I just finished Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus, which discusses how the web has shifted us from media consumers to producers and freed up time for our brains to create new and wonderful things (like say, Wikipedia).
It’s in the later part of the book though, where things really get cooking and Shirky discusses what impact a cognitive surplus could have on society down the road.
Skirky draws parallels between today and the late 1400’s when the Gutenberg printing press was invented, which led to a democratization of publishing (similar to today’s), spawned a new wave of education, (which was, in turn, also publicized through print) and eventually spurred some significant social change.
For example, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, which outlined his disagreements with practices of the Catholic Church, were tacked onto the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and then widely circulated.
This small act of “publishing content” led to the Protestant Reformation and a schism in Christianity that endures to this day.
So my question is this…where are the 95 Theses of our modern age?
The rise of the personal manifesto.
Today, a new wave of democratized publishing has created 95 billions church doors, each of which has dozens of sets of Theses tacked to them.
While each of these manifestos are no less passionate than Luther’s, most of them make little impact because they are diluted and dulled by the web’s expanse of space and noise.
For example, this past weekend, I stumbled upon a tweet from a person in my network pleading for people to visit his Groubal, a online petition, and support him in his efforts to call out the retailer, Party City.
Party City had apparently provided bad customer service revolving around a Halloween wig that this man had purchased for this daughter and the whole episode made his daughter cry (the particulars of how and when the crying happened were a bit hazy).
This particular Groubal was this man’s 95 Theses, which he had tacked up on his virtual door for us all to review and support.
So, like Luther’s followers, did I read the document and take action to create social change?
- I saw the man’s tweet promoting the Groubal.
- I clicked on the Groubal link and skimmed the man’s complaint.
- I clicked around on the Groubal site, because I had never heard of it before.
- I clicked a link to follow Groubal on Twitter.
- I noted that Groubal sent me an auto DM in response that was very well written.
- The Groubal thing reminded me of the Shirky book, which I had just finished.
- I jotted down a note that said “Blog post idea: 95 Theses + Groubal.”
- I went outside to play with my kid.
Somewhere in all that clicking and reading and processing, the one thing that didn’t happen, was me acting on this man’s request.
It wasn’t that I thought his complaint was petty or ridiculous.
It’s just that his words – even attached to a handy complaint management and distribution system – just didn’t connect with me. They didn’t stand out in a field of a hundred other people in my social network asking me to do things for them too, like…
- “Read my blog post!”
- “LOL. Funniest video EVER. Must watch!”
- “New whitepaper available. Please download.”
- “Please retweet”
- “This article on ____ is a must read.”
What’s more, his words didn’t stand out in my head, since my mind was already occupied with the development of my own set of Theses (which I have posted here for you, in turn, to ignore too…and if that’s the case, you probably haven’t even read this far to know that I know you’re ignoring me. Sigh…)
Moving from manifesto to mission.
We spend a lot of time in social media talking about the importance of not only talking, but listening too.
I’d go one step further and agree with Shirky that the real trick here is not balancing talking and listening, but getting people to move beyond talking and listening and start ACTING.
In Shirky’s words, this means moving beyond basic community engagement and management to begin “mastering the art of creating groups that commit themselves to working together outside existing market and managerial structures, in order to create opportunities for planet-scale sharing.”
We know how to make people read stuff…
- We use the power of search to make it pop up in Google.
- We use the power of writing to make our content shine brighter than the rest of the pack.
- We use the power of marketing to make what we’ve produced inherently more sharable.
But how do we create content that changes behaviors, incites change and moves people to action?
That’s the potential and power of the next generation of social interaction. That’s the goldmine at the core of our collective cognitive surplus.
How do you intend to tap into it?