Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Social Surplus and the Dawn of a New Age

My good friend and general pulp bastard (mad, of course) Bill Cunningham, linked to the video below on his blog the other day. By sheer coincidence I happened across a blog post by the man speaking in that video, Clay Shirky, which happens to be a loose transcription of that speech. I urge you all to read it or watch the video because it speaks to our desired industry, television, in a way that may help you understand the current sea change in entertainment.

The ways people find to spend their time are changing. This blog is an example. Multi-player video games. Interactive web content. Social networks, like Facebook, Yelp, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Pownce, Jaiku, Orkut (just google "social network" and look at all the links).

Television is taking up less of people's time, something that has become very apparent as people watch what they want when they want, and not when programmers put it on the airwaves.

From the blog post/video, which really, you should read or watch right after you finish reading this post:

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that's finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
Seriously people, if you aren't fully plugged in to the new world, you are missing the boat.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cunningham said...

You linked to me...

(All together now)



Anonymous said...

Also, he's obviously a hater of television and the producers therein. He ignores the film industry for some reason, because it's somehow more legit to him.
Apparently, television producers are time-sucking vermins who aim to occupy people's time with ads for 100 hours a weekend.

The television industry depends on ads for revenue and financial stability. He should know that punching below the belt is an elementary tactic. Why doesn't he mention ad spots on internet sites?

The bottom line is that there are now many different ways for people to spend their time. Some people like stories, some people like watching competitions, some people like cute cats who talk, some people like random video clips, some people like time-consuming goals on WoW, some people like characters, some people like talking about their lives, some people like sharing information about Pluto, and some people like debating things with other people.

However, this man is unclear on what exactly he deems as a "better use of time". He doesn't consider great storytelling as worthy of our time and, instead, he deems videogames as more worthwhile and active.
You think he plays WoW?

It would be understandable if he was a "stop watching Tv and go do something useful" kind of guy. That's an understandable stance to take.
However, he's more of a "stop watching tv made by producers and writers and, instead, make your own stuff."
What he forgets is that professional writers, historians, actors, directors, musicians, athletes, and so forth definately "have something" on regular people. They have an uncanny ability to entertain and/or inform -- an ability they have thanks to them dedicating their lives to it.
I'm not saying homemade or low-budget youtube shows won't be watched by people, because that clearly isn't true.
However, to say making a youtube or internet-bound show is better than creating a network or cable show is a little naive on his part. He makes it sound as if everyone wants to make their own internet show, and share their own internet show, which is incorrect. There is definately a market for creative content producing and distribution (hello, youtube), but I won't go as far as to say their time is "better spent" than someone who watches Battlestar Galactica and watches *gasp* movies.

This guy simply watched bad teevee as a child and doesn't like what's on television now. That's fine. Just know that the media on the interned isn't a more sophisticated or time-worthy than television or film.

My guess is that this guy cannot wait to advertise and make money on other people's creative content via internet ads.

Sorry for writing so much, Shawna. :)

By the way, wasn't he on the Colbert Report? heh

Anonymous said...

(This was initially my first comment, but a typo totally turned my argument on it's head. :P )

I didn't like the part where he said playing WoW is better than watching tv. That's just silly. I mean, sure, maybe if by "TV" he means "gilligan's island", but that's just insulting the entire medium.

He wasn't very clear on his message, either. I agree with him, but I doubt he'd be ballsy enough to say that internet production/sharing will render tv/film as dead. Not many people like sharing youtube videos or making lolcat pictures - it's just a niche market. He says he'd rather write on a blog, wikipedia, and so forth when he was a kid rather than watching Gilligan's Island, which is fine, but that doesn't mean all television watchers aughta do something better with their time.

He's forgetting that he's talking about leisure time, not labour time. Playing WoW is just as productive as watching television or a movie. WoW is just detrimental to your mental awareness and outlook if played for the same amount of time.
He doesn't take that into account, however. He makes it seem as if youtube videos are just as good as television shows. Youtube may be fun for people who put out actual content (though most of them simply upload content that was aired on television or in theatres), but youtube isn't exactly a haven for quality content.

Also, not many people would rather update wikipedia articles. Remember, this is leisure time we're talking about. When people get home from work, they may write on their blog, but I'll bet that not too many are dying to update wikipedia articles. I understand that using wikipedia is a better use of our time, and I agree, but he's looking at the "surplus" through hazy glasses.

I'm all for the internet media revolution, but he wasn't concentrating on the right pasttimes. World of Warcraft is just as big of a distraction as television is, and being active in a virtual battlefield is NOT [this was the typo] the same as actively thinking about an unfolding story.
Wikipedia is a niche corner for internet users. Along with blogging. Neither provide the same things that movies or television does, they just provide something different that we didn't have 10 years ago. This guy says that they are better, but I won't go that far.

Shawna said...


I appreciate your well thought out comments. I don't know that I have the brain power to address each point you made, but just some quick comments.

I don't think that Shinsky is saying that "TV is bad" -- He is simply making the argument that post-WWII when people weren't working 60-80 hours a week (you know, before the advent of labor laws) they found ways to fill their time. The primary way they did that was to watch television.

Now, the paradigm is changing. Computers have entered our world, and kids who have grown up with easy access to a home computer think nothing of spending time on the internet, social networks, video games, etc. He's saying that if even 1/10 of the hours spent on TV are transferred to the building of interactive efforts (i.e. Wikipedia) it would be a monumental shift in our culture. While I agree that TV isn't "bad" and video games "good", the common thought among most people over the age of 30 is that video games are "a waste of time", as are Facebook, etc. Those of us who are over 30 have been rooted in the idea that TV and film, which are passive media, are the dominant force in our pop culture. That is quickly changing. Films, particularly in theater settings are still somewhat "social" in that we as a society enjoy going to theaters and experiencing a film with a large number of other people. Television is not a huge social activity.

