Blog Post

Harnessing HASTAC's Cognitive Surplus

Having just finished Clay Shirky’s (@cshirky) new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, I keep thinking about how his work applies to HASTAC. If you haven’t read his book yet, here’s a brief review. It’s a quick read and makes a lot of points that seem obvious... after he explains them. He starts by noting that, for the last fifty years or so, we’ve had historically unprecedented amounts of free time. To what have devoted that time? Television.

Americans watch over 200 billion hours of television every year. In comparison, the collective time spent on Wikipedia amounts to approximately only 100 million hours. That’s an order of magnitude less than the time we, as a society, spend as passive consumers of professional produced media. All that extra time is what Shirky calls a cognitive surplus, ready to be put into action. We now have that opportunity because of the rise of social media and the various collaborative projects on the Internet like Wikipedia, Ushahidi, and, less seriously-minded, Lolcats.

Rather than give a summary of his main points, however, I want to draw attention to some advice he gives at the end about building a strong digital community, advice that’s pertinent to HASTAC. We already have a vibrant community, which I think is best captured by our Scholar Forums. There we get tens of thousands of reads, hundreds of thoughtful comments, and a great wealth of resources and ideas. There’s also a high barrier to entry. The serious, often erudite nature of our discussions makes up much of the appeal of the forums, but it also (I suspect) keeps more people from joining in. Shirky notes that, to have an active community, you need to provide opportunities for sharing at all levels. A Scholar Forum requires a lot of time and thought to make successful, as anyone who’s hosted one or contributed to one knows. A HASTAC blog post, too, is a significant outlay of effort.

Where, then, can we engage our lurkers, our currently passive consumers of HASTAC? We must provide opportunities for people to contribute that are small. Think of fixing a typo on Wikipedia. That’s easy to do, requires very little work, yet adds up to a massive value. What if we harnessed the cognitive surplus of HASTAC more efficiently by promoting those sorts of contributions, too? To that end, I have a couple of suggestions.

First, we should emphasize Twitter more. We have a box on the front page, true, but you have to scroll down to see it and it’s not very large. Digital Humanities Now is a great example of how to aggregate Twitter posts. What if we had a similar service, but one made up entirely of HASTAC members? We could, also, more actively promote Twitter to our members as another way of contributing to HASTAC.

Second, we have a wiki. I’ll be blogging shortly about it in detail, highlighting the usefulness of the different sections, but wikis are an ideal place for the aggregation of small contributions. Just by adding your name to the list of scholars in a given region, for instance, you will make possible locally-organized meetings and other activities. That’s a tangible example of how seemingly small outlays of our cognitive surplus can quickly add up to something much larger.

What I’m asking us to do is to adapt to our growing size. The forums and blogs are excellent, but we need to provide more opportunities for members to contribute to this community. Let’s make it possible for the little things to add up.




Thanks so mich for posting this, Mike. Your thinking is right on and I'd like to carry this idea forward into our web site redevlopment process which is justa bout to begin(!!!).

In the short term, we could develop a Twitter list, and aggregate their posts on a special page (or on the News & Opportunities page) here.  I think that Digital Humaniites Now is actually curated by humans which would either require a large investment of time for a couple of people, or an investment in infrastructure and programmatic support to crowdsource that function as DHN does.

One of the ideas I have for the new site is allowing groups of people to collect and curate content, and we will also be exploring various methods of rating content and generating user karma. Allowing users to tag other people's content is another small way that we can allow members to contribute very meaningfully to the site.


Hi Ruby, DHNow is actually fully automated: It's created by humans only inasmuch as it uses the links tweeted by people @dhnow follows as its raw data. I love the idea of adding karma or some other reputation system to the site. Can we have badges, too? Those sorts of game elements are great for encouraging participation, as you know. What sort of content curation are you thinking about? And, on the more geeky side, how do you plan on organizing it? Taxonomies of some sort?



So I had to take along time to reply to this comment because it's no small thing. These questions have occupied a major part of my brain for the last several months or so as we have been envisioning our new site. We chose Message Agency as the developer last month, and met with the director as part of the discovery process last week!  If things proceed as planned, it will be launched in May 2011 and there should be some good opportunities to get input from our many brilliant users along the way.

Beyond any specific feature we might imagine, I remain focused on the goal of keeping the new site simple and flexible. So if a particular tool isn't available at first, we should retain the ability to add and tweak things later.  That said, I believe that identity is a crucial part of any successful network of people, so badges/credentials/karma/etc. are something we should have in some form at some point.

You asked how to organize it, well that is the $64,000 question right now. We spent a considerable amount of time with our developer last week mentally wrestling with this. Although almost every topic can be narrowly categorized, I'm not convinced the there is such a thing as a taxonomy that could describe the content and activities on our site at a high level. In our request for proposals ( I imagined "sets" of content that would be either dynamically generated by taxonomies or manually selected (by Flags or Nodequeue or something along those lines) combined with "collections" that would offer panel templates for combining and displaying those sets in a useful and attractive way.

Other than badges and karma, I hadn't envisioned any other game elements of the site interface, but that's a great idea. I'm open to suggestions.