Our cognitive surplus is being spent on Facebook.
In the beginning of his recent book, Clay Shirky compares the early-18th-century London Gin Craze to the relatively recent American obsession with television. Both are things into which people sank an incredible amount of their free time, but now the Internet is providing us with new social tools that allow us to harness this time:
One thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time.
If we, as a society, spend an amount of time watching television every year equivalent to how long it would take to write 2,000 Wikipedias, what else could we do with that time?
I was chatting with Nina Khosla about Facebook, and she contrasted it to Google, Wikipedia, Flickr, and other “aspirational tools […] that suggest that we can do more, see more.” Facebook isn’t like this — in some ways we can use it to keep up with a larger number of people than we otherwise could, but perhaps 80% of a person’s time on the site is spent engaging with perhaps 20% of their friends.
So what else are we doing with that cognitive surplus? We’re spending it on Facebook, mindlessly reading and liking and commenting on our friends’ posts, just as we used to spend it mindlessly watching television before that, and just as we used to spend it mindlessly drinking gin before that.
This is not necessarily an unhappy conclusion to reach though — I think there’s more value (however one wants to measure it) to time spent on Facebook than there is to time spent watching television, just as I think time spent watching television is of more value than time spent drunk. But I think it’s foolish to expect thousands of Wikipedias to emerge any second from our ‘series of tubes’, and it’s going to take concentrated design effort to create rewarding and enjoyable yet productive places where we can spend our time and attention. Sharing isn’t an end in and of itself. Facebook is compelling, but we can do better.