Why You Should Read Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Cover of "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity a...

Cover via Amazon

Julian Harris Gibson

Review of Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

In the book “Cognitive Surplus”, Clay Shirky sparks an interesting discussion. By surplus, Shirky is referring to the spare time our brains now have due to our over consumption of media. Shirky argues that our addiction to media and modern lifestyles has left us a large amount of cognitive surplus to use however we wish.

In the first chapter Gin, Television and Cognitive Surplus Shirky makes a brilliant analogy between the gin craze in 18th century London and the television craze of today. Shirky describes old-world Europe during this period as a place where the masses got so inebriated from drinking gin; they often could not function and needed to sleep it off in the streets and flophouses of London.

The craving for Gin became a disabling entity in English society due to the lack of steady work and strong family units. As the gin craze grew out of control, laws were passed to try to control this epidemic but they were vastly ineffective. Many people flocked to major cities and the institutional structures of metropolises like London were changed forever.

Shirky completes his analogy by explaining the television craze of the 20th century that has also changed our lives forever. Shirky states that through his extensive research he discovered that in every industrialized, so-called “First-World” nation, the three main societal activities are working, sleeping and watching television. Shirky also points to neuroscience that explains how our brains go into an auto-pilot mode after only a few minutes of watching television.  

Furthermore, Shirky argues that television is the gin equivalent to our modern generation. He goes on to explain how our entire societal structure has changed due to television.  For example, our levels of social interaction have declined steadily over the past fifty years. Conversely, Shirky states that TV consumption has steadily increased per capita each year in the same fifty year span.  

Furthermore, Shirky argues that television has raised our societal materialism and desire to consume instead of connect with each other. For example, Shirky makes the claim that about one hundred million hours have been spent watching television over the past five decades.

While I think this is Shirky’s best chapter, I must rebut some of his claims. For example, as our societal appetite for television has progressed, our viewing options have also expanded. In the early days of television, you only had three channels.  These channels were displayed in black and white and actually went off the air at a certain time of night. Nowadays, you have access to over a thousand channels all displaying content that attracts a niche audience. While this can sometimes separate us as a society, television has also allowed us to share awesome moments happening across the world in real-time as a global audience.

 For example, the Apollo moon landing was witnessed by millions of people in over 70 countries around the planet. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall was a global watershed moment brought into our homes via the television. During Vietnam, the theater of war playing out on local news channels in full color was a large catalyst in launching the public push to end the war. The gruesome images of dead Americans being hauled off in stretchers was a far different scene from the still photos of WWI our grandparents saw in the daily newspaper. While television has its potential dangers, it also has its great benefits. Overall, I agree with Shirky’s premise that television and gin are similar. Both items can become vices if not consumed responsibly in moderation.  

Shirky’s subsequent chapters go on to support his rage against the machines. In the second chapter, Means, Shirky explains how society’s views of the internet have evolved over time.  Shirky details the beginnings of one-way media and explains how this model has been fighting its evil twin, multiple-path media since the rise of the internet. I use the term “multiple-path media” to explain how consumers of media can not only respond to the producer of content directly through the internet; they can also converse within various groups and report on the feedback gathered to new consumers. This phenomenon is often called “viral” where information spreads through digital platforms almost instantaneously like a viral infection.  In fact, I would argue that this viral activity debunks Shirky’s theory of gloom and doom due to a societal overdose of television.

A piece of content cannot go viral without communication between individuals. For example, when your friend sends you a link to a funny video, you often click on the link because it has been pre-screened and deemed worthy of your time. This third-party credibility factor, in my opinion, is the purest form of validation a producer of content can hope for. Thus, society may not have all been brainwashed by the boob-tube after all.

Shirky argues that social media giants like Facebook and YouTube have taken advantage of societies desire to be famous. However, I feel these platforms are really at the mercy of the mob. For example, a few years ago, MySpace was the darling of the social media world. However, once anyone and everyone started decorating their pages with large, ugly, HTML—the party quickly became lame. Thus, the people still decide collectively what is cool and functional and as long as those are the rules of engagement, I feel society still has the upper hand on Silicon Valley’s best and brightest coders and entrepreneurs.

Shirky explains how the small audiences during the internet’s beginnings allowed us to classify online activities as separate from the real world. However, this was a great oversight in Shirky’s opinion. Now that the internet has woven itself into almost every facet of the human existence, Shirky feels this abundance of means has created a world where the former consumers are now the producers of content themselves. This can be viewed as a good thing from a social interactivity perspective. However, Shirky makes a sound argument that this phenomenon can lead to danger due to the oversaturation of content and disinformation.  

