Can we harness the cognitive surplus?

Posted: May 25th, 2010 | Author: Tyler Dukes | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , | View Comments

People do all sorts of things for free.

They learn to play the guitar and restore old cars. They collect sports memorabilia or brew beer in their kitchens (my personal favorite).

But aside from regular hobbies, they also do things for which professionals are often paid a lot of money: like edit encyclopedias or develop operating systems.

This got Wired contributor Daniel Pink and NYU Professor Clay Shirky thinking. The magazine published a really great conversation in its latest issue between the two about what they’re calling the “cognitive surplus,” or what happens when people stop worrying about television and learn to love the Internet.

Shirky explains that the collective potential of everyone with a computer amounts to something amazing.

We can do back-of-the-envelope calculations, for example, using Wikipedia, to see how far we still have to go. All the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits represent around 100 million hours of human labor. That’s a lot of time. But remember: Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year.

The publication of this discussion less than 24 hours after the finale of Lost seems to make it even more apt, but I digress.

It seems that so far, news organizations have been pretty bad at harnessing the potential of this cognitive surplus. Sure, CNN has iReport and we’re starting to see more local news mobile apps that allow users to share photos from their phones, but we should be doing more.

How do we make our news sites at least as engaging as Wikipedia, which edges time spent on the average news site by about a minute, despite being an encyclopedia? How can we encourage multimedia content creation like Facebook, which boasts 400 million users?

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that. But here’s a good first step to conceptualizing things, courtesy of Shirky:

When someone buys a TV, the number of consumers goes up by one, but the number of producers stays the same. When someone buys a computer or mobile phone, the number of consumers and producers both increase by one.

Especially in an age of shrinking newsrooms, that concept is big.

Oddly enough, I came across a talk from Pink last week on the related topic of motivation. He pointed out that one of the reasons people do amazing things in their free time — like learning to play the guitar — is because they draw satisfaction from mastery.

That’s good news for the news. It means that one of our core goals — helping people understand their world — aligns perfectly with a primary human motivator — to learn more about something.

So the question is twofold. How do we harness our audience’s creative surplus? And how can we challenge our audience to master the news?

Discuss among yourselves. You are the producers, after all.


  • A big part of this discussion should be defining mastery of the news. For some, varying degrees of knowledge on current events is mastery, while for others, it's content creation. If a news organization can help to connect the two and bolster both sides with additional tools and information, they would be in a good spot to keep their audience as engaged as Wikipedia seems to.
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