Gilligan’s web

Despite the party-pooperism of the Deletionists, the true glory of Wikipedia continues to lie in the obscure, the arcane, and the ephemeral. Nowhere else will you find such painstakingly detailed descriptions of TV shows, video games, cartoons, obsolete software languages, Canadian train stations, and the workings of machines that exist only in science fiction. When I recently felt an unexpected pang of nostalgia for the animated canine inventor Mr. Peabody and his Wayback machine, I knew exactly what to do: head to Wikipedia. Among the gems I unearthed: the Wayback machine was actually the WABAC machine (“a play on early computers such as UNIVAC and ENIAC”), Sherman was Mr. Peabody’s adopted son, Mr. Peabody was not only a genius but “arguably a polymath,” and Sherman’s “personality was that of a naive but fairly bright, energetic young boy.” Whatever else it may be, Wikipedia is a monument to the obsessive-compulsive fact-mongering of the adolescent male. (Never has sexual sublimation been quite so wordy.)

My favorite example is the Wik’s wonderfully panoramic coverage of the popular sixties sitcom Gilligan’s Island. Not only is there an entry for the show itself, but there are separate articles for each of the castaways – Gilligan, the Skipper, the Professor, Mary Ann, Ginger, Thurston Howell III, and Eunice “Lovey” Howell – as well as the actors that played the roles, the ill-fated SS Minnow, and even the subsequent TV movies that were based on the show, including the 1981 classic The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. Best of all is the annotated list of all 98 of the episodes in the series, which includes a color-coded guide to “visitors, animals, dreams, and bamboo inventions.” (I need to pause here to point out that some nebbish of a Deletionist – pardon the redundancy – has put at the top of the main entry for Gilligan’s Island a notice saying that “this article resembles a fan site” and calling on wikipedians to “please help improve this article by removing excessive trivia.” Fie on you, you wikifascist! Fie, I say!)

It goes deeper than Wikipedia, though. Gilligan’s Island has been a great motivator of user-generated content across the breadth of the web. Check out this YouTube take on the eternal question “Mary Ann or Ginger?”:

In fact, if I were called in to rename Web 2.0, I think I’d call it Gilligan’s Web, if only to underscore the symbiosis between the pop-culture artifacts of the mass media and so much of the user-generated content found online.

So imagine my bewilderment when, a few days ago, I read a transcript of a recent speech that the new-media scholar Clay Shirky gave to a big Web 2.0 confab in which he argued that Gilligan’s Island and Web 2.0 are actually opposing forces in the grand sweep of human history. Whoa, nelly. Is Professor Shirky surfing a different web than the rest of us?

To Shirky, the TV sitcom, as exemplified by Gilligan’s Island, was “the critical technology for the 20th century.” Why? Because it sucked up all the spare time that people suddenly had on their hands in the decades after the second world war. The sitcom “essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.” I’m not exactly sure what Shirky means when he speaks of society overheating, but, anyway, it wasn’t until the arrival of the World Wide Web and its “architecture of participation” that we suddenly gained the capacity to do something productive with our “cognitive surplus,” like edit Wikipedia articles or play the character of an elf in a World of Warcraft clan. Writes Shirky:

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don’t? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it’s not, and that’s the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

Shirky’s calculus seems to go something like this:

Spending a lot of time watching Gilligan’s Island episodes: bad

Spending a lot of time watching Gilligan’s Island episodes and then spending a lot more time writing about the contents of those episodes on Wikipedia: good

But that’s not quite fair, because Shirky is making a larger argument about society and its development. He’s got bigger fish to fry than Gilligan and his quirky mates. Scott Rosenberg does a nice job of summing up Shirky’s argument:

In brief, he suggests that [during the early years of the Industrial Revolution] the English were so stunned and disoriented by the displacement of their lives from the country to the city that they anesthetized themselves with alcohol until enough time had passed for society to begin to figure out what to do with these new vast human agglomerations — how to organize cities and industrial life such that they were not only more tolerable but actually employed the surpluses they created in socially valuable ways.

This is almost certainly an oversimplification, but a provocative and fun one. It sets up a latter-day parallel in the postwar U.S., where a new level of affluence created a society in which people actually had free time. What could one possibly do with that? Enter television — the gin of the 20th century! We let it sop up all our free time for several decades until new opportunities arose to make better use of our spare brain-cycles — Shirky calls this “the cognitive surplus.” And what we’re finally doing with it, or at least a little bit of it, is making new stuff on the Web.

What Shirky is doing here, in essence, is repackaging the liberation mythology that has long characterized the more utopian writings about the Web. That mythology draws a sharp distinction between our lives before the coming of the Web (BW) and our lives after the Web’s blessed birth (AW). In the dark BW years, we were passive couch potatoes who were, in Shirky’s words, “forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option.” We were driftwood, going with whatever flow “the media” imposed on us. We were all trapped in Shirky’s musty cellar.

