I really enjoyed this book by “new media guru” Clay Shirky. His examination of the current internet culture is grounded by a historical perspective and cohesive thought examining the means, motive, and opportunity of the internet.

For history, he looks to Victorian England’s gin problem and the introduction of the printing press. Those seem unconnected, but Shirky points out how the modern era’s glut of free time has been plowed into TV, which regrettably has a horrible rate of return, just as the new urbanites of England plowed their free time into gin, again a horrible pastime. Similarly, he points out how today’s jeers against the internet for things like fanfic and Lolcats echo the outcries brought against the printing press, which critics said was leading to lower quality books and undermining good culture.

His strongest argument is in the first half of the book, where he outlines the means, motive, and opportunity of the change in our interaction with the media. Obviously the biggest change is that media is interactive, meaning we are no longer simply passive consumers but rather “the people formerly known as the audience”. The means chapter is uncontroversial, but the motive chapter may be difficult to swallow. He does make a good argument that is grounded in replicated psychology studies on how intrinsic motivators are more powerful than extrinsic ones (ie you will invest more in doing an activity you love rather than one you are paid to do), but I found myself thinking that it seemed too clean at times. The opportunity chapter does a good job explaining how the new tools enable people to collaborate on common problems easily.

These first chapters hang together nicely and support one another fluidly, but the latter half of the book is more ephemeral and inchoate. Shirky does make some good observations, but I feel like he is cherry-picking at times. It would be nice if his examples were more significant rather than seemingly isolated events. His attempt to place internet communities along a continuum of personal (Lolcats), communal (MeetUp), public (open-source software), and civic (online groups motivating political action, of which there are few examples) is less than successful, but it does provide a good way to start thinking about internet communities.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I found myself often nodding along a bit too readily and having to stop and dig up counter-examples to his reasoning. This book provides an excellent way to frame your thinking about internet culture and will definitely make you think. I know I am now thinking about where I invest my cognitive surplus.
Edited to add: You can see Shirky talking at TED about how the internet can be used for civic action here.

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