Cognitive Surplus

How can we harness collective free time and knowledge to further society?

What motivates you? Why do you do the things that you do? Is it money? Is it to gain experience? While many adults work mainly for financial gain, younger generations are forced to take on unpaid internships. In those situations, our motivation is to gain experience. There’s also a growing trend that employers and hiring managers are beginning to notice: younger generations want to find jobs that are meaningful and companies that are socially responsible. There’s a reason that students are willing to live in cardboard boxes and work ridiculous hours — there’s a shift beginning to happen from being motivated solely by money, to now wanting more. We want to get involved with companies that give back to the environment and the community, and we want to find jobs that will allow us to use our knowledge and experience to hopefully make a meaningful impact in our organizations.

How can we harness the newfound responsibility and desire for engagement that new generations are showing? For the first time in history, our television consumption is going down. New generations are spending more time on the internet — and it’s not all just to waste time playing games or watching shows. Clay Shirky, in Cognitive Surplus, argues that Americans are now spending less time consuming and more time engaging. Now that the Internet has had a few decades to mature, we’re moving from social consumption on Flickr and Facebook to more powerful forms of online engagement, including political action.

If speaking solely about politics, there are a few resounding statistics to back-up this idea. The Pew Research Center conducted a study that concluded:

35% of social media users have used the tools to encourage people to vote.

34% of social media users have used the tools to post their own thoughts or comments on political and social issues.

21% of those who use social networking sites or Twitter belong to a group on a social networking site that is involved in political or social issues, or that is working to advance a cause.

“Those who use social media to participate in civic and political life are more diverse in socio-economic terms than those who participate in civic affairs through more traditional online and offline activities such as signing petitions or interacting with news organizations.” — Pew Research Center

As social media tools mature, users are finding new ways to harness their power. We’re seeing political movements use social media to create meaningful change in the world. Our “cognitive surplus” or the amount of free time that we can use as a collective society to work towards a common goal, can be used in many ways. Wikipedia is probably the most commonly used example of the power of cognitive surplus — people use their collective knowledge and free time to compiles hundreds of thousands of articles.

Wikipedia and political action aren’t the only two applications for cognitive surplus, however. Ushahidi is an organization started by Ory Okolloh with a goal to help Kenyan citizens track outbursts of violence. As it turns out, Okolloh’s site is actually more accurate at reporting outbursts than mainstream news organizations.

Its obvious: we now have the capacity to harness cognitive surplus in ways that were never possible. But what will we do with this? People must now develop applications like Ushahidi, What matters now is how we use our imaginations. How can we reward public creativity, participation, and sharing to further society?

Thinking back to a how I used Facebook in 2008 when I created my account, the content and reasons behind my social participation and sharing was very different from what it’s like today. My early days in social participation through Facebook included uploading far too many photos of my friends, and leaving pointless status messages on my own wall and my friends’ walls.

As I’ve grown in years and maturity, and witnessed how others can harness the power of social media to do more than just share pointless photos and status updates, my own participation has changed. After taking a class called Beyond Tolerance the spring of my junior year of undergrad, and learning about so many different aspects of oppression and injustice in our society, I had an urge to take action. While I didn’t create some radical movement, I did, however, post my thoughts on Facebook to hopefully reach some people’s hearts and minds. I typed out a well thought out, long, status update on Facebook and hit the publish button, hoping that it would be well received. The post received far more likes than anything else I’ve posted on social media, and solicited over 40 comments. I later posted two full essays that I wrote for the class on Medium, and gained a little bit of attention.

  1. Invisible Oppression — The Hidden Destruction of Minority Groups
  2. The Blissful Ignorance of White Privilege

These two stories I published have been read over 136 times on Medium. That isn’t a lot, that isn’t incredible, but by harnessing the power of Medium, I was able to reach a broader audience than I would have without Medium, and hopefully educate someone along the way. In fact, the professor for which I wrote those papers just told me this week that a few of her students had cited my work in their papers… Now that definitely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t chosen to share and engage in a worldwide discussion on oppression using as my platform for distribution.

Looking back, I’m proud of how I now use social media to engage in public discussions and conversations that are important to me. Instead of only posting pointless selfies and tweeting about what I ate for breakfast, I’m beginning to see how powerful these tools can be to create meaningful impacts on my followers.

As far as the debate on whether creating/sharing is more morally acceptable than consuming goes, I would say that neither are more “morally responsible” or acceptable than the other. If you consume material that helps you become a more well-informed, engaged, and active citizen in society, I would argue that there is nothing immoral about that choice, and that choosing to consume is no less moral. However, I would argue to say that creating and sharing that material is more respectable and responsible. We need more people to stand up for what they believe in, and use social outlets to disperse their views and disseminate information to those who simply want to consume. Hopefully, those consumers will then in turn step up and either share those materials, or begin to shift to producers of their own, custom content.

As people better understand social media and how the power of this particular media can be harnessed, I think they will organically transition from using social media as simply a tool to consume to using social media to share and encourage the promotion of their own beliefs. As more and more of our society hops on board and begins to share in powerful ways, I think social media will become the most effective way of spreading a message because you can reach people where they are and deliver tailored messages to a widespread population.

In what ways do you share on social media? Have you thought about using social media to spread political messages or social justice issues that you’re passionate about? If you’ve thought about it, have you acted upon those ideas? How can we use social media to become involved in creating meaningful impact in the world around us?

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