Clay Shirky: What Motivates Us To Collaborate? Social media guru Clay Shirky discusses how our small individual contributions to the web, can collectively help build a better, more cooperative world.

What Motivates Us To Collaborate?

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How do you describe yourself? 'Cause you have a very cool name. You were born to be, like, a guy talking about the future.

CLAY SHIRKY: I'm not sure about that.

RAZ: But somebody named you Clay Shirky.

SHIRKY: That is true.

RAZ: Yeah, they...

SHIRKY: Well, you know, the funny thing is, my mother is a reference librarian and said, you should know about this thing we're learning about in library school. It's called the Internet. This was back in 1992 and I said, OK, Ma, I'll check it out. And that's how I kind of fell down the rabbit hole.

RAZ: Clay Shirky, as you've probably figured out, writes a lot about the Internet and how technology has helped create this space for mass collaboration. And his TED Talk begins with a story.


SHIRKY: The story starts in Kenya, in December of 2007, when there was a disputed presidential election. And in the immediate aftermath of that election, there was an outbreak of ethnic violence, and there was a lawyer in Nairobi, Ory Okolloh, who began blogging about it on her site, Kenyan Pundit. And Okolloh solicited from her commenters more information about what was going on and the comments began pouring in and she quickly said, it's too much, I can't keep up. There is more information about what's going on in Kenya right now than any one person can manage. If only there was a way to automate this. And two programmers who read her blog held their hands up and said, we could do that.

And in 72 hours, they launched Ushahidi. Ushahidi - the name means witness or testimony in Swahili - is a very simple way of taking reports from the field, aggregating it and putting it on a map. And enough people looked at it and found it valuable enough that the programmers who created Ushahidi decided they were going to make it open source and turn it into a platform.

It's since been deployed in Mexico to track electoral fraud, it's been deployed in Washington, D.C. to track snow cleanup and it's been used most famously in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. This went from a single implementation in East Africa in the beginning of 2008 to a global deployment in less than three years.


RAZ: So in the case of Ory Okolloh, didn't there have to be some serendipity? I mean, didn't these programmers have to say, we can do this, we can help this?

SHIRKY: That's exactly right. There's a very high degree of serendipity there. We live in a world where fortuitous accidents - the likelihood of fortuitous accidents is maximized, A, by the scale at which our communications network now operates, but, B, by the freedom that we all have now to signal, oh, I could help with that, I could come forward and help with that. We just see more acts of serendipity because more of us are visible to more of us and more of us have more ability to connect the dots for ourselves.


SHIRKY: That is the resource that I'm talking about. I call it cognitive surplus, and it represents the ability of the world's population to volunteer and to contribute and collaborate on large, sometimes global, projects. Cognitive surplus is made up of two things.

The first, obviously, is the world's free time and talents. The world has over a trillion hours a year of free time to commit to shared projects. Now, that free time existed in the 20th century, but we didn't get Ushahidi in the 20th century. That's the second half of cognitive surplus.

The media landscape in the 20th century was very good at helping people consume and we got, as a result, very good at consuming. We still like to consume, of course, but it turns out we also like to create and we like to share.

RAZ: I'm curious about this idea that there's a lot of free time.

SHIRKY: Indeed.

RAZ: 'Cause I don't have any free time...

SHIRKY: And everyone says that.

RAZ: ...And you don't have any free time.

SHIRKY: That's also not true. Everyone says that, but everyone who ever says that to me - my reply is always the same - which is, you watched no television? When people say they have no free time what they mean is, my free time is already allocated. The free time of any industrialized nation is awesomely large.

People in this country have enough free time to add up to, on average, 30 or 35 hours a week of television watching. And one of the things we're seeing in younger populations is they are starting either by overlapping other kinds of activities while the television is on, or simply moving away from the television, recommitting their time to other things.

And sometimes those activities are important and momentous, the creation of Wikipedia, the creation of the Linux operating system, the kind of famous examples. Very often, they're just sort of silly, silly things, famously LOLCats.

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, well, we can talk about LOLCats all afternoon.

