Looking for the mouse

Thanks to Ray Sims, I got to hear Clay Shirky speaking at a Web 2.0 expo last April. If you haven’t heard it, I found it well worth the 17 minutes. Watch for yourself, or skip to my musings below.

Shirky talks among other things about cognitive surplus — the free time created by technology. We’re at the beginning of such creation now — as he says, “we’re still in special cases.” Web 2.0 tools are sufficiently new that Shirky says they’re like the physics of weather. We know about the individual elements, we can see people doing things, but we can’t predict the results yet because the whole is so complex.

So he says it’s important to fail informatively — a great phrase. Really, it’s the closing loop in any performance system: figure out what didn’t go right, and figure out why, so you can apply that understanding in your next venture.

Shirkey offers an estimate for the total time spend bringing Wikipedia where it is today — talk pages, articles, edits, the whole shebang, in all Wikipedia languages. He and a colleague guess at 100 million hours. Good enough for analogic purposes, especially when he compares that to television watching in the U.S.: 200 billion hours a year.

In other words, the time spent watching TV in one year is the equivalent of 2,000 Wikipedias. Or, from another angle, each weekend in the U.S., we watch enough commercials to create one Wikipedia.

Obviously, most people aren’t going to do that — but as Shirkey said, more and more people are doing something. Get the emphasis clear: doing something. I have a friend who’s developed an attachment to a man who invited her to play World of Warcraft. She talks with some bemusement about her character and her adventures as a night elf.

Shirkey would point out that my friend has moved from consumption of media (watching TV) to production and sharing. She’s interacting with other people (in a virtual world). She’s actively engaging.

I’ve seen the term “mommy blog” used with derision. My notion is that the creators of mommy blogs (or cat blogs or fan blogs or my-political-solution blogs) are well aware that their creations have a limited audience. Hell, I have a blog with an audience of two (no, not this blog), and I consider it a roaring success.

Prior to personal computers and cheap or free tools, we didn’t have many options. As MCI said in mockery of its long-distance rival AT&T, back when you actually thought about long-distance charges, “For over 100 years, when you reached out to touch someone, you didn’t have a choice.

If like me you hadn’t heard the phrase “looking for the mouse,” I encourage you to spend the 15 minutes with Shirkey.

2 thoughts on “Looking for the mouse

  1. It’s easier than ever for someone to create and to publish that creation. I see a connection between Shirkey’s points and things Daniel Levitin talks about in This is Your Brain on Music: until relatively recently, most people thought they could sing or play music. More recently it’s become professionalized, and most people became music consumers.

    Not everyone’s likely to become an earn-your-living-by-music performer; not everyone’s going to be able to make a living with his own creation. But creating isn’t only about making a living; it’s about discovering who you are.

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