books out there that either describe the social media phenomenon or profess to provide a `recipe' for success. Neither of these approaches can provide you with the insight needed to effectively experiment and deploy social media for the simple reason that social media is changing too fast.

The book is organized into seven chapters that outline a complete way of thinking about social media.

Chapter 1: Gin, Television and Cognitive Surplus sets the context of social change and evolution of free time. This chapter sets the context for the rest of the story giving you the perspective to think through the issues.

Chapter 2: Means discusses the transition of the means of production from one of scarcity controlled by professionals to abundance and the participation of amateurs.

Chapter 3: Motive captures the essence of the reasons why people contribute their time, talent and attention to collective action. Here Shirky talks about issues of autonomy, competence, generosity and sharing.

Chapter 4: Opportunity recognizes the importance of creating ways of taking advantage of group participation. This chapter contains discussions of behavioral economics and the situations which generates group participation.

Chapter 5: Culture discusses the differences between extrinsic rewards - where people are paid to perform a task and the culture of intrinsic rewards - where compensation comes outside of a formal contracted pay.

Chapter 6: Personal, Communal, Public, Civic this chapter brings it all together giving the book a solid foundation illustrated by compelling examples.

Chapter 7: Looking for the Mouse is as meaty a chapter as any in the book. Normally the final chapter wraps up, but here Shirky discusses 11 principles associated with tapping into cognitive surplus. These principles are among the best in the book.

This book gives you a way to thinking about how people contribute their time, attention and knowledge and therefore how you can think about social media. In my opinion, this is THE BOOK to read if you are new to the subject of mass collaboration, social media, Web 2.0 etc. Here is why:


Shirky provides a comprehensive discussion of the fundamentals of cognitive surplus and how those fundamentals have changed over time. This provides the reader with a solid foundation to translate their experiences and understanding into a new media.

The book does not talk about specific technologies. I do not think I read the term blog or wiki too often. This is strength, because frankly the technology is changing is too fast. Shirky does discuss the reasons why applications like Napster met with such success.

The book has a gentle blend of academic and journalistic writing. There is real depth of thinking in the book. One example is the discussion about the fallacy of Gen X being different or irrational. At the same time the writing is clean, well organized and easy to read.

The book provides a thoughtful discussion of the principles that drive social media and give the reader a framework that they can apply to their own situation. A word of warning, you will have to think about your situation and these ideas


Readers looking for a recipe will be somewhat disappointed as Shirky recognizes that social media solutions will continue to depend on design principles more than detailed processes.

The book occasionally falls back into a policy mode as it describes social trends and societal implications. This can draw you off the main argument from time to time.

This book is dense with great insight and thinking. I list this as a challenge for people who are looking for quick read. You will get more than a simple 12-step process from reading this book.


Overall recommended for anyone who wants to understand the social media and mass collaboration phenomenon. This book is strongly recommended as a first book to start reading about social media.

Business executives reading the book can gain a deeper understanding of social media that will help them avoid the - we're on Facebook so therefore we are social solution.

Technologists will initially be disappointed as this is not a technical book, but I ask them to read the book carefully and think about how technologies create the means to bring collaboration together. After all, successful social collaboration involves a unique blend of social and technical systems. The technical piece is significantly more straightforward than getting the right social systems and this is what this book is all about.
44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Use Social Connectivity to Change the World June 29 2010
By Alycat - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
My TIVO hates Clay Shirky. In his piercing new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age Shirky asserts that the technological revolution has enabled us to work together to conquer challenges big and small, if we'd just watch less TV and commit to participating in something other than our own mental decay.

TV watching on a per capita basis has increased for 50 years in a row, and that staggering amount of time has come largely at the expense of human connectedness and innovation. Before TV we entertained ourselves by interacting, making and doing, whether it was paper airplanes, a game of Yahtzee, or family harmonica night.

But at least in places with electricity, we've largely retreated into our heads, with the flicker of TV as the endless soundtrack.

But all is not lost, if you just commit to turning away from Starsky & Hutch, and toward the opportunities for greater good.

In this meticulously researched book, Shirky suggests that the historical barriers to collaboration (principally time, expense, and the ability to easily find like-minded people) have been largely stripped away, enabling us to make better use of the unused brain cells (our cognitive surplus) made dormant by TV addiction.

The book includes several compelling examples of groups creating and maintaining impressive online collaborations, without a profit motive in sight. Harnessing the power of the collective (crowdsourcing for social change) is a thread woven throughout Cognitive Surplus, and its viability requires two of Shirky's assertions to be accurate.

First, that our default state as a species is to create and share and collaborate, and we are just now moving back toward normalcy, aided by the vast increase in content creation and sharing mechanisms. Second, that making collaboration more convenient will inexorably cause it to become more commonplace.

Shirky makes a great case for it to be so, citing LOLCats as an example of widespread human collaboration and creation - albeit devoid of the type of society-enhancing mission and outcomes he hopes is the eventual result of this movement.

"Many of our behaviors...(are) held in place not be desire but by inconvenience, and they're quick to disappear when the inconvenience does. Getting news from a piece of paper, having to be physically near a television at a certain time to see a certain show, keeping our vacation pictures to ourselves as if they were some big secret - not one of these behaviors made a lick of sense. We did those things for decades or even centuries, but they were only as stable as the accidents that caused them. And when the accidents went away, so did the behaviors."

Shirky is realistic in his assessment of collaborations strengths and weaknesses. His chronicle of an online study group at Ryerson University is a perfect example of the ramifications of widespread interconnectivity that society will be wrestling with into the future.

The rise and role of the "non-professional" is another very interesting concept in the book, as an increase in participation naturally leads to an explosion in content created by people that haven't been vetted by the traditional means of degrees, apprenticeships, or ownership of a broadcasting license. Shirky points out that consumer-powered review sites like Yelp are just as valid as a critique from a professional restaurant reviewer, although perhaps for different reasons based on the collective knowledge and biases of each source.

As I see it, the recipe for improving the world through collaboration has three steps:

1. More people making stuff (100 million bloggers can't be wrong)
2. More people sharing the stuff that they make (3 billion photos per month uploaded to Facebook)
3. People that make and share coming together to tackle larger initiatives

I'd say we're somewhere between steps two and three, and Cognitive Surplus provides many examples of success at each stage of the process.

In a sea of "me too" books about social media, Cognitive Surplus stands out as about so much more. Who we are. Who we want to be. And who we could be if we put down the remote and worked together, with technology as the enabler.

I'm a bit of a change addict. I'd go to a different restaurant every day, if it was viable. I almost never read a book twice, but Cognitive Surplus will be an exception. It's the rare book that captures where we are and where we're going, while making you think and still being accessible.

Bravo, Clay.
36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mix of two books, one good... and the other... not complete... July 20 2010
By Hampus Jakobsson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I often find Shirkey to clearly summarize what everyone is thinking of around the evolution of (social) media, but this time he only made half of the book excellent. The book has two parts:

1. Can be summarized well in the quote "the wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource, and lets us design new kinds of participation and sharing that take advantage of that resource". Great points, but in fact pretty much what was between the lines in Here Comes Everybody.

2. a How-to-use-the-cognitive-surplus-of-the-planet-guide - some great points, but this format does not suit the standards Shirkeyisms. It is way too much of a list of ideas, some around game mechanics (intrinsic motivations of people - think Foursquare/Gowalla), some around group dynamics and external motivations (think Facebook), and some just repeats of how new media (if you must say it, say "social media") is different than old media, summarized well by the quote: "intimacy trumps skill. For similar reasons, I sing "Happy Birthday" to my children, even with my terrible singing voice, not because I can do a better job than Placido Domingo or Lyle Lovett, but because those talented gentlemen do not love my children as I do. There are times, in other words, when doing things badly, with and for one another, beats having them done well on our behalf by professionals".

I wish Shirkey would have developed the book as two separate books.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Net Lite, Or, Where's the Virtual Beef? June 24 2011
By Martin Zook - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Cognitive Surplus is a very narrowly defined book that offers up few thoughts of interest and mostly dwells on information that likely is already known by many using social media, or those like myself who have read a few books about the media, including some of the heavyweights (McLuhan, Boorstin, Gleick, etc.).

The author Clay Shirky looks at social media through the means, motives, and opportunity of users. Criminologists will recognize these are the three key elements of any investigation of a crime. It's a mildly imaginative methodology for Shirky's purpose which is to examine how the global surplus of cognition, made possible by our relative abundance of discretionary time, is being put to use through activities organized around social networks.

Frankly, I have a tough time defining the audience for this book. There is precious little uncovered here that would inform, or interest, even more intellectual users of the mobile net, or so I would imagine. I know from discussions with my 15-year-old son that there's not much here. I think I can cover it with him as I chauffeur him around tomorrow.

For instance, Shirky makes a point of informing the reader that the mobile net gives users control over expressing themselves, whether it's artistic, professional, or even bumming a ride to work over a carpool platform. This freedom is being used in a lot of silly pursuits, but also in exercises to organize democratic activities, shed light on global news events, or ease daily living. In a stab at profundity, Shirky uses the metaphor of social connective tissue to describe the social network, which in his estimation is primarily mobile.

But if there's little for those who populate the social network, then there's less for those whose work and reading informs there understanding of the net. Disclosure: I'm an IT analyst, but have never researched or analyzed social media. That said, there was confirmation of what I already knew, but not a single idea that was new to me.

There are much more informative books on the net and social media (I've reviewed some of them) for those interested in understanding the phenomena that is shaping our age.
34 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Cancel your cable subscription. June 27 2010
By B. Ramlow - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although it is a very good topic, I think it could have been written in article form instead of a book. He has many different examples of how the internet has changed social media as a whole but basically comes to the same conclusion with every example. "Instead of consuming media we can now produce and consume."

The first chapter is very illuminating as Shirky takes you through London at the very start of the industrial revolution. Most of the citizens of London were commuting from the suburbs to the city for work. To meld into this new social setting and lifestyle they drank gin. A lot of gin. This was their "social lubrication" to get through life in dirty, polluted, new city life. They were using their free time to drink. 8 hours of work, 8 hours of drinking, and 8 hours of sleeping.

For the past 50 years, post-industrial revolution; post war era, the educated population of the world has been using most of their free time to consume television. This 8 hours of work, 8 hours of TV, and 8 hours of sleep has been our social lubrication and use of most free time. Over 1 trillion hours of TV is watched per year when it could be used for other, more productive activities.

This is where the rest of the book takes off with example after example of how the internet has given ordinary people the opportunities to speak back to the media and government. With camera phones being owned by millions of people, anyone can take a picture or video of anything they are near and post it on the web.

There really are many good examples of how new technologies have given the lay man the opportunity to 'be heard' or produce media that they otherwise would not have been able to. But as I said earlier he always comes to the same conclusion after each example. Anyone who reads this review is utilizing the power of new technologies and communications. As more and more people write reviews for books, others can decide which book they want to buy or if the particular book they've been thinking about buying is not what it is hyped up to be. This is the beauty of the internet. Not only can we read reviews and see what other people are saying, we can order a book that would have been otherwise difficult to obtain. These are the beauties of new communication technologies that are going to revolutionize the future.

I canceled my cable subscription a long time ago because it is a waste of time and money, after you read this book you may be tempted to do the same. And this book actually inspired me to write this review, its my first :) The pooling of information and opinions is going to revolutionize society as a whole, and we are the children of this revolution my friends. Heck, the computer I am typing this review on was built a few months ago. I researched computer parts for almost a month on the internet, ordered the parts off of the internet, learned how to build it by going to google and typing in "how to build a computer" then connected it to the internet and can communicate instantly with any of my friends who are also online, send an email, order books for further knowledge, order another telescope (when I can afford it) to see more of the heavens, and even go to college online, online dating, online streaming movies. We have access to the worlds super library at the click of a mouse and the touch of our fingertips.