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The answer to the “Who has time for all this stuff” question

June 18, 2010

Whenever I talk about social media, either internally or externally, someone always asks “who has time for all this stuff”.

But that’s not really the question they are asking. First of all, the question is rhetorical. Second, it’s asking about a lot more than just time. The question is really asking who is engaging in social media, what are they doing, and most critically, why are they doing it?

It really is a complicated question.

The simple answer is TV.

When I tell people that my wife and I don’t have cable TV at home, they look at me funny. Then I tell them we have only one TV in the house and it is 15 years old.  (To be fair,  we watch TV online and on hand-held devices.)

“You don’t have cable?” They ask wondrously.

“You don’t have HD? DVR?”

The unasked question is “what do you do with your free time?”

We’re freaks.

The previous century was the first time humans had “free time” in such mass. The advent of the 8-hour work week meant we had 8 hours to work, 8 hours to sleep, and 8 hours to give to anything.

In his book “Cognitive Surplus“, Clay Shirky examines the accident of the last half of the last century and explores why we humans gave our free time, en mass, to Television.

It’s not an anti-television rant, nor am I anti-television. We ‘watch TV’, we just do it on our own time. We watched the entire series of “The Wire” on DVD’s borrowed from the library. But that allowed us to schedule TV on our terms. Since we began watching the show after it went off the air, we didn’t have to wait for “seasons” or weekly episodes, designed to suck and keep viewers in.

For the most part, Television is a passive medium, that doesn’t ask people to think, or contribute. It only asks people to consume. As Shirky puts it, this gives us a world with a substantial Cognitive Surplus. The tools of the internet are unleashing the surplus.

Shirky makes the following point in the book:

“When someone buys a new TV, the amount of consumers of TV goes up by one. But the amount of creators stays at the same number.”

TV isn’t a tool for creators. It’s only a tool for consumers. In contrast, the phone is consumer and creator tool (one must talk for the phone to work). This is obvious, but what isn’t as obvious, but makes perfect sense is the computer is both a tool for consumption and creation. I touched on that a little bit with my “The Importance of the Internet” post, because the internet offers all kinds of apps (programs) that bring down the cost of creation. I can make videos. I can write my thoughts. I can post my whereabouts, ideas, and inspirations. I can make mashups, movies, and market my ideas. I can create.

And so can the whole planet.

A network or computers  brings down the cost of distribution. And having no cable increases the “free time” I have.

Couple the ability to easily create with the ability to easily share, and you have an answer to the “why people share argument.”

In the book, Shirky explains why people are unleashing their Cognitive Surplus that’s been suppressed by through spending about a trillion hours a year consuming television. A trillion seconds is 31,546 years! A trillion hours is 1.8 million years.

Watching TV seems to be the duty of people in the developed world. Which is why this new period of sharing seems so bizarre (why aren’t you just watching TV?). The last decade has been referred to as a new participatory culture, but Shirky argues that the last 50 years are the anomaly, and participation isn’t an accident of technology and computers but a normal behavior that’s been suppressed because we voluntarily give 5-8 hours of our free time a day to a passive consumption medium.

So when someone asks why people like to share, the better question is why don’t they? When someone asks who has time for all this stuff, the question is why do people in the first world voluntarily give up all their free time to one passive medium?

Anyway, there’s so much more to the book. But you should go and get it, and let me know what you think.

Over the next week, I plan to really dive into some of the books implications to communities (amateur versus professional) and the altruism of brands. I also plan to touch on the motivations of people, this really hits home to projects I’m currently working on. Like I said, the book is chock full of some seriously heady notions, and they can’t be covered in one blog post. So I’ll get back to you. In the mean time, buy the book.

Oh, and do you have cable? If so, what’s your favorite show?

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