Recently Clay Shirky, prolific author of things about openness, community, journalism and social networking gave a TED talk that is worth watching. This topic is in some sense the inverse of the ‘long-tail’ effect. That’s the idea introduced a few years ago by Chris Anderson to point out that in a distribution with huge membership, people on the web for example, even the far ends of the tail of the distribution of members there will still be significant numbers and thus the ability for people with even the most arcane or obscure of interests to find community in like-minded others. That is, you can find community for interests from LOLcats to collectors of 19th century penny post stamps.
Clay’s recent observation derives from recognition that with millions of people accessing the web there is collectively trillions of hours of time that individuals could contribute to causes implemented through the web – programming tasks to data entry. This phenomenon Clay refers to as the ‘cognitive surplus’ of the web community. And he asks quite rightly, how might we allocate this collective resource. Toward that end he reminds us of Dean Kamen’s admonition,
“Free cultures get what they celebrate.”
The question then is squarely on our shoulders. To what should be marshal this extraordinary capability, only emergent in the last few years? It is sobering, exciting, and deeply moving. We CAN do more. We must.
— pdl —