Clay Shirky on the Value of Our Collective Online Participation

"Watching television has been a sort of half-time job for every man, woman, and child in the developed world for, you know, for decades now," says NYU Interactive Telecommunications Professor Clay Shirky in his most recent Big Think interview. Now that the Internet is allowing people of the developed world with disparate but complimentary skills or interests to collectively pool their trillion-plus hours per year of free time, rather than spend their free time in front of the tube, the world is experiencing what Shirky calls a "Cognitive Surplus."

But what's the value of this collective activity? According to Shirky, the primary value of our participation in crowd-sourced activities like the open source software movement and media-sharing Web sites like Flickr and YouTube is the positive sense of self that comes from personal and public action. "You know, in less than 10 years [Wikipedia] has become the most important reference work in the English language," Shirky says, "Someone who contributes to Wikipedia can do so with the sense that they're participating in a resource that a third of a billion people rely on in a month."

Shirky agrees that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter can be more of a distraction than a productive tool for your work day—but as with personal computers, email, and instant messaging, he believes businesses that resist or restrict their employees' use of these tools are missing out on their benefits. "Participating in social networks as a way of figuring out what your customers are doing, figuring out what your vendors are doing, figuring out what you’re clients are doing, recruiting new hires, all of these kinds of characteristics are going to be – are going to seem to have enough value that after a while most companies are going to capitulate and reopen the firewall inasmuch as they’ve shut it down," says Shirky.

Restricting employees' access to Facebook, it seems, is a larger symptom of corporate leadership that doesn't realize its control over the company's image is slipping away. As Shirky explains, "The range of choices leaders have about the perception of their company has been quite, quite restricted because the counter story we’ll always get at as well, and it’s just much more of a dialogue of the public." The lofty stature of the executive suite may erode with every CEO who attempts to broadcast their thoughts to the Twittosphere, but other aspects of the work world aren't going anywhere soon, says Shirky. Despite the Internet allowing us to spend trillions of hours collaborating in ways we never could have imagined twenty years ago, he thinks the office won't be going out of style anytime soon.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

Steven Pinker's 13 rules for writing better

The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Steven Pinker speaks onstage during OZY Fest 2018 at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on July 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Media)
Personal Growth
  • Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
  • When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
  • Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.
Keep reading Show less

Want to age gracefully? A new study says live meaningfully

Thinking your life is worthwhile is correlated with a variety of positive outcomes.

Surprising Science
  • A new study finds that adults who feel their lives are meaningful have better health and life outcomes.
  • Adults who felt their lives were worthwhile tended to be more social and had healthier habits.
  • The findings could be used to help improve the health of older adults.
Keep reading Show less