Posted by: Rowan | May 22, 2008

Turn off the ads!

Earlier this week I went to the first Web Directions: Government conference in Canberra on May 19 & 20. It kicked off with a breakfast session on Monday, where Jason Ryan delivered a provocative review of the social media landscape in government in New Zealand. There seemed to be something of a view in Australia that the governments of NZ and the UK are leading out on adoption of social media, so interest in Jason’s pitch was high. It would have to be, at 7am on a cold Canberra morning…

But the reason for this post happened the next day. It happened on Tuesday when Grant Young, a Sydney-based consultant, ran an all-day workshop on ‘Social media and Government’.

Clay Shirky presenting to Web20Expo, image courtesy of During the course of the day we covered quite a lot and opened up a lot of thinking, but one gem in particular sticks in my mind and won’t be silent. It was a video of a presentation by Clay Shirky to the Web20Expo event in San Francisco in late April.

Here’s a taste – these numbers are indicative rather than accurate, but the orders of magnitude are about right…

One estimate suggests that roughly about 100 million hours of human effort have gone into building Wikipedia into what it is today – more than 2 million articles, and 255 different languages.

In the US alone, over 200 billion collective hours are spent watching TV each year. And in a single weekend in the US, 100 million hours are spent watching the ads. In one weekend.

Extrapolated out to the size of the internet-connected population, the same behaviour would account for a world-wide consumption of about 1 trillion hours of TV per year, and (very roughly) half a billion hours of ads across the world’s wired population.

The Wikipedia effort pales by comparison. But it’s a start at eating into what Clay calls the ‘Cognitive Surplus’, or what we do with our free time – so much of which has gone into watching TV for so many years (including the ads, of all things).

Imagine if the whole world stopped watching ads for one weekend and contributed to Wikipedia instead. We could build three, four, five Wikipedias!

But Clay’s point was more realistic. The fact that things like Wikipedia and social media actually exist demonstrate that, given a chance, people WILL contribute and share. Until now our ‘Cognitive Surplus’ has gone (largely but not exclusively) into TV, because that’s what we had. The Wikipedia effort is a fraction of the size of TV, but it’s a start. It’s re-routed one weekend’s worth of US TV ad-watching into just one project in this medium where people contribute, and share. Two weekend’s worth would make something even better – but it’s a start.

And the next time the TV networks manage to really piss you off by jacking up the volume when the ads come on and SHOUTING them at you, you may wish to consider turning them off and writing on Wikipedia instead … who knows what might come of it.

You might question a couple of Clay’s historical facts, but I don’t think you can question his conclusions. You can see Clay Shirky’s presentation on (16 minutes of video). I recommend it to you.


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