The Web, the myth continues, emancipated us. We no longer were forced into the channel of passive consumption. We could “participate.” We could “share.” We could “produce.” When we turned our necks from the TV screen to the computer screen, we were liberated:

Media in the 20th century was run as a single race – consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share. And what’s astonished people who were committed to the structure of the previous society, prior to trying to take this [cognitive] surplus and do something interesting, is that they’re discovering that when you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they’ll take you up on that offer.

I think we’d all agree that the Web is changing the structure of media, and that’s going to have many important ramifications. Some will be good, and some will be bad, and the way they will all shake out remains unknown. But what about Shirky’s idea that in the BW years we were unable to do anything “interesting” with our “cognitive surplus” – that the “only option” was watching TV? That, frankly, is bullshit. It may well be that Clay Shirky spent all his time pre-1990 watching sitcoms in his cellar (though I very much doubt it) but I was also alive in those benighted years, and I seem to remember a whole lot more going on.

Did my friends and I watch Gilligan’s Island? You bet your ass we did – and thoroughly enjoyed it (though with a bit more ironic distance than Shirky allows). Watching sitcoms and the other drek served up by the boob tube was certainly part of our lives. But it was not the center of our lives. Most of the people I knew were doing a whole lot of “participating,” “producing,” and “sharing,” and, to boot, they were doing it not only in the symbolic sphere of the media but in the actual physical world as well. They were making 8-millimeter films, playing drums and guitars and saxophones in bands, composing songs, writing poems and stories, painting pictures, making woodblock prints, taking and developing photographs, drawing comics, souping up cars, constructing elaborate model railroads, reading great books and watching great movies and discussing them passionately well into the night, volunteering in political campaigns, protesting for various causes, and on and on and on. I’m sorry, but nobody was stuck, like some pathetic shred of waterborne trash, in a single media-regulated channel.

Tom Slee, in a trenchant review of Shirky’s new book, Here Comes Everybody, strips some of the bright varnish from the Net’s liberation mythology. In the book, Shirky describes, with great intelligence and clarity, the social and economic dynamics of virtual communities. But he also, as Slee notes, indulges his enthusiasm for the Web in a way that draws, once again, an overly bright line between BW and AW:

Clay looks at the Internet and sees lots of groups forming (and things are easy to see on the Internet because even our most casual utterances get stored on someone’s servers for posterity to investigate) and he concludes that the world is alight with a new groupiness, the likes of which we have never seen … While Clay is telling us all about the use of digital technology to spark innovative forms of protest in Belarus, which is a fascinating story, we really need … to ask why, with all these group-forming tools at our disposal and despite the documented disillusionment with the war in Iraq, there is so little coherent protest happening compared to previous wars? Is it really the case that society now is becoming, thanks to the internet, more democratic, more collaborative, and more cooperative than before? I am not convinced.

As Slee suggests, the liberation mythology evaporates when you actually take a hard look at history. It’s worth remembering that Gilligan’s Island originally ran on television from late 1964 to late 1967, a period noteworthy not for its social passivity but for its social activism. These were years not only of great cultural and artistic exploration and inventiveness but also of widespread protest, when people organized into very large – and very real – groups within the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the feminist movement, the folk movement, the psychedelic movement, and all sorts of other movements. People weren’t in their basements; they were in the streets.

If everyone was so enervated by Gilligan’s Island, how exactly do you explain 1968? The answer is: you don’t, and you can’t.

Indeed, once you begin contrasting 1968 with 2008, you might even find yourself thinking that, on balance, the Web is not an engine for social activism but an engine for social passivity. You might even suggest that the Web funnels our urges for “participation” and “sharing” into politically and commercially acceptable channels – that it turns us into play-actors, make-believe elves in make-believe clans.

As for the bigger question: Mary Ann.

36 thoughts on “Gilligan’s web

  1. Ed Cone

    “Is there any non-corporate on-line material that you think would not serve as support for Shirky’s point?”

    Sure. There’s all manner of trivial junk on the web. As my comment pointed out, lolcats is not a great supporting example of Shirky’s point. That’s why I pointed to the Wikipedia reference, which seems more substantive.

  2. Seth Finkelstein

    Ed Cone: But the Wikipedia point is rhetorical smoke-and-mirrors. In brief:

    People spend time doing X(bad). People spend time doing Y(good). WOW Golly-gee gadzooks gosh bang-bang, if they then devoted ALL THE TIME they spend doing X [BIG NUMBER HERE], to instead doing Y, THAT’D BE AMAZING!!! Praise the Net and start working for free :-(.

