I recently watched Clay Shirky's newest TED talk based on his book, Cognitive Surplus (opens in new tab). The concept of cognitive surplus simply means that in the last century the amount of free we've had has increased and that in the last decade, we've been able to use that surplus not only to consume media but to create it.
Shirky talks about a project called Ushahidi which is a mashup of user generated map which allows people to submit data and information on various events.
Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili, is a website that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Ushahidi's roots are in the collaboration of Kenyan citizen journalists during a time of crisis. The website was used to map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phone. This initial deployment of Ushahidi had 45,000 users in Kenya, and was the catalyst for us realizing there was a need for a platform based on it, which could be use by others around the world.
Shirky then discusses LOLcats which are as about as far from Ushadidi as you can imagine. They may be funny but they represent the silliness and triviality that exists all over the web. As Shirky suggests, many people wonder if we can bypass the silly and get to the serious. The answer is no. Anytime we want people to create and be social, we will always get both.
First off, the word silly here is often used interchangeably with stupid. I'll define either as: less than serious, trivial or perhaps even immature.
Let's have a look at a few examples where Shirky's premise seems to be bang on.
It's hard to think about twitter and not think of it in some ways as stupid or silly. I've done an entire presentation around this concept. If you're an educator and been using twitter for a while, this isn't a big revelation to you but to many this point needs to continue to be made.
Twitter is full of stupid and silly but it has also saved lives. Twitter is about presence. It's about right now. I've personally seen humanity from the mundane to the fascinating, from literally laugh out loud to near tears. It's about being human and being social.
Forums have been around for as long as we've had the web. Forums run the gambit from sports, knitting, politics, and even lolcats. Generally forums are spaces to ask questions, get answers and have conversations, post documents and the like. Everyone once in a while compassion, caring and kindness become the order of the day. On Reddit, a young man's mother dies and asks if someone might be able to fix a photo of himself and his mother. The response was overwhelming as strangers lent a hand to fix the image.
For many, youtube is a place to post silly videos. With the billions of videos posted, there's more than a few that would be in that category. But videos like Eric Whitacre's virtual choir represent beauty, creativity and collaboration using technology that until only a few years ago was not available to the masses.
Blogs have often been seen as nothing more than a cheap and easy way for anyone to publish. That's very true. You can find blogs written by cats, blogs where intimate details of life is shared, that definitely should not! But at the same time, you find blogs written by people with cancer, who tell their story and allow others to experience the pain and share the sorrow that comes with dying.
Life is serious. Life is also a wee bit silly. It's hard to have one without the other. Social media is simply mirroring life. Media itself has always done this. For us to try and wish the silly away is futile and in many ways ignores what it means to be human. This media creation is so new, so powerful and is being explored in all kinds of interesting ways. So before you dismiss the things you see online as silly or stupid, consider that these creations are part of our evolution of thought and process that can, and has led to some amazing, amazing things.