Re-Visit: Clay Shirky TED Talk about Cognitive Surplus

I watched this video many months ago, and recently think it would be helpful to re-watch it since I am thinking about socially distributed cognition as one theoretical framework for social media and crowdsourcing. I don’t know whether folks have watched this video or not, I recommend everyone who is interested in social media to watch it!


Clay Shirky defined Cognitive Surplus as the tremendous amount of resources enabled by human motivation to contribute and share, and the modern digital media tools. The world has over a trillion of hours a year to commit to shared projects, and modern technologies have unleashed the hidden power in the spare time. He mentioned that people weren’t couch potatoes because they liked to be, it’s because consuming was the only opportunity they were given to. The intrinsic motivation to create and share is empowered when given the modern media tools.

I am thinking that what is the difference between cognitive surplus and socially distributed cognition. It seems that distributed cognition and socially distributed cognition take a perspective of a much smaller scale, it emphasize the cognitive process between individual person and the environment, then socially distributed cognition scales up a little bit to include individual person’s friends, relatives and other people around. I was looking for a cognitive theory that could scale up to the modern web, and this cognitive surplus looks quite a good candidate. However, it talks more about cognitive resources rather than the cognitive process.(So more to think about and look for here…)

Another main idea of this video is about the difference between sites like Ushahidi (this is an interesting site that worth look at) and LOLcats/Flikr/YouTube. The opinion is that Ushahidi creates civic value by the participants that would benefit the whole society, while other sites are only creating communal value. He advocates that more sites should be designed around human generosity. I have some doubt on this, isn’t YouTube creating civic value that could benefit the whole society?

There is another point that’s motivational to me. He said There is a spectrum between mediocre work and good work. but there is a gap between doing nothing and doing anything. So as long as we are doing something, we have passed that gap, and we are in the spectrum, then we could struggle to get to the  top of the spectrum sometime in the future 🙂 This is very inspiring to me, at least to my coding skills.