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Here Comes Everybody and Everything

July 1, 2010

Sitting around on the internet, reading shit like this blog, you can waste a lot of time.  Sometimes a glut of information can assist the thinker refine and clarify his or her thoughts, but sometimes an excess of information can be a bad thing if your goal is to create.

  • For one thing, at some point, you just have to cut off the inputs and just start translating that content that has been input into output.  This is a frequent challenge of mine, given that I scan/read about 600-1000 “news” items a day.
  • For another, constantly experiencing and reminding oneself of the comprehensiveness of existing and continuously created content can be pretty daunting to the not-yet-professional creator.
  • Finally, there is the omnipresent and continuous flow of distractions that can come across the newswire of someone who is too savvy at collecting such information.

The state of creative play on the Internet is caught up in several intertwining dialectics.

Internet enthusiasts come in two flavors: utopians and populists. The rhetoric of both camps is revolutionary, but the revolutions are different.

Utopians believe that the Internet provides promising new solutions to our most intractable problems. With enough tweets, all global bugs—war, poverty, illiteracy, fascism—can be quashed.

Populists promise no such lofty goals. They see the profound social confusion sown by the Internet as a historic opportunity to snatch power from elites and their institutions and redistribute it more evenly among netizens, the ordinary citizens who have been empowered by the Internet. Like the participatory democrats of earlier eras, the populists want a more direct democracy, and they think that most social institutions, from the traditional media to political organizations, are unnecessary ballast.

Let’s set aside the political aspects of democratizing the power of communication and publication for the moment.  What does a purer “democracy” mean for creativity, which models itself almost explicitly on concepts such as monopoly and uniqueness of individual creation, rather than total accessibility and equality of individual efforts?  Optimists such as Clay Shirky will acknowledge that we can be generally pretty lazy when it comes to exercising the creative energies of modern humanity, citing LOLcats, amongst other things:

Currently, Americans watch 200 billion hours of television every year, while the total amount of time the world’s Wikipedians have devoted to building the largest, most comprehensive open-source encyclopedia ever known is about 100 million hours.

Tracing back to the watershed Here Comes Everybody, Shirky makes a pretty good case for being excited for the future of humanity writ large because of the absolute minimal barriers to entry.  Of course, that future looks pretty good for the consumers of the products of humanity, since the Internet enables anyone to consume anything anyone produces without diminishing any other consumer’s use or enjoyment of that creation.  My worry about is that there will be diminishing marginal returns to individuals’ attempts at production and individuals’ contributions relative to the whole.  I think Shirky implicitly (if not explicitly somewhere else) agrees with this principle.

In the above TED talk, Shirky characterizes the mental input to content creation as “cognitive surplus,” describing the motivation behind creation as “because people like to do it.”   As in, the true inputs to the world’s content and creativity will be the mental energy that we weren’t already putting to some productive use, but would be happy to put somewhere.  That volunteerism, free time, and spare talent seems like it might just crowd out the people who want to make a living doing the things they want to do.  If someone is willing to do for free what you want to be paid to do, that content is simply going to be created for free in a world with an expanding supply of talent and zero barriers to entry or costs of distribution.

I’m not saying that any of this is bad–it’s the simple truth, so it’s kind of irrelevant whether or not you like it–but people have to be really certain that they want to be creating for the sake of creation, not for some extraction.  Be happy creating what you create, and it won’t be a problem that you’re not the super mega-star that is the “winner” of the attention competition (network effects and viral sharing do tend to stratify results after all).  That’s why even a diary-esque blog that doesn’t really engage in ideas or any existence beyond the day-t0-day travails of the author can be useful in realizing the rewards of one’s own content creation; it feels good to make stuff.  Hence our willing donation of cognitive surplus.  Hence the rise of micro-blogging like Twitter.

On a related note, I’ve recently quit Facebook entirely.  Though I haven’t yet reaped the benefits of increased privacy (or maybe “avoided the costs” might be more accurate), I have already generated some cognitive surplus and saved several hours that could be put to a more creative use (not that this blog is necessarily that.  For those of you still considering the Big Ditch, here are a few tools to take your data off the site for your own personal use on your own terms:

  1. PickNZip is a great way to download all of your photos from Facebook (or, if you’re one of the stalker types, you can pick any other contact and download any or all of the pictures they are tagged in).  It’ll let you download in either .zip or .pdf.
  2. AddressBookSync will let you synchronize your Facebook friends with the contacts in your Address Book, including their profile pictures.
  3. The real key step to quitting is exporting all that contact information (i.e., email addresses, etc.) to an offline address book.  The way I did this was through Yahoo, which has partnered with Facebook to allow you to import your friends’ contact information directly, but then allows you to re-export them as a .csv file (which you can then import into Gmail and de-duplicate if you like).

I’ve made several cases for minding your privacy before, but here’s another reason: I’d like to get to share in some of your cognitive surplus.  So would everybody else.

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