Gin, Television, and Social Surplus in the World of Participatory Culture

May 5th, 2008

Clay Shirky writes a very philosophical piece about culture/media and participation

I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she’s going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn’t what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, “What you doing?” And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, “Looking for the mouse.”

Professor Henry Jenkins of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT articulates a world in which young people have a very different relationship with media consumption. This is the migration from consumption as an individual practice to consumption as a networked practice – which I might add is voluntary. Convergence Jenkins argues is also a culture phenomenon rather than a technological one

Culture Jenkins argues is today Participatory. We create, we share, we collaborate, we consume, we discuss. Henry Jenkins on Obama and the “We” Generation

When people consume and produce media together, when they pool their insights and information, mobilise to promote common interests, and function as grassroots intermediaries ? rather than talking about personal media, perhaps we should be talking about communal media or social commerce that becomes part of our lives as members of communities, whether experienced face-to-face at the most local level or over the Net.

This is an engaged, motivated and self-selected audience. If we accept Jenkins world view, this has profound implications on how we reach out and attract our customers, talk to our suppliers and how we create value. It was Jonathan Schwartz that said our 1000 bloggers at Sun have done more for this company than a $1bn ad campaign could have ever done. This is participatory culture at the coalface. Or we could reference wikipedia, World of Warcraft, Pop Idol, the Matrix, citizen journalism or social commerce platforms like ebay, MyNuMo or Spreadshirt.

Shirky also observes

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders–a lot of things we like–didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

It wasn’t until people started thinking of this as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than just dissipate, that we started to get what we think of now as an industrial society

Shirky says we have been on a bit of a bender recently and are just waking up to the reality that we posses a cognitive surplus – Wikipedia represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus.

Back to Shirky’s 4 year old

Here’s something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here’s something four-year-olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for

An ancient Chinese proverb says: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.? I like to say “People embrace what they create.”

If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen? And I’m betting the answer is yes.

Maybe the answer looks like this? or this or indeed this

  1. One Response to “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus in the World of Participatory Culture”

  2. By Stefan Constantinescu on May 5, 2008

    I too enjoyed the piece, later on I found out it is online in video form: http://blip.tv/file/get/Web2Expo-20Expo2008ClayShirky886.mp4

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