    I think it says something about the fundamental wrongness of web evangelism that this sort of argument is taken as anything but bubble-headed blathering.

    How do you know Wikipedia isn’t also displacing something “good” (community volunteering, perhaps) instead of only something “bad” (TV). Maybe it’s not primarily TV, but fanzines. Web-evangelists won’t consider this, since only relentless marketing is rewarded.

  3. Ed Cone

    I’m mystified that my comment, which says it’s possible to take Shirky’s argument to a foolishly reductive point, can be seen as an argument in favor of doing so.

    Clay made a clever if hyperbolic argument about the creativity unleashed by the web. Nick wittily pointed out some of the hyperbole — but one needn’t be a kool-aid drinking web theologizer to recognize the cleverer parts of Clay’s argument.

    So, yes: on the scale of world-healing goodness to which we all so clearly aspire, giving blood to the homeless trumps contributing an article to Wikipedia, which may have more social value than watching Gilligan’s Island, which itself is roughly equivalent to giggling at lolcats or pursuing this particular thread much further.

  4. tomslee

    The issue of what to put in which column can be vexing. Unlike Seth, who I agree with in many contexts, I think Wikipedia really is an amazing thing – and Ed gets my vote too.

    But when it comes to comparing timesinks across generations we need to take video games into account. It may be true that “there is no activity that has ever taken as much time as TV has” but for many children video games comes close. Certainly in my house as our kids grew up we had the same tensions over video gaming as our parents and I had over TV, and I know we are not unique in that. Which column does Mario belong in?

    Some (Steven Johnson in would argue they are in the plus, others in the negative – I see their effects as much more TV-like than Wikipedia-like.

  5. Tom Lord

    Nick and Ed,

    I appreciate and concede that it’s time to wrap up the thread but if you’ll permit me a parting shot:

    This isn’t just an exchange of bon mots in a salon. Clay is asserting (and obtaining) leadership in constructing a hegemonic view that has been going on for several years and that has had profound impacts on the job market, the investment capital market, and marketing to volunteers.

    For example, and from real life: I happen to be a long term software innovator. I invent new kinds of software. Some of my inventions have made money for others, just fine and created other kinds of valuable opportunities. Of late, multiple potential investors have taken a new, very Web 2.0-ish, labor-exploitative stance: “Your tech may be all well and good but now you need to go out and recruit a large number of volunteer workers committed to taking it forward. Then and only then will we consider dealing with you.”

    It is not a passive observation that “TV BAD ; WEB GOOD”. It is treated in my industry as a goal and as a mandate.

    I don’t take slaves. I don’t play that game. I think it is appropriate and important to point out that, in the end, there’s naught to Clay’s rhetoric that doesn’t reduce to absurdity and/or ugliness. That camp wants to destroy my industry? Well, right back at ’em.


  6. Thomas

    I completely agree with ajolie1 about the draft. I live in Islington, where anti-war opposition (for the most part) means making the odd snide comment. If the government actually expected “people like us” to go a get shot at in the sand, we’d start rioting. Don’t go stepping on my expresso! (Sad – but that’s the UK…)

    I’m surprised no one has brought up S.Korean, where OhmyNews became a big player; or the Philippines were a lot of protests were organised though SMS messages. The West’s a neutral case for social change, our societies are mostly stable and content to leave things as they are…

  7. lewis

    hey, there’s an interesting conversation between clay shirky and daniel goleman (author of social intelligence) which addresses the issues of web communication from neurological/psychological perspective. there are free samples of the dialogue available at , thought you might be interested, really enjoyed the article

  8. Linuxguru1968


    >> As for the bigger question: Mary Ann.

    “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

    — H. L. Mencken

  9. jonmca

    Interesting exchanges. There’s a literature about how Americans use time: see: and

    Yes Mary Ann, it seems evident that available time and exposure to information aren’t the same, but have a complex relationship. One needs available time to both obtain and process useful, entertaining or actionable information. At the extremes, one can have lots of available time, but little information (like here on Gilligan’s Island) or one can have lots of available information but little time or lack the motivation to obtain and use information (like several of our fellow castaways). Most of us are motivated to invest some amount of our available time (based on a complex set of each person’s current needs, values, and psychological state) to find and use the most personally relevant information that’s available in our environment. That information can then change how we invest the future time that we have available, either in additional information gathering or in other activities (like the best methods of fishing or finding coconuts) which may have been shaped by the earlier information. Does that help make it clearer? – The Professor

    Most would agree that whatever the model of information and action being examined, the world wide web has made much more information available to a greater number of people at a much lower cost of invested time than any time in recorded history.

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