Milkshake Mistakes and Cheezburger Lolcats: Shirky’s Latest Lessons for News

I’ve just started digging into Clay Shirky’s latest book, “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age,” published Thursday by The Penguin Press.

Shirky’s thesis: Social media enables and encourages us to make much more creative and generous use of the 200 billion hours that Americans spend watching TV each year.

As someone who doesn’t account for a very big slice of that TV time — and who experiences more of a cognitive deficit than surplus by the end of most days — I began the book a skeptic despite my huge regard for Shirky.

But Shirky makes his case: Americans are making the transition from couch potatoes to couch contributors and more.

“…For the first time in the history of television,” he writes, “some cohorts of young people are watching TV less than their elders.

“Several population studies — of high school students, broadband users, YouTube users — have noticed the change, and their basic observation is always the same: young populations with access to fast, interactive media are shifting their behavior away from media that presupposed pure consumption.

“Even when they watch video online, seemingly a pure analog to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world.”

But it’s Shirky’s discussion of marketing research into McDonald’s milkshakes — and the phenomenon of user-generated captions for cat pictures on ICanHasCheezburger.com — that holds the larger lessons for journalists and the news organizations they’re struggling to sustain.

Relating the story of research aimed at driving up sales of McDonald’s milkshakes, he reports:  “Almost all the researchers focused on the product. But one of them, Gerald Berstell, chose to ignore the shakes themselves and study the customers instead.”

Berstell describes his user-first approach to product improvement in a 2007 journal article (PDF) he wrote with Clayton M. Christensen (“The Innovator’s Dilemma“) and two other authors titled, “Finding the Right Job for Your Product.”

I’m encouraged on two fronts: the idea builds on the “jobs to be done” approach to news organizations that the American Press Institute has taken with its Newspaper Next project. And the focus on customer — as opposed to product — reinforces the approach I took in my own search for new ways of sustaining news.

Shirky’s focus on users extends from understanding what customers need in a milkshake to recognizing that many consumer needs can be satisfied by users as opposed to traditional content providers. 

Enter his discussion of the ICanHasCheezburger site, the monument to laughing out loud about cats (lolcats) sustained by user captions added to cat photos uploaded by other users. Coincidentally, the New York Times tracks the site’s profitable business history in an article published today.

“Let’s nominate the process of making a lolcat as the stupidest possible creative act,” Shirky writes, contrasting the silly site about cats with Ushahidi.com, the user-driven service that updates communities in crisis with information that’s often more a matter of life and death than laughing out loud.

But he makes the point that a lolcat remains a “creative act,” and that “you can move from mediocre to good in increments.”

As he puts it, “The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something, and someone making lolcats has bridged the gap.”

Shirky has done some of his best work in analyzing gaps, including that chaotic chasm created, as he puts it, by the old stuff of journalism breaking before the new stuff gains traction.

I’m guessing Cognitive Surplus will provoke more of the kind of disruptive thinking touched off by Shirky’s essay last year: “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” now accompanied by 1,219 linked responses.

The response I’d attach to the first couple of chapters of his latest work is a question that goes to the heart of some of the most interesting work underway these days in journalism: What can be done to encourage more of the audience to move from consumption to creation — and to nudge more of our “creative acts” from mediocre to good?

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