For example, Shirky tells the tale of South Korean demonstrators who organized massive public demonstrations against US Beef due to a report the group members saw on the internet. 

While this may seem like a win for social responsibility and technology integrating with social interaction, it really shows how misinformation spread through the internet and interpreted as truth in other cultures can have dire consequences.

The book has other flashes of greatness in the later chapters. Shirky makes a strong argument in the fourth chapter, Opportunity. In this chapter, Shirky explains the human tendency to disregard a technology once a newer, sleeker model is released. We often think of newer as better; however, Shirky warns us to not abandon the tools that are functional for the sake of the newest craze.

An example not discussed in the book of this argument is the mobile phone wars. Apple’s latest edition of the iPhone was released as the latest, greatest inspiration from the minds of Apple engineers. However, Apple fanatics waiting in lines for days were disappointed by the phone’s glitches. The breaking point may have been the failure of the iPhone’s maps application. Since the reporting of this failure, Apple has suffered embarrassment and backlash about its labor practices.  Overall, Shirky does a good job in this chapter of explaining our habits of coveting novelty over reliability.

The later chapters cover a various amount of topics including culture and our tendency to be less selfish in a public setting. These chapters make compelling arguments about our decision-making process in various situations. However, Shirky loses his thread a little and seems to maintain a melancholy outlook that drags down the mood of the reader.

While he does make many valid observations, Shirky’s writing style can be professorial at times and come off as somewhat condescending.  I feel Shirky should give society more credit for being independently minded individuals who are capable of evolving and interacting without training wheels.

Lastly, Shirky redeems himself somewhat in the final chapter, Looking for the Mouse. In this chapter he finally acknowledges that while humans consume more television and media than ever before; all that consuming has made us very picky.  With unlimited choices of media to consume, the need for eye-catching content is more vital than ever. Shirky keenly explains that producers can have a large group of users, an active group of users or a group of users all paying attention to the same thing. Shirky warns the reader that you can only maintain two out of the three choices and cannot have all three. This observation is very astute and helps bring the book full circle.

In conclusion, I feel Shirky presents a compelling argument that forces the reader to do some contemplating of their own and decide if they agree or disagree with Shirky’s arguments. If this book can be revised to fit a more optimistic audience, I feel it will become very popular in marketing and media science circles.  


Why You Should Buy The New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott

By: Julian Harris Gibson


Cover of "The New Rules of Marketing and ...

Cover via Amazon

In the book New Rules of Marketing and PR, author David Meerman Scott provides a roadmap for all those who need either an introductory lesson or a refresher course in the ever-changing world of digital marketing and online public relations.  The book begins by giving readers an insightful forward from Robert Scoble, a veteran public relations professional with decades of experience working for global companies like Google. 

Once the ride through the chapters begins, Scott explains why keeping up with the latest trends in public relations may be the best job security you can have. In the social media age, a public relations practitioner must be able to manage the image and content of their employers in both the physical and digital worlds.  In the early chapters, Scott goes through each of the major social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and LinkedIn.

Scott explains the pros and cons of each platform and how a savvy practitioner can build their audience by following a few simple steps.  Most importantly, Scott explains that we should look at each social media site as a tool to use like a wrench or hammer to express ideas and build an audience. Scott warns us not to get too infatuated with the platform itself because today’s hottest social media site could be tomorrow’s MySpace

The title of Scott’s book may be simple, but is reflective of a movement in marketing and communication that has changed all the old rules and finally let the laymen have a seat at the grown up table.

In the first chapter, Scott makes a convincing case for the need for new rules by describing his experience with looking for a car online. Scott brilliantly states that the big three automakers were addicted to the “crack cocaine of marketing”.  Scott’s easy going approach makes technical subjects like target audiences, SEO, and long-tail marketing seem understandable.

The best feature of New Rules in my opinion was the way Scott layered each chapter like a cake so that everything you learn in chapter 2 builds on what you learned in chapter 1. For example, the first chapter explains the old rules of marketing and PR, the second chapter follows up with the new rules- you get the point.

Many marketing books fill the first five or so chapters with information you already know or audacious promises that you are about to change your life with the secret information revealed in the next chapter.  Scott wastes no time and gets straight to the goods in New Rules. Scott’s commitment to informative simplification makes this book an easy, fun and useful read.

