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. Seth Finkelstein

    > We could “participate.” We could “share.” …

    We could work for free to make other people rich!

    > … the Web is not an engine for social activism but an engine for social passivity.

    Digital-sharecropping electronic plantations are definitely co-option, not change.

    There’s a market for play-revolution, not real revolution :-(.

  2. finn

    Hmmm. In the days since reading Mr. Shirky’s essay, I’ve been looking forward to a trenchant evisceration from Mr. Carr. And here it is. And it even uses the word “trenchant,” thus doubly-anticipating this post of appreciation.

    I would agree with Shirky that playing WoW alone is somehow “better” than watching Gilligan’s Island (or “The Hills” or whatever) alone. But neither of these compares to sitting across from a table with someone and talking. Insofar as so many of the Web 2.0 products/services/widgets seem to foster a kind of pretend interaction to replace *real* interaction – and I do think there is a big difference – then that counts to me as the downside of the whole thing.

    Nick, I also found the “cognitive surplus” idea to be, uh, cognitively dissonant. But I think your editor’s note misses the fact that Clay was already making the same joke, so your italics are a bit like explaining the punch line.

  3. Chuck TV

    “There’s the television. It’s all right there – all right there. Look, listen, kneel, pray. Commercials! We’re not productive anymore. We don’t make things anymore. It’s all automated. What are we *for* then? We’re consumers, Jim. Yeah. Okay, okay. Buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen. But if you don’t buy a lot of stuff, if you don’t, what are you then, I ask you? What? Mentally *ill*. Fact, Jim, fact – if you don’t buy things – toilet paper, new cars, computerized yo-yos, electrically-operated sexual devices, stereo systems with brain-implanted headphones, screwdrivers with miniature built-in radar devices, voice-activated computers…”

    – Jeffrey Goines (insane character in the film “12 Monkeys” played by Brad Pitt)

    …man I love Terry Gilliam

  4. Nick Carr

    finn: You’re right. I thick-headedly missed the joke. I have removed the editor’s note. Thanks, Nick

  5. alexfiles

    First, I’m with you on this analysis of the Gilligan – Web 2.0 comparison. But that’s my intuition speaking, not my knowledge.

    You write, “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.” Well, that’s true, but that’s only because we don’t have any knowledge of the correlation between watchers of Gilligan’s Island and activists. 1968 also had the socially aware Star Trek, as well as Dr. Who, Mission Impossible, Green Acres, The Saint, Get Smart, and Dark Shadows. It’s possible the activists were watching Star Trek and the Saint, not Gilligan’s Island, or maybe all of the above.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying those who watched Gilligan’s Island couldn’t also be activists. My point is it’s lack of data that drives our inability to explain the coincidence of 1968 and Gilligan’s Island. The context of your remark could be read as implying a connection between them, rather than simply existing in the same time. (You may not have intended that, but it’s lurking there anyway.)

    Btw, glad you said Mary Ann. I would’ve had to unsubscribe if you picked Ginger ;-)

  6. George Geist

    Great piece, Nick.

    Today’s media, including the web, risk a segregation of diversity. I read/listen to my echo chamber, you to yours, and we have only a small amount of net-new information leaking through our self-imposed walls. That’s hyperbole — at least for now — but I do believe we’re headed in that direction.

    TV in the 60s, by virtue of having only three channels striving to reach the largest amount of people, accidentally made room for John Wayne and Tommy Smothers to share a single set of airwaves. Gilligan was the status quo, but metaphorically the subtle subversity of Star Trek was on next. Harvest of Shame was seen by most everyone, even though few would have said in advance that they wanted to see a documentary about farmworkers.

    Even us activists watched Gilligan. It was the one thing we had in common with the folks promoting the status quo — we all thought it was silly, but we could laugh equally about how superior we were.

    Good thing the Professor didn’t try to invent the Web. It wouldn’t have worked….

    Add another vote for Mary Ann.

  7. JonKnight

    Love your work,Nick.

    Gilligan wasn’t still producing in 1968. Perhaps if the network had let it run for one more year, assassinations could have been prevented, a different president might have been elected, the horrors of Kent State could have been avoided… who knows? If “Gilligan’s Island” had a qualudic effect which was that ubiquitous….

    BTW, Mary Ann FTW!

  8. Nick Carr

    I belatedly realized that, since I discuss Wikipedia in this post, I should disclose that I am a member of Encyclopedia Britannica’s board of editorial advisors. (Britannica does not have an article on Gilligan’s Island, though it does have one on Bob Denver.)

  9. ajolie1

    Maybe the reason so many people protested the war in the 60’s is that there was a DRAFT. Yes rich, educated people were being drafted. Who (age, income, ethnicity) is fighting the war today? How different would this country be if college students (women included) at top notch colleges were draft material? Don’t you think that the web would be put to even greater use to get us out of this rat hole, and that some of the great (wealthy) minds would actually speak out and create radical art instead of sitting on the sidlines worrying about whether they will work for Google or get into MBA school?

  10. PhilRack

    God this is the greatest blog entry I’ve read in a long time. TV has changed since I was a kid and we all we received were four TV stations including PBS. Face it, TV trivia is a pretty common theme at many cocktail parties.

    As Snaggle Puss would say, “Exit, stage right!”

  11. Clay Shirky


    Let me first agree with your principal judgement: I am indeed a proponent of the idea that the internet represents an important kind of liberation. As you know from Here Comes Everybody, I predict that the internet’s effect on society will be comparable to that of the printing press as an agent of change.

    This comes even with the caveat that there will be serious downsides (as there also were with the printing press.) I am not a cyber-utopian — I tell the story of the pro-ana movement, among other negatives, in the book — but I do believe that increased involvement in production and sharing of media by citizens will be a net positive.

    Let me also agree that my thesis does not explain 1968, but with two caveats: first, I did not set out to explain 1968, and second, your thesis does not seem to explain it either. Indeed, 1968 is generally agreed to be quite a remarkable year, unique in the period after the Second World War. Given the small N of a single year in a five decade period, the fact that the sitcom-consuming population nevertheless revolted is hard to explain in any way that creates a causal link between the two, given that no other year in that period even approximated that upheaval. It is similarly hard to explain why voter apathy was higher in the early 1990s than now if TV correlates positively with political engagement.

    (As an aside, I think that Slee is making a classic historical mistake, which is expecting repetition. People who view anti-war protests as the sine qua non of political engagement miss the fact that the Vietnam protests took place in an environment of silent public discontent. No such silence exists today — it is widely understood that a majority