Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age | Beth’s Blog

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age


Unlike fellow nonprofit book nerd, Rosetta Thurman,  I am way behind on my nonprofit book summer reading list.    My blog is the July 15th stop on Clay Shirky’s virtual book tour for his recently published book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in A Connected Age.  I received a review copy of the book and was invited to write a post about it.

We were lucky enough to have Clay read a copy of manuscript last November and he was one of our book blurbers.  Here’s what he said about the Networked Nonprofit:

“The Internet means never having to ask permission before trying something new.  In the Networked Nonprofit, Kanter and Fine show nonprofits how to harness this flexibility to pursue their mission in partnership with two billion connected citizens.”

Clay’s book talks about the implications of a society shifting from passive consumption of media to creators of media or being participatory.   As Clay Shirky says, “A society where everyone has some kind of access to the public sphere is a different kind of society that one where citizens approach media as mere consumers.” This shift has come because we’re watching less television, but participating more in online collective actions – from the silly – sharing photos of cute cats to the making the world a better place.

To my joy, he uses the example of how Ushahidi got started as one of the latter.   (Disclaimer:  I’m a proud board member of Ushahidi):

“A handful of people, working with cheap tools and little time or money to spare, managed to carve out enough collective goodwill from the community to create a resource that no one could have imagined even five years ago.  Like all good stories, they story of Ushahidi holds several different lessons:  People want to do somethiung to make the world a better place.  They will help when they are invited to.  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.”

The book give us the 50,000 mile high view.  It  forecasts the changes we will enjoy as social media tools allows people to put their talents and goodwill to use for society.   Each chapter is takes us through a look at the future by examining the past. It’s filled with wonderful stories from for-profit, technology sector, and politics.  There are some great quotes.

Shirky acknowledges as he gets a little closer to the ground with some principles “Looking for the Mouse”  that we can’t count on new kinds of socially beneficial activities just happening.   “Creating a participatory culture with wider benefits for society is harder than sharing amusing photos.  How much of that social change are we going to grasp?” (That is a question that the Networked Nonprofit asks.)

Shirky suggests that the most profound use of social media will come from groups trying new things.   He talks about about the importance of experiments and the listen, learn, and adapt skills required.  This idea of experimentation really resonates.

“Creating the most value from a tool involves not master plans or great leaps forward but constant trial and error.  The key question for any society undergoing such a shift is how to get the most of that process.”

“What matters is not the new capabilities we have, but how we turn those into opportunities.  The question is what we’ll do with those opportunities. “

“With social software, there are no foolproof recipes for success.  And yet we’ve learned somethings about human interaction in the last few decades.  The trick for creating new social media is to use those lessons to eight the odds in your favor, rather than as a set of instructions that guarantees success.”

“Start small.  Projects will only work if they grow large generally won’t grow large; people who fixated on creating large-scale future success can actually reduce the possibility of creating the small scale here and now successes needed to get there.”

“A veritable natural law in social media is that to get to a system that is large and good, it is far better to start with a system that is small and good and work on making it bigger than to start with a system that is large and mediocre and work on making it better.”

“No one gets it right the first time.  If successful uses of cognitive surplus required designers to get it right the first time, you’d be able to count the successes on the fingers of one hand.  Instead, it is imperative to learn from failure, adapt, and learn again.”

“The faster you learn, the sooner you’ll be able to adapt.  The possibilities for continual learning with social media are dramatic. “

“It is more important to try something new, and work on the problems as they arise, than to figure out a way to do something new without having any problems.”

After I read my review copy, I like to give it away. So, if you’ve read this far, leave a comment answering this question:

How can your nonprofit create a way of working that allows it to learn rapidly and adapt? Or, if that is the way you already work, tell me how.

I’ll pick a winner and send you my copy of Clay’s book (with my notes in the margin), along with The Networked Nonprofit.

17 Responses

  1. charlotte burch says:

    Your question is the same question I had that led me to purchase your own book to find the answers!

    I bought it with the hope that I can find a way to lead my very small nonprofit to a comfort zone that will allow them to see the value that using social media wisely can bring to our group and the causes we support.

    So, rapidly adapting does not ring true for this group quite yet, but I think that Shirky’s idea that trying something new with the assumption that any problems that arise can be solved along the way is good for a small, young and not quite ready to be networked nonprofit like the one I work with.

    As I have been reading your book and the excellent examples you and Allison cite, I’m closer to answering my original question – now to find ways to bring my group along!

    Enjoyed this post!

