Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor at New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). His courses address, among other things, the interrelated effects of the topology of social networks and technological networks, how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. He has written and been interviewed extensively about the Internet since 1996. His columns and writings have appeared in Business 2.0, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review and Wired.
Question: How do we measure the value of cognitive surplus?
Clay Shirky: The most immediate value from the
cognitive surplus comes from satisfying the intrinsic desires. Right?
The kind of things that we’re motivated to do that are different from,
“My boss told me so,” or “This is what I’m paid to do.” And they’re
both personal and social motivations. Intrinsic motivations have both
personal and social components. Personal motivations tend to be
autonomy and competence. Right? The idea that I am the author of my
own actions, or that I’m good at something. Social motivations tend to
be membership and generosity. I am part of a like-minded group that
recognizes me and accepts me as a member, or my activities are creating
benefits for other people who are grateful for the work that I’ve done.
So, the primary value driving all of this stuff is really
some positive sense of self that comes from participation and public
action, whether it’s personal or social. As long as enough people want
to get some of that value out of uploading photos to Flicker, you know,
uploading videos to YouTube, uploading pictures of cats to
ICanHasCheezburger, those aggregations... those aggregations will do
well. Downstream from that, there’s a whole range of questions about
So, the value of ICanHasCheezburger.com was
the purveyor of LOLCats, of the pictures of cute cats with cute
captions, completely slight, right? Not world-changing, not really
doing much other than giving people something to laugh at a coffee
The value of Wikipedia? You know, in less than 10
years has become the most important reference work in the English
language. So, on that range—the range of kind of socio-utility
downstream of the participants—you’ve got everything from really nothing
more than a bit of fun on a work day to reshaped people’s sense of
Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown