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Cognitive Surplus from Clay Shirky a book review

by Mark P. McDonald  |  June 29, 2010  |  2 Comments

Clay Shirky captured the ethos of social media with his book “Here comes everybody.”  He follows this up that book 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 recommendations for how to think about

Recommended as the book to understand the fundamentals of social media collaboration

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 intrinsic rewards – where people are paid to perform a task and the culture of extrinsic 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.

This same review is available on at LINK

Category: book-review  strategy  technology  web-20  

Tags: book-review  it-strategy  social-computing  strategy  web-20  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Cognitive Surplus from Clay Shirky a book review

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  2. Media Books says:

    I’ve been a fan of Clay Shirky’s work for quite some time. He 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.

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