  2. Beth says:

    Charlotte: As we say in the book, it takes time and requires patience. It isn’t an easy shift. I think for smaller organization it is making the shift from scarcity to abundance. Thanks for stopping to commment.

  3. Bobbie Lewis says:

    My organization is still feeling its way with social media. Our constituency is mostly older, not very wired, people but we know we need to cultivate the younger generation. Our management team is leery. Our communications staff is overworked. (What else is new?) Meanwhile, I’m reading everything I can get my hands on, so please put me in the running for your review copy of Clay Shirkey’s new book (I loved “Here Comes Everybody”).

  4. Kim Tso says:

    Our community is 60 percent Asian, mostly well-educated immigrants from Taiwan. I would love to figure out a way to engage folks around school issues in both Chinese and English that opens up dialogue between them and uses technology as the opening to a safe space to do that. We have a local education foundation that is interested in convening the community in a constuctive way, and maybe technology has some tools that could be useful. As a foundation, we could learn a lot from that process.

  5. charlotte burch says:

    Thanks, Beth – I especially appreciated your personal response. That’s the tremendous power inherent in social media – connecting with people that one would otherwise not be able to. And, building *unexpected collaborations*(borrowed from Second Life 7th birthday celebration!) that strengthen the reach of nonprofits, especially small, local ones that are, as you say, “…making the shift from scarcity to abundance.”

    And, while reluctant to add my birthdate in order to validate my perspective, being wired has more to do with curiosity about the world we live in than age!

    And with gentle nudges thanks to books like yours with amazing examples, all generations can find ways to participate in Networked Nonprofits!

    Trust me on this one 🙂 and check the number of grandparents who take on the challenge of Facebook to stay in touch with their grandkids!!!

  6. A. Joy says:

    I think you are exactly right, Charlotte. You made and excellent point. I think it takes dedicated leaders to nudge the incorporation of new social networking tools along; to introduce them with confidence and make them as easy to learn as possible. The unknown is scary for a lot of people. I admit that I too can be a little timid when it comes to technical and online/networking tools and I am “in the social networking generation”. It all can seem very intimidating and overwhelming, especially to nonprofits with an already overworked staff.

    I think encouraging a shared mindset among the board and staff that learning from unsuccessful or ineffective ideas and tools is valuable, that trying new things can be positive and actually improve what the organization already does well, and that…{gasp} failure is not the worst thing that could happen, is definitely a start to breaking down the adaptation barrier. Easier said than done, I know. Believe me, I know. Our board president was reluctant to create a website! Shocking, but true.

    Please feel free to disagree, but adapting and learning rapidly seems to me to be a function of an organization where the staff and board members each individually believe what Clay talks about, “It is more important to try something new, and work on the problems as they arise, than to figure out a way to do something new without having any problems.”

    Again, easier said than done and I am interested to see some feedback on the second part of Beth’s question, for those organizations that do adapt and learn rapidly, how exactly did you get to that point?

    Thanks so much for this post Beth! I look forward to reading The Networked Nonprofit.

  7. I loved the Ted Talk that Shirky gave on the idea of having a cognitive surplus. I watched it a few weeks ago.

    I am lucky as an AmeriCorps VISTA to serve a Volunteer, Service-Learning and AmeriCorps program office in a small town in Idaho. As their Social Media Developer, I have tried to expand this office’s reach through social media and increase the quality of our web presence using mostly Web 2.0 technology.

    I think it’s important that you get everyone in the office using social media, keeping everyone up to date about changes in how it is used for non-profits, and I have recently found that Nutshellmail is popular for those who are interested in social media but have limited time and would rather peruse an email to stay up to date.

    The next step for me is to get us on the track of using e-volunteering and taking advantage of the cloud, with crowdsourcing. By working collaboratively online with co-workers and people around the world who share our goals. One example is using to ask questions that help us make decisions in the office. For example, we recently asked what was out there to build online learning modules for service-learning, and we got a bunch of great responses, saving us days or weeks of research. It’s only when you’ve plugged into the largest group possible that you can really adapt and be flexible.

    Thanks for posting this…I love the idea of cognitive surplus. I may just dedicate my career to it…

  8. Jeff Achen says:

    In my experience, it’s been easy to get tripped up on “presentation” when making any effort public. Like many nonprofits, I suspect, we are constantly tempted to look out for our “brand,” our reputation, and attempt to manage how any communication effort is perceived, consumed and of course measured for it’s success. Our print newsletter, for example is a three month process from start to finish. It’s reviewed, re-reviewed, tweaked, meticulously designed, and checked for any nuance of context that might misrepresent or compromise an important relationship, either internally or externally.

