Book summary: Cognitive Surplus (III)

This is the last part of my summary of “Cognitive Surplus”, by Clay Shirky. It will cover the last chapter, “Looking for the Mouse”. You can read parts one and two in this blog.

Looking for the mouse

Transforming free time into cognitive surplus is not just about social tools. We need motive and opportunity, too. The open question is what benefits will emerge from our ability to form this time into cognitive surplus. At the lolcats end, experimentation won’t stop, but we can’t count on new kinds of socially beneficial activities just happening. Creating a participatory culture with wider benefits for society is harder than sharing amusing photos.

While it’s tempting to imagine a broad conversation about what we should do as a society with the possibilities and virtues of participation, society doesn’t work like that. The essential source of value right now is coming less from a master strategy and move from broad experimentation, that’s why we need to improve the ability of small groups to try radical things. We’re still disoriented by having two billion new participants in a media previously operated by a small group of professionals (this is the paradox of revolution: the bigger the opportunity, the less anyone can extrapolate the future from the present).

Lessons for social software (in three categories):

  • Creating new opportunities: Start small (it’s harder to imagine how a service will be useful when it doesn’t have many users; but if they only work when large, they’ll probably never grow); Ask “Why?” (different people have different motivations, not necessarily close to that of the designers; take into account); Behaviour follows opportunity (if you want different behaviour, you have to provide different opportunities); Default to social (not opt-in; Delicious vs. Backflip story on p.196).

  • Dealing with early growth: A hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand (there’s a medium size that doesn’t have the advantages of intimacy or of big communities); People differ. More people differ more (when given a narrow range, people converge; but when anyone can create media, the array of interests goes full crazy; in participatory systems, “average” is an almost useless concept; people running the service can’t insist on participation being equal or universal; long tail of participation); Intimacy doesn’t scale (but you can cluster participants into smaller groups, like Yahoo! mailing lists); Support a supportive culture (“quiet car” behaviour, p.202).

  • Adapting to users’ surprises: The faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt; Success causes more problems that failure (success brings people, not always with realistic expectations or good will; trying to prepare in advance works very poorly in real life; “if you want to solve hard problems, have hard problems”); Clarity is violence (groups tolerate governance only after enough value is generated to make the burden worthwhile; since it builds over time, rules have to follow, not lead); Try anything. Try everything (the single greatest predictor of how much value we get of our cognitive surplus is how much we allow and encourage to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everybody).

And that’s it. I hope you enjoyed it :-)