September 3, 2010

Here comes Clay Shirky’s ‘Cognitive Surplus’

Your end-of-summer reading list should also include ‘Networked Nonprofit,’ ‘Facebook Effect,’ ‘Bust the Silos’ & ‘Power of Pull’

JD LasicaWhere did the summer go? I spent a good chunk of my idle time (ha!) sneaking a few minutes here and there not to read beach blanket escapist thrillers but rather some important books that five of my friends have written.

Here, then, are short reviews of:

• Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus”
• Beth Kanter’s “The Networked Nonprofit”
• David Kirkpatrick’s “The Facebook Effect”
• Jeff Saperstein & Hunter Hastings’ “Bust the Silos”
• John Hagel, John Seely Brown & Lang Davi­son’s “The Power of Pull”


cognitive surplus

‘Cognitive Surplus’: Shared creativity gone wild

Clay Shirky is a master at bringing meaning to the startling cultural and technological changes whirling through our lives. In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky provided context the revolution that is turning passive office workers into take-charge designers of their businesses’ corporate destinies. In his follow-up, Cognitive Surplus, he probes a bit deeper into what is propelling forward our individual creativity and the impulse to share and contribute to a collective output — what he calls “cognitive surplus” (a term not likely to roll off the tongues of the young people leading the charge).

The book starts off powerfully with a fascinating look at the Gin Craze of 1720s London. Who knew that historical parallels could be drawn between that era and our own times? (“The sitcom has been our gin,” Shirky tells us, skirting Steven Johnson’s arguments that television series have become increasingly smart.) “The harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous, public, and social ways, relative to their old status as consumers and couch potatoes,” he writes What’s changed is that “now we have the tools at our disposal,” an astonishing array of “flexible, cheap, and inclusive media” and platforms that offer us “opportunities to do all sorts of things we once didn’t do.” (Side note: I wrote about the personal media revolution in my 2005 book Darknet.)

Shirky includes some amazing stories about the power of the new social tools — for instance, he talked about the Pink Chaddi Facebook campaign on stage at Personal Democracy Forum in June. I wish the book had given a more thorough look at some of the ground-breaking uses of social media for social good, the crowdsourcing phenomenon, review sharing sites and the burgeoning collaborative approaches to building online communities rather than leading us down the now familiar terrain of fan fiction and file sharing. Still, the bottom line is this: “Cognitive Surplus” is a must-read for anyone interested in the causes and underpinnings of the changes that have turned the mediasphere on its head and empowered the digital generation to bypass traditional institutions and create a DIY approach to culture and communication.


‘Networked Nonprofit’: A guide to the new frontier

For anyone connected to the nonprofit world, Beth Kanter should be a familiar name. In The Networked Nonprofit, she and the equally adept Allison Fine approach the daunting task of trying to get notoriously conservative and slow-moving nonprofit organizations to embrace the tenets of the social media revolution. They do so as friendly guides, never scolding or talking down but pointing to the now unmistakable evidence that opening up and engaging with your stakeholders is the only way to go. (I recently reviewed Charlene Li’s “Open Leadership,” which offers some of the same advice to businesses.)

Fine (who hosts the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s podcast on social good) and Kanter offer many of the same words of advice to nonprofits that I’ve done as a partner at Socialbrite, beginning with the importance of starting with objectives, creating strategies and tactics to get you there and worrying about the tools and gadgets last. (By the way, did you know that the nonprofit sector employs about 12.9 million people, or 9.7 percent of the U.S. economy?)

Even if you don’t work in a nonprofit, there’s lots to absorb in this book. For instance, the authors lay out the different kinds of crowdsourcing — collective intelligence of crowd wisdom; crowd creation; crowd voting and crowd funding — and explain how each can be used to good effect. (One nit: It’s not the “1-10-100 rule,” as the authors describe it on page 123; it’s the 90-9-1 rule (explained here and here) that applies to a typical group of 100 people.)

You’ll find plenty of real-world examples of where nonprofits used social media to good advantage. The Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Prosperity, nudged forward by a young research associate, began a listening effort, set up a Twitter account and began a genuine conversation with supporters. Over a six-month period, “They were listening and talking to people on many channels, including using an RSS reader to scan the Web for relevant blog posts, and finding and interviewing young people on Facebook as part of the Index data collection. They developed case studies for the annual report that involved more youngt people, and they discovered new avenues for sharing results with people they weren’t reaching before.”

