The Library: Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Reviewed by Alex.

Although a few years old (and the social channels mentioned have since evolved into bigger beasts) this book has stayed relevant in 2017. The core of it is an exploration of the ways that we can pool our ‘cognitive surplus’ that previously had no outlet into new projects, now that we have the internet and social tools as our weapons.

There are some great examples throughout the book (once you get over the guilty feeling of other people doing civic projects that change the world whilst you spent last night watching a marathon of Stranger Things) but you can’t help but think that these are the extraordinary examples rather than the norm. Most of us read Wikipedia, not add to it.

For a few people this inspiration may kick-start them to finally put their pet project up on kick-starter, but for the less motivated it still serves as a resource for behavioural case studies that challenge the rational thinking of how people will act – particularly in our new social world. One area that Shirky does delve deeply in is the motivations behind why people may take the time to do something (often for free).  Personal achievement or community membership can be stronger than monetary rewards. You can even lose the love for doing something once you do it for money.

From a marketing and advertising point of view, it’s harder to see where brands fit in and whether they’re welcome in these social projects. One clear warning throughout the book is that ‘Theory Induced Blindness’ may make us think that social works in a certain way, but as everyone is becoming more and more comfortable with this form of communication they’re going to start using it in ways that we’ve never thought of. If we ask a follower to act in a certain way, the opportunity gives them a choice to do the opposite – and this can cause it to back-fire for brands. There’s potential for something exciting but proceed with caution.

Alex Davidson