Thank social media for the next phase in human evolution

Written by Mitch Joel

What do you do with your down time?

The average Canadian watches more than 25 hours of television every week (depending on which survey or research report you believe). On top of that, the average Canadian is also watching close to 12 hours of online video every month. Comparatively, the average American is watching close to 40 hours of television every week and about four to 12 hours of online video (the difference is probably related to both connectivity and culture). As busy as your life may seem, imagine what you could do with all of that free time? Let’s agree that no one is ever going to ditch television (or watching YouTube videos) completely. What would happen if you suddenly had half of that time – which would be close to 60 hours every month? Would you watch more episodes of America’s Got Talent or The Bachelorette?

We have to be able to recognize that television culture has done a lot more to us – as a civilization – than simply to entertain and (sometimes) educate the mass populous.

Television has changed who we are. We sit in front of this box as a way to kill time and as a way to relax (although we should be hard pressed to see how anyone could relax watching the news on Fox or Lock-Up). In its primal form, TV is probably a lot closer to what Paleolithic man did after eating and in between hunts -which is waiting to die (sorry for being so morbid, but it’s true).

The act of actually creating something vs. sitting around and consuming content is one of the pivotal components that make the Internet and Web culture such a huge shift in the media landscape and who we are as a people.

That is the crux and main thrust behind the newly published business book, Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and generosity in a connected age, by Clay Shirky (Penguin Press, June 2010). In Cognitive Surplus, Shirky argues that now, instead of just sitting idly by and watching TV, this (fairly) new technology mixed in with Social Media can put our “untapped resources of talent and goodwill to use at last.” Basically, television was (and still is) the main driver that is sucking this cognitive surplus out of humanity. The book isn’t about turning off the boob tube to become an activist, but it is about the potential for human beings to see, do and create a whole lot more. Much like Shirky’s first book, Here Comes Everybody – The power of organizing without organizations (Penguin Press, 2008), Cognitive Surplus is not only a pleasure to read because of Shirky’s writing style, but it is a much needed, deeper look into what is happening now online.

Social Media and the advancement of things like the iPad, smartphones and more places us – as a civilization – in the middle of a new renaissance period.

And, it’s hard to know that we’re in the middle of a new renaissance period until after it is over and we have had the time to sit back, review the results and reflect on these many changes. No one will argue that business, technology and media have changed dramatically in the past two decades because of the Internet, but the question now becomes: what are we going to do with our free time now that we don’t have to simply be a passive audience (or as NYU professor and media pundit Jay Rosen defines us, “the people formerly known as the audience”)?

A glaringly obvious example of how to harness this cognitive surplus is Wikipedia (love it or hate it).

Suddenly, it is not incumbent on a group of PhDs and peer review to decide what constitutes the collection of knowledge and information that human beings have discovered. And suddenly, we can all contribute, edit, add, revise and yes, debate not only the content, but its accuracy. Shirky explains that Wikipedia took about 100 million hours of cumulative thought to build when compared to the reality that on average Americans watch about 200 billion hours of television every year. “That represents about 2,000 Wikipedia projects worth of free time annually,” the book argues. “Even tiny subsets of this time are enormous: we spend roughly 100 million hours every weekend just watching commercials.”

It turns out that even a massive project like Wikipedia takes up only a small amount of our cognitive surplus when broken down.

Now, we can do even more amazing things, projects and initiatives because of our connectivity and the publishing platforms that the Internet affords us. The question becomes this: are human beings naturally lazy or are we naturally hungry to replace our primal hunting instincts with a new hunt for information, content curation, creativity and publishing? As Shirky points out so eloquently in Cognitive Surplus, “Access to cheap, flexible tools removes many of the barriers to trying new things. You don’t need fancy computers to harness cognitive surplus; simple phones are enough. But one of the most important lessons is this: once you’ve figured out how to tap the surplus in a way that people care about, others can replicate your technique, over and over, around the world.”

This could well be the next phase of human evolution…

How we use our time to connect, share and build things (ideas, movements, social change, businesses, political change, helping those in need, etc.) in an era where everyone is connected and we push toward the last mile of connecting even those who are not in the developed world.

What are you going to do with all of this free time? What do you make of Clay Shirky and his concept of Cognitive Surplus?

(This post originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun and on Six Pixels of Separation here.)

Mitch Joel is President of Twist Image — an award-winning Digital Marketing and Communications agency. In 2008, Mitch was named Canada’s Most Influential Male in Social Media, one of the top 100 online marketers in the world, and was awarded the highly-prestigious Canada’s Top 40 Under 40. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation (published by Grand Central Publishing – Hachette Book Group), named after his successful Blog and Podcast is a business and marketing best-seller. You can find him here:

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