Again and again we see examples of how nonprofits that take down the fortress (or “bust the silos,” in Saperstein and Hastings’ felicitous phrase) and embrace this brave new world help to move the needle for their organizations’ missions. “The Networked Nonprofit” is the perfect guide to navigate this fast-changing landscape.


‘Facebook Effect’: Where is Zuckerberg taking us?

David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect is two books in one: a surprisingly riveting narrative tale of the early days of “the facebook” from its launch at Harvard, viral growth at campuses across the nation and move to Silicon Valley (coming to a movie screen to you on Oct. 1: The Social Network); and a sobering assessment of how Facebook is changing our culture, from attitudes about privacy to the long-term effects of transparency and over-sharing. The book was my favorite summer read and deserved a better fate than the review it received in the New York Times.

Kirkpatrick spends considerable time painting a portrait of the somewhat impish college student Mark Zuckerberg, his maturation into a world-class, farsighted and shrewd CEO, his fascinating dance with the Washington Post as Facebook’s principal investor before turning to a more traditional investment firm, and the utter mayhem of growing a company from zero to a user base of a half billion in six short years.

Kirkpatrick correctly identifies the inflection points — and Silicon Valley penchant for iterating and turning on a dime — that led to Facebook’s astonishing success, particularly Zuckerberg’s decision to open up Facebook to outside developers and his focus on long-term ubiquity rather than short-term profits. I loved the little vignettes about the unforeseen consequences of the Facebook team’s actions. For instance, after Facebook’s code jockeys threw the switch and opened the platform to outside apps, the founders of iLike “drove around Silicon Valley borrowing servers from various tech companies so they could handle the load.” Within two days, 400,000 people had downloaded the iLike application.

The author spends a little bit too much time on accounts of the company’s valuation and negotiations with Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer that came to naught. But he hits the nail on the head when he identifies Google, not Microsoft, as the biggest challenger to Facebook’s supremacy in the tech world and wonders if Google’s “information-organizing” algorithm-driven business model can stand up to Facebook’s people-powered paradigm. “The Facebook Effect” shines a light on how far we’ve traveled these past six years, how fast things have changed and how we need to examine with scrutiny the changes that are being foisted on us whether we like it or not.


‘Bust the Silos’: How businesses are rethinking corporate culture

Jeff Saperstein and I co-organized the Traveling Geeks trip to London in July 2009, where he described the new book he was working on with co-author Hunter Hastings, Bust the Silos: Opening Your Organization for Growth. As someone who works with companies of all sizes to help them adopt a new approach to their customers, I found several chapters extremely helpful in relation to brand positioning, customer satisfaction and delivering on the company’s value proposition.

“Everyone works for marketing,” the authors declare as they attempt to rewire deeply entrenched mindsets that prevent businesses from flourishing. Like the other books reviewed here, “Bust the Silos” plumbs the new social technologies that are upending generations-old traditions and patterns, but with a particular focus on business processes. It maps out engagement metrics, points to the need for monitoring tools, suggests how to mine for prospects and extols social media and online conversations as “the ultimate focus group.”

At 149 pages, it’s a breezy look at how businesses are beginning to reassess their role in the new world.


‘Power of Pull’: How businesses are rethinking corporate culture

There’s no formidable a dynamic duo in the business books space than John Hagel and John Seely Brown, who wrote “The Only Sustainable Edge” and now have a new book out (with Lang Davison), The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion. (I don’t remember Bill Clinton or Walter Isaacson offering to write blurbs for my book.)

The book operates at a high level, exploring how our traditional ways of living and working are increasingly broken. Instead of focusing on the power of social tools or collective action, as the other books here do, the authors look at how new cultural forces are reshaping the world and how we need to reassert ourselves as individuals to confront the new era’s challenges.

By “pull,” the authors are referring to the ability to connect with resources and people “in ways that help all participants better achieve their potential.” Through the forces of “attraction, influence, and serendipity” (I wish they’d said: social capital), they delve into three basic principles of how to find and access people and resources, how to “attach” people and resources to yourself in valuable ways, and how to pull from within ourselves the qualities needed to reach our goals.

They write: “The key thesis is that, unlike previous generations of institutional change — when an elite at the top of the organization created the world into which everybody else needed to fit — the changes required to harness the power of pull will be catalyzed by and driven by individuals, from the bottom up.”

It’s a message we’d all do well to pay attention to. Read “The Power of Pull” if you’re interested in real-world stories about how people are successfully navigating this new landscape of work, play and modern life.

JD Lasica, founder of, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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