    Granted this is the most extreme example and many of our other communication efforts are more streamlined and timely, especially our social media efforts. Upon reflection, each has its place in our overall marketing and communication strategy. Nevertheless, nonprofit communication must be thought of much less “promotionally” and be approached much more relationally.

    We need to change the question.

    Instead of asking “how will we be percieved?” we need to ask ourselves “how does this connect us to the people we care about?” If it were to take three months to draft and vet a Facebook post, we’d have missed the opportunity to connect because we were stuck in meetings haggling over a dangling participle.

    If we are asking how does this connect us with the people we care about, we’d be much more deliberate about the balance between the “relational” and “promotional.” To connect with people requires timeliness and a personal touch. At the same time, it requires the attention to detail that shows we care about our message, our cause and ultimately about those we serve. (Sloppy messaging, no matter how timely or personal, is not good.)

    Social media not only accelerates the communication effort, but allows for the transparency, trust and reciprocity that you and Allison talk about in The Networked Nonprofit. The scary thing about trial and error for any organization is the fear of wasting time and possibly displaying our failures publicly. No professional communicator wants to publish their “work in progress.” But, a relational culture of communicating should teach us to do our work out in the open, allowing people see the steps in our process, even collaborating with us and helping us improve, respond and adapt.

  9. How exciting to see an organization that you are so closely associated with used in the book! I’m so glad that you enjoyed this one – thanks for being a part of the tour.

  10. Nola says:

    Our small community foundation is just starting to scratch the surface of on line connectivity and conversation. And I am a brand new board member. We are not large enough to have “communications staff” – we struggle to pay a very part time ED. I am learning so much from the dialogue here on Beth’s blog

  11. Holly says:

    One of the challenges in our organization is collaborating across departments and knowing what’s happening within different parts of the organizations. For years, we’ve discussed creating an intranet to increase communication flow and discussion across departments. We rely heavily on email, which is not a great tool for networking or tracking conversations among different groups. I recently stumbled upon – an internal social networking site for organizations. Does anyone else have experience using Yammer? I’m intrigued by the concept and I wonder if people find it useful as a networking tool within their organizations.

  12. This year I have had the good fortune of joining the inaugural consortium of LEAD, a certificated nonprofit management program created and facilitated by the Community Foundation for Monterey County and funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

    One of my projects was to create for our organization a strategic communications’ plan. It has been a rewarding challenge, and one part I have enjoyed very much has been adding strategic social media messaging to our communications. Working with Beth has been a blessing.

    This plan has allowed our management team to meet regularly and to plan and executive external and internal communications much more efficiently.

    I believe we are on the right track as we cope with an ever-rising service population–serving now 1/5 of Monterey County–nearly 100,000 people with a staff of 16 and a volunteer network of many hundreds. Getting the word out in any way we can to people who need food and to our supporters is essential, and now we have a proactive approach to it all. Tweaking will be ongoing, of course!

  13. I am going to design and build my own extension next spring, so will come to sites like this to get information

  14. John Strohl says:

    I am, as noted on MY blog, working with a newly launched endeavor called Four Years. Go. that is currently a project of the Pachamama Alliance. We are actively working the challenges of launching a global campaign to change the course of human life on the planet. We find that there is a simultaneous need for both traditional components and structures of leadership and engagement of chaordic thinking or processes. As other have written, chaordic processes engage most naturally at the fringes, which in turn means that you have to pay attention to the fringes much more than you might in a typical, traditional model of management. In any event, we are working this through and by dint of shear perseverance it is happening. Another interesting point though, is that the fringe is not always where you expect it. Sometime the fringe can be in the living room of a founding member of the Pachamama Alliance sometimes it’s in a volunteer’s cell phone in Connecticut, so “the fringe” is more a matter of where the experimental thinking is taking place, or experiments are occurring rather than just out in the hinterlands with the folks farthest down the food chain. True, they will experiment readily because they have little to lose and much to gain, as well as being resource poor many time, but the fringe is wherever that thinking is happening. Our latest adventure is that we’re bring Jonathan Budd (current success story in direct internet marketing) into the picture by his own request and we’re going to jump into his world with both feet to develop a micro-philanthropy engine based on his revenue engine. Anyway, we’re doing it as well as I know anyone doing it, and it’s a genuine adventure that I wouldn’t miss for the world. Actually, that’s why I’m in it – for the world. Come see us @

  15. Evie says:

    Reader’s New Year might be brighter after reading this post!

  16. Layla says:

    My next year will be greater knowing this!

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