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Cognitive Surplus & Community Outreach

April 4, 2011

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky is one of those books I categorize as simply being good to think about. The essence of the text explores the impact of social media on our ability to share information and create knowledge.  The case studies in the book are wide-ranging and extend from the boycott of U.S. beef imports into Korea in 2008 to the microvolunteering that I posted about a couple of months ago.  The relevance to public outreach in museums and archaeology is considerable.  Shirky writes:

The atomization of social life in the twentieth century left us so far removed from participatory culture that when it came back, we needed the phrase “participatory culture” to describe it (p. 19).

But Shirky provides one of those key ‘aha’ moments in understanding a true participatory approach in Outreach when he notes that:

TV is unbalanced – if I own a TV station, and you own a television, I can speak to you, but you can’t speak to me. . . . Participation is inherent in the phone, and it’s the same for the computer.  When you buy a machine that lets you consume digital content, you also buy a machine to produce it (p. 22).

With this in mind, I was listening to a series of presentations last week at the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings where the speakers described their outreach efforts in community cultural heritage projects by distributing videos through iTunes U and creating general information sources on web pages.  With Shirky in mind, I was struck how this approach is very linear and one-way and does not invite participation.  Information is put out for the consumer to take in, but not take part in.  Contrast the above dissemination strategy with publishing videos on Facebook where feedback is encouraged and the lifeblood of the media.  Alternatively, instead of posting video content to iTunes U consider the impact of posting outreach videos on YouTube with the considerably broader search and distributional capabilities.  Offhand, I don’t recall ever Googling for a term and being directed to an iTunes page.  Or, consider the difference in using a wiki page or blog for outreach efforts, again where interaction is the expected norm for the very creation of content in contrast to a uni-directional website.

In essence, we can use digital technology in the same way we use print technology – the professional disseminates to the lay person without a strong feedback loop.  However, we also can use digital media to effectively engage broad participation in outreach efforts.  Shirky makes comparable points in everything from restaurant reviews to medical information.  Here is where the discussion gets pretty interesting.  Shirky writes:

At every turn, skeptical observers have attacked the idea that pooling our cognitive surplus could work to create anything worthwhile, or suggested that if it does work, it is a kind of cheating, because sharing at a scale that competes with older institutions is somehow wrong.  Steve Ballmer of Microsoft denounced the shared production of software as communism.  Robert McHenry, a former editor in chief of Encyclopedia Britannica, likened Wikipedia to a public rest room.  Andrew Keen, author of the Cult of the Amateur, compared bloggers to monkeys.  These complaints, self-interested though they were, echo more broadly held beliefs.  Shared, unmanaged effort might be fine for picnics and bowling leagues, but serious work is done for money, by people who work in proper organizations, with managers directing their work (pp. 161-162).

Shirky provides pages of examples of how this thinking is just plain wrong and completely at odds with today’s reality on so many levels including the development of the Apache software that allows you to read this blog post.

Here is where some of this comes down for me.  I was out-of-town at a conference all last week.  I know that it is important for our Museum’s Facebook page to have regular posts. While on the road, I really don’t feel like doing posts from the hotel room.  Five other staff and students are administrators on the Museum Facebook account and can post updates, photos, and so forth.  I also know that when I am in town, their default is to default to me to post because I am the Director (read professional) at the Museum.  The staff can be quite intimidated about posting, fearing they will post something not quite right, or use none to real good grammar and reflect poorly on the Museum.  This condition exists despite my regular encouragement for them to post.  But last week they did post updates all week, and the updates were great, and actually got more “likes” than content I usually put up.  I am hopeful this process will continue (especially since they usually read this blog post).  But the student reluctance also is an indication to me of how ingrained the notion of lecture to and not being in dialogue with folks can be.

Shirky shows us that when folks are provided or take the opportunity to engage in using their combined cognitive surplus, outreach in institutions such as museums or in archaeology can move to the next level of engagement and sustainability.

Check out Shirky’s book.  If you already have, what are your thoughts on his discussion of cognitive surplus?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Marilyn permalink
    April 4, 2011 3:58 pm

    Thanks for this summary. I am just starting to work with volunteers on an unofficial “friends of” facebook page for a museum. One volunteer wanted the solo responsibility for posting. She is now gone. The other volunteer was open, interested, but needs a lot of encouragement just to post. New third volunteer, will see how it goes. I agree we need to figure out how to get over the intimidation factor in their heads, which they may not even realize is there. It does take many voices/ideas to achieve the potential of one facebook page, which is a limiting factor for a small museum and for a government run museum where control is the #1 goal.

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