SHIRKY: All day long...


SHIRKY: All right, LOLCats are cute pictures of cats made cuter with the addition of cute captions. And they are also...

RAZ: Okay. Let me just interrupt Clay's talk for a sec because we want to explain what LOLcats are. Laugh Out Loud cats. Can we get an idea of what - Carl, can you come in here for a sec? Carl.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDIO ENGINEER: You gotta put your headphones on.

RAZ: All right, you ready?


RAZ: OK. In the studio with me, Carl Kasell, NPR's Carl Kasell. Carl, can you read some of these LOLCat captions for me?

KASELL: I can has cheeseburger? I made you a cookie, but I eated it. I love this chair.


SHIRKY: Now let us stipulate, as the lawyers say, that LOLcats are the stupidest possible creative act.

KASELL: I love this chair.


SHIRKY: But here's the thing. The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act.

KASELL: I'm in your couch, stealing your change.


SHIRKY: Someone who has done something like this, however mediocre and throw-away, has tried something, has put something forward in public.

KASELL: Nobody goes until litter box is clean.


SHIRKY: The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing, and someone who makes a LOLCat has already crossed over that gap.

KASELL: Well, I tried to hang up your laundry and that's when I realized I didn't have thumbs.

RAZ: Carl, thank you. Thanks for that.

KASELL: It's been a pleasure. I enjoyed it.

RAZ: All right, let's get back to Clay Shirky now.

SHIRKY: And what the Internet has essentially helped us rediscover is that there are all of these nonfinancial motivations that we all have: the desire to have a sense of autonomy or competence; I'm doing this by myself or I'm on my own. I'm good at making LOLCats or I'm good at updating Wikipedia.

I'm part of a group that knows I'm here. I'm feeling a sense of membership or I'm being generous to other people in my group. I got appreciation. I got thanks. You can build enormous, enormous things on that collection of intrinsic motivations once you get away from the idea of everybody is, you know, essentially optimizing for time and money and nothing else.

RAZ: Isn't some of the collaboration like the LOLCats thing, though - I mean, isn't that just kind of motivated by ego?

SHIRKY: Sure, oh, no. It's - to be able to say that, you know, I am motivated by competence, is a fairly dry psychological statement. But what it really means is, I am showing you how awesome I am.

Ditto a sense of generosity: many acts of generosity are about me showing you that I have the kind of resources, whether they are mental resources or, you know, people who fund meet-up groups or what have you, where I'm actually getting myself some gratitude out of being the guy who's good enough to help you out. So these motivations are not pure. They're just different from, I'm doing this 'cause my boss said I had to, or I'm doing this because it's piece work and I get paid.

RAZ: So wait, why are people willing to do these things and not get paid?

SHIRKY: So a lot of people, in looking at things like YouTube or people posting stuff all over Twitter, all over Facebook, are asking themselves, why are these people working for free? And if you ask the question that way, you literally can't understand their behavior. It's when you say, you know what, I'm going to remove money from the equation and I'm going to ask myself, why are these people doing things together?

If you go out on any, you know, any street on a spring day in a American city, you can see people gathering together in bars. Nobody says, my, God, why are people going to the bars when the beer is more expensive than if you just drank it at home alone? Right, we all recognize that there are these nonfinancial motivations that get us out and into groups.


SHIRKY: There are a trillion hours a year of participatory value up for grabs. That will be true year in and year out. The number of people who are going to be able to participate in these kinds of projects is going to grow. What's going to make the difference here is what Dean Kamen said, the inventor and entrepreneur. Kamen said, free cultures get what they celebrate. You've got this trillion hours a year.

We can use it to crack each other up and we're going to do that. That we get for free. But we can also celebrate and support and reward the people trying to use cognitive surplus to create civic value, and to the degree we're going to do that - to the degree that we're able to do that, we'll able to change society. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Clay Shirky. His latest book is called "Cognitive Surplus." You can watch his entire talk at On the show today, turning chaos into collaboration and as we'll hear in a moment, can you OD on collaboration? Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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