Clay Shirky: [Full interview transcript]

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Internet guru Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus” explains that once upon a time, culture were so inherently participatory that you didn’t need a special phrase to describe it. An optimist, he explains how we’re using the freedom of the internet to come back together, in real life. Read Clay Shirky’s full bio here…

Click here to watch Clay’s full interview, “Participatory Culture.”

A brief history of “participatory culture”

Culture used to be so participatory that you didn’t need a special phrase for it. Right? That if people wanted to hear music they had to make music and so there was, in every town of America, some way for people to get together, there was a band stand or a gazebo or whatever. But what happened in the 20th century, the real rise of mass media and the decentering of cities, the rise of the suburban ring and within the suburbs the spreading out of houses away from one another, the use of the car to be able to cross enormous chasms of space in short periods of time meant that culture, like so many other things, like food and clothes and all the rest of it, culture became something that was produced far away and delivered to you personally. So what the mail order catalogue did for the gingham dress, the television did for performance. If you wanted to listen to music, you could turn on the radio, you could turn on the television and so forth. And we got so used to that that when participatory culture came back, we needed a word or a phrase like “participatory culture” to describe it.

We said what is going on that people are getting together and doing these things, right, whether you’re looking at people building Legos but then sharing recipes online or you’re looking at people sort of staging meet-ups, flash mobs, but places where you get them out of their homes away from their keyboards down into real space and talking to each other that was a surprise and I think it was partly a surprise because people had looked at the internet in the 90s, people looked at the internet as yet another turn of the screw the television had isolated and atomized and that in physical ways and the internet was going be even more of that. That it was not socially atomizing you and I could talk online but that it would be even more physically atomizing the rhetoric in the 90s was, you know, anybody can live anywhere and do their work so everyone’s gonna wanna move to a mountain next to a lovely flowing stream or whatever. And it turned out exactly the opposite happened, that when anybody can live anywhere people turned out to want to live in cities.

So cities have gotten bigger, not smaller, with the rise of the Internet. And it’s partly because when you give people the freedom to do what they want to do a lot of what they want to do is to be around each other. And so this shift in what the internet meant was that if everybody’s connected, then the internet isn’t an alternative to real life. It’s an augmentation for it. It’s a dashboard for it.

Let’s meet up!

People are now using the tools to say let’s get together, not online let’s get together in the real world, these tools will help us do that. And the kinds of cultural events you see people inventing now assume that getting up out of your chair, getting away from the screen, getting away from the keyboard isn’t just possible but desirable.

What exactly is cognitive surplus?

The idea behind “Cognitive Surplus” is really an answer to the question “What is Wikipedia made of?” On some level it’s made of words and images that’s pretty obvious when you go there. But it’s not made of words and images in the same way that, say, Encyclopedia Britannica is. So when you look at the process by which something like Wikipedia or something like open source or something like these kind of collaborative repositories of art and expression like Flickr or Deviant Art where they come from, they come from the pooled time and talents of the participants. Over and over again, when you see those communities come together you see two things: personal motivation and social infrastructure making something better than either of those two things could do in isolation.


  • Culture is no longer delivered to us, we actively participate in it in new and exciting ways
  • The Internet and the connections that it creates has fostered a desire for people to be closer, rather than spread apart (Ex. Increased demand for urban living)
  • The internet augments real life
  • People are starting to use the Internet as a tool for meeting up in the real world
  • Online communities enable people to come together and collaborate, producing higher quality products (Ex. Deviant Art, Wikipedia)

Read more about Clay on his website and follow him on Twitter @cshirky.



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