A highlight of the early chapters is the section on long-tail marketing. This principle teaches us that while marketers previously competed to reach customers in the center of the bell curve, now they chase the niche customers on the long tails of the market.

When Scott explains how a small online book retailer used this technique to become a juggernaut, readers are pulled in for the rest of the ride through the chapters. By the way, that little book retailer was Amazon.com!

As the reader journeys further down the rabbit hole with Scott, you learn about how to reach the consumer directly and bypass the gatekeepers. Scott breaks down blogging and podcasting, how these tools are useful and how even the most computer illiterate person can blog with the best of them- with the New Rules.  Scott’s lessons and rules to the game are easy to understand and help educate those willing to learn how they can become the most valuable person in their marketing and PR departments.

Another great feature of the eBook version of New Rules is the fact that you can highlight any term and research it further. Furthermore, the end of each chapter has links that take you to extra content online. Scott even gives away a template for readers to help develop their own marketing strategy.  Scott’s generosity makes this book seem even more credible and user-friendly. 

As the book winds to a close, Scott covers topics like content-rich websites and how to become a global entity even if you’re a small, local business.  However, the jewel of the entire book may be chapter 10 which focuses on marketing and PR in real time. The skills and insight delineated in the previous chapters culminate in this chapter. According to Scott, social media really is beneficial when you can catch a wave of searches or web traffic. If you can tie your service or product to a trending topic it can pay off large dividends.

In conclusion, Scott has written a great book that is useful to both the novice and senior-level strategist. This book is a roadmap to PR stardom for the willing and ambitious. I recommend it for all public relations practitioners “in-training” and veteran practitioners who need a little retraining on the New Rules of Marketing and PR.



Music Business Survival Series Pt 5: How Record Labels Work

Promotional photograph of Elvis Presley, taken...

Promotional photograph of Elvis Presley, taken in 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 By Julian Harris Gibson

Record labels function like any other corporate machine, their ultimate goal is to make a profit. We cannot put the entire fault on record companies because music is such a subjective field without any real guarantee of success.

A company who sells a product like a car can expect to make a certain profit when the product reaches the market. If the product doesn’t sell on the retail market car companies can then go to the private sector or even government or markets overseas to sell their product at a market value.

However in the music field, the artist is the product and no matter how much money is spent on marketing and promotion, the fans have to respond in order for the record label to reap a profit. Also with the rising threat of online piracy it is an even tougher landscape for the fledgling music empire of today.

The groups of the twenties who made the big band sound tapped into the swinging attitude of the gilded age hipsters who wanted to grab a “doll” and paint the town red. The sizzling sixties were filled with artists like The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Hendrix and others who not only protested in spirit but also song. Music can be tied to culture all the way back to the beginnings of civilization and maybe before that.

The jungles of Africa were filled with the sounds of war drums and stick instruments that allowed people across great distances to communicate. Scientists now study the songs of whales to show that these water born mammals may be much more sophisticated than we had ever thought. I bet there is a lawyer right now putting on a scuba suit to try and sign Free Willy to a contract or sue Sea Worldfor copyright infringement for a signature whale sound. But seriously, Copyright, Publishing and Contract knowledge is key to the successful career of any artist.

Cover of sheet music for "The Star-Spangl...

Cover of sheet music for “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, transcribed for piano by Ch. Voss, Philadelphia: G. Andre & Co., 1862 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Music itself is a tricky business venture because it has always been connected to society’s consciousness at the particular time. At hard times like war, music can inspire a nation. In fact, the Star Spangled Banner was written about the battles fought during the American Revolution. Francis Scott Key was so inspired by the bombs “bursting in air” that he spent all night writing the song and it became an immediate hit on the revolutionary charts. 

  Now at every sporting event we all stand with our hand over our heart and sing along. While this song has been sung by many famous singers, none have sung the national anthem with the emotion and grace as the late Whitney Houston during her Super Bowl Appearance in 1991.  Her performance was so riveting that her record label produced a live version of the performance and it sold over a million records. Whitney’s performance came at a time when America was at war in Iraq and everyone was feeling patriotic. Whitney’s golden voice brought grown men to tears and the nation stood amazed and proud that the best rendition of the Star Spangled Banner ever sung came from a skinny girl from Newark, NJ.

