Friday

Here comes an explanation

People are doing crazy things everywhere: pillow fights in Toronto; bubble battles in New York; a gathering of 111 shirtless men in an Abercrombie and Fitch store; all sorts of flashmobs, and the already "classic" free-hugging.

I find all these manifestations great: they're funny and provocative - they make people laugh and escape routine. Besides, they are and secretly organized on the internet but happen at carefully chosen physical places. However, I can’t really understand what they doing, or why they are doing it. Some say it is art, some say it is creative protest. I was forcing myself to accept the thought that there’s no good explanation for these seemingly random acts. And then Clay Shirky comes with the idea of a “cognitive surplus”. The recognition obtained by his book “Here comes everybody” motivated him to a series of talks. You can read the transcript of his talk here
or watch the video here .
In this talk, Shirky tells us about an interview he gave to a TV producer. He describes to her the way people contribute to wikipedia to give her a better idea of what his book is about:


"So I tell her all this stuff, and I think, "Okay, we're going to have a
conversation about authority or social construction or whatever." That wasn't
her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, "Where do
people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I
said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time
comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50
years."

So we know some of this free time comes from people reducing their amount of TV watching. But Shirky defends that we still don’t know what to do with this cognitive surplus:

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't
know what to do with it at first--hence the gin, hence the sitcoms. Because if
people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social
institutions, then it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no
one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting
with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that
integration can transform society.
And - oh! I think - maybe these young people organizing and taking part in all these subway parties, frozen mobs, Matt’s dances, naked bike rides and similar stuff are just trying to do something with their excess of free time and thought. Maybe they are acting accordingly to the general principle “It's better to do something than to do nothing”. Maybe they’re so tired of TV and are trying to figure out a better way to spend their time…
The point here is that all these activities have implications to marketers and organizations in general. That’s why Shirky’s book has been so commented on the blogosphere. I’m just starting a research project with two of my colleagues – one interested in public spaces and the other wanting to study the Critical Mass rides. We hope to have interesting things to say about people’s motivations to take part on these movements and their impacts for marketers and consumer researchers.

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