How Do People Find The Time To Watch Television?

from the social-surplus dept

One of the most common reactions when people first learn about Wikipedia is to wonder where people find the time to write millions of articles for free. That's precisely the reaction Clay Shirky got (thanks to Luis Villa) from, ironically enough, a television producer. Shirky points out the obvious answer: people spend a lot more time watching dumb television shows than they do contributing to Wikipedia. Shirky estimates that Wikipedia represents about 100 million hours of collective effort by Wikipedia's editors. In contrast, Americans spend something like 200 billion hours watching television each year. And however pathetic people might find it that someone would spend their evenings having edit wars with people on Wikipedia, it's surely more pathetic to spend your evenings on the couch watching re-runs of Gilligan's Island. Even an online game like World of Warcraft, which many people deride as nerdy and anti-social, at least involves interacting with other people. Indeed Shirky argues, correctly in my view, that the transformation of our social lives from passive to active forms of entertainment is just beginning. People still spend a huge amount of time consuming passive media like television. If even a small fraction of that mental energy was diverted to more active pursuits, it could lead to the production of dozens of socially-beneficial efforts like Wikipedia. The problem isn't finding people with time on their hands; we've got tens of millions of those. The challenge is finding socially-beneficial projects that they'll enjoy participating in more than re-runs of Seinfeld.

Filed Under: clay shirky, free time, television, wikipedia


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  1. identicon
    Josh, 28 Apr 2008 @ 3:59pm

    How About Expanding on the Value Judgements

    I don't fully understand the basis for the value judgements in this post as well as Shirky's article. I'm referring to the statement that

    "...however pathetic people might find it that someone would spend their evenings having edit wars with people on Wikipedia, it's surely more pathetic to spend your evenings on the couch watching re-runs of Gilligan's Island..."

    That's just one example, which seems to be used among a list of examples to say place a value on one activity being, somehow, a more appropriate or beneficial use of time. Nobody seems to be saying why one is better than the other, and worse, nobody seems to be discussing the various elements involved in figuring that out.

    I mean, how do we weigh the social value of a Wikipedia edit war against passively watching TV? Maybe the wikipedia example results in a better, more accurate record of something in our world... freely available to educate and enlighten all.

    Maybe somewhere a father wants to unwind a little with Gilligan's Island, he feels his mind clear of workday troubles, and is refreshed afterwards to spend quality time with his daughter as they imagine what they'd do together on that island (I dunno, maybe she's explaining the rules of her benevolent queendom or how she'd generate electricity for personal media player). Anyway, she in turn gets a loving, supportive upbringing because her pop's in a good mood and willing to indulge her creativity--so she grows up confident to introduce her ideas to the world, which happen to be genius and solve our future energy problems.

    Anyway, seems like Gilligan's Island certainly inspired Clay Shirky to introduce a theory or two. Its spread all over the Web by now.

    All this aside, I don't see people teasing out any reasons for why we should even consider passive-doing against active-doing. Why should we? If you think of these in a greater context and how they interrelate, I think we may need both and I don't necessarily see a conflict between the two or a reason to assign a default value of one above the other. Certainly there are activities using the Internet or social media apps that while active aren't productive in any positive way. It'd be much better to consider things in their specific contexts before deciding on value judgements like this.

    (I wrote a bit more about this last night too)


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