Music Bussiness Survival Series Pt 4: Entertainment Law

Lisa Lopes

Lisa Lopes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By: Julian Harris Gibson

Many artists find out the hard way when it is too late that before they plan a world tour, they need to find a good entertainment lawyer. There have been countless horror stories of artists getting the short end of the stick when the profits came to pass. One of the most recent and famous stories was that of R&B super group TLC which sold a whopping 10 million records for their smash album in the mid nineties only to end up broke due to ignorance and shady business practices. Many people asked how in the world a group could sell that many records and end up broke but as a creative genius and lead singer the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez discussed it in a VH1 documentary.

During this film the singer explained how the group only received about one dollar per unit sold, which meant that the original pie for the artist was ten million dollars. This may seem like a boatload of cash, but keep in mind that the original retail price of a CD at that time was about 15.99 which meant at ten million copies sold the record label stood to make well over 150 million dollars. TLC’s share was less than 10 % meaning they only had five million to start out with.  After the label billed the group for the cost to produce, promote distribute and package the album, the group was left with a dismal $15,000 per artist, barely 1 % of total sales.

This case was on the extreme end of the spectrum, but is fairly common in the music business. The practice of billing the artist is known as “recouping” for expenses and is standard in many fields of business. However in the music business, many artists get caught up in the glitz and glamour of the bright lights and get hit by the train of reality –hard.

Music Business Survival Series Pt 3: Publishing

These shady practices are mirror images of some of the sub-prime mortgage schemes that first time buyers fell prey to a few years back. In the same fashion that the mortgage mess almost swallowed the entire economy, these shady practices also have far reaching consequences well after most successful careers are done. Many artists end up as virtual slaves to the label and only get pennies for recordings that make the labels multi- million dollar profit share. For the savvy artist who wants to own his own music, there are two major Publishing firms in America BMI and ASCAP.

These two giants handle the bigger artists as well as the garage bands that may never make it big and may not want to. They monitor media formats for an artist’s music and then pay a royalty on a quarterly basis. Even though most artists get the shaft when it comes to publishing, there are a few hero tales like Percy Miller aka Master P who was the first rapper to demand and receive an 85% share of all profits. This mega deal was unheard of at the time even for white rock acts like the rolling stones and Aerosmith. Master P’s leverage was due to the fact that he had a popular following in his home town of New Orleans and all throughout the south.




Many artists are just now learning of ways to position themselves like Master P nearly 20 years later. Master p has sold over 75 million records has owned clothing lines, movie companies even gas stations and one of the most respected businessman in music history

Notorious B.I.G. (song)

Music Business Survival Series Pt 2: History of Copyrighting




The United States Congress established the first federal copyright law in 1790, and originally the clerk of the United States District Courts filed each application. It did not take long for the first copyright certificate to be issued, which happened within the first two weeks of the offices conception. Also in 1870, the filing responsibilities were transferred to the librarian of the Library of Congress in 1897 and Thorvald Solberg was the first Register of Copyrights. Since its opening, the United States Copyright office has filed 33,200,000 applications from all sorts of authors, musicians and artists. This process allows artists to reap the benefits of their labor.

With all those filings the Register of Copyrights would be impossible without help, he is assisted by the general counsel, the associate register for registration and recordation as well as the associate register for policy and international affairs which provides legal advice and counsel to the artists and authors works they also administer the Federal Copyright Law. The Copyright act of 1976 created the need for two copies of copyrighted works to be issued to the Library of Congress. This task of not only cataloging but also enforcing Administrative Law is very daunting.

Thousands of lawyers work tireless hours to litigate on behalf of artists and their employers as to who owns what and who stole what from who and when. This tedious task may be confusing for any music aficionado much less a teenager in an up and coming rap group who only is focused on becoming a star. Many artists leave this responsibility to managers who are entrusted with the task of negotiating contracts, licenses and copyrights for their clients. These managers often are someone close to the artist like a family member or local music producer, these people often are not trained in Copyright or publishing laws and protections and they fall victim to ignorance.


By Julian Harris Gibson

Most recording companies are looking to get the most return for the lowest risk. No matter what genre of music the artist creates like rock, rap, country or gospel. This means record labels often will not sign an artist until they have proven viability. In order to prove viability, artists often have to invest in themselves spending their own money for equipment, studio time, promotional materials as well as travel expenses for touring.

However, these tasks are expected to be completed before the struggling artist has even packaged or produced a record. This daunting task often forces the artist to become a self-contained business and handle many areas like budgeting and paperwork and PR that the artist may not be knowledgeable about. Follow this series to gain valuable knowledge about these topics.

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