Believe me, I love television to the very core of my being. But I understand that a number (let's say 100 million, the number they approximated for Wikipedia) of hours which were previously devoted to television watching have moved over to multi-player games, social networks and other interactive activities. That isn't going to go away.

So, the challenge for those of us who want to work in the television industry is how do evolve the product (a television show) into this changing world? All you need do is look at the biggest game release this year, Grand Theft Auto IV to see that it is of the scale of the largest television show and the biggest box office film in its popularity, and how much time it takes to complete. Your typical video game can be completed in around 80 hours. I've heard that GTA4 can take someone somewhere between 100-300 hours of game play to complete. Not only that, but there are 12 multiplayer modes. Compare this to say, a hypothetical "Grand Theft Auto" film -- two hours long. A season of tv? 22 hours. The key is to create worlds people will want to experience in a multitude of ways --whether it be passively or interactively. Create a television show that can also exist online. Allow people to interact in that world.

For example, what if you could enter the world of "Battlestar Galactica"? Create your own character? Would you be a Viper pilot? Work on the Galactica? Maybe you'd rather work for the President, or live on one of the other ships? Or maybe you could be a Cylon? Create the unique and interesting world, and people will come.

Anonymous said...

The man is an idiot.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Shawna. However, the man was pulling so many silly scenarios out of his arse.
As I said, I'm totally for internet media. However, this guy sunk so low as to insult television as being a "Gilligan's Island" box and for WoW to be better than watching television.

Also, regarding the whole Galactica shmeel, that's called a videogame and I've got nothing against them. However, it'd be a tragedy if writers ceased to get together in the future to create such brilliant shows. If the future is simply user-created content and interactive doodads, then we've lost mroe than we've gained, imo.
I know people watch less television, but that doesn't mean television is a lesser activity.

I'm totally fine with this guy's message, but he doesn't know how to communicate it without sounding like a prick. Not everyone watches television do come to the conclusion that Ginger is hotter. That isn't what good television is about, much like how that's (hopefully) what good internet media isn't about.

And, when it comes to other activities, this guy it being extremely shortsighted. To say that WoW is better than TV "because they're doing something" is ridiculously elementary. The problems is that they are doing something while playing WoW. They're doing TOO MUCH of something. TOO MUCH of something that means nothing and steals away not only time, but mental real estate, awareness, and will to set real-life goals. I love videogames, but actively playing WoW instead of doing a "passive activity" does more harm than good.

But hey, according to this guy, television is simply a dozen people doing random crap, ala Gilligan's Island. Meanwhile, the internet is the fantastic and intellectual world of wikipedia articles and blog posts!
Yeah right.

I mean, I love youtube, videogames, wikipedia, and blogs, but television isn't going anywhere. All teevee has to do is breach the internet so it's as convenient as youtube videos are.

This has nothing to do with passtimes that let you "produce, share, and view" like this fellow man says. Yeah, people can do these things now. You may not be any good at it, but you can definately do these things.
You can make your own videos with your webcam, write about your life, talk about the Warlock class and how it's overpowered, change information about time travel on wikipedia that you deem incorrect, and frag friends online.

Heck, you can even create music videos with clips from your favorite television show. Err.. I mean a show that you created by yourself.

Anonymous said...

This just in: I write too much. I'm deeply sorry. :(

David Sterling said...

The irony is that Shirky has pitched at least three TV shows at the network I work out, and hasn't gotten a nibble.

Bernie said...

I'm chiming in as a TV guy who's also futurist.

First, I see how WOW can be considered "better" than TV (not saying I'd rather be playing WOW then watching a good TV show). But WOW in its inherent base is a social network and is very interactive. Heck as a story medium it is the viewer that drives the "story" and with that comes it's "advantage" over sitting in front of the tube being presented the story.

As for Youtube not being a haven for quality content. I can't really say that even TV is.

I have Dish Net for the first time, and access to 400+ channels to watch on a lazy Saturday. Yet I found myself finding absolutely NOTHING interesting and flipping over to my media center to queue up Scrubs Season 1. (I know Scrubs is a TV show, but I just rejected everything EVERY network of TV was throwing at me to flip over to downloaded content... I also could have just as easily powered up the drum set for some rock band action). Point being, if there's quality content out there, we'll gravitate more to it since we have more control as well as options.

Either way, I fully expect big studios to be looking into taking their ideas to the web. As well as web episodics to be the future of "serialized" story telling. As a storyteller I'm looking forward to exploring the medium more.

You can see my first try at this at

-I apologize for the plug, but it's relevant-

Cunningham said...

We are at a point of a fundamental, tumultuous shift in how we entertain ourselves - we are seeing this across the board as every media is becoming more and more interactive.

What Shirky is saying is if we devote 1/20th of the time that we devote to television to the internet then we would make longer strides in "internet accomplishment." (He uses Wiki as an example but it could apply to anything)

The idea that people "waste time" on the internet is incorrect. In comparison, more time is "wasted" watching television.

Butch Maier said...

I enjoy reading your blog. You can check out the one for my upcoming romantic comedy movie "The Bride and the Grooms" at http://thebrideandthegrooms.blogspot.com

Elver said...

Um. You might be interested in my alternative take on the whole thing over at my blog... Basically if Clay's premises are correct, we're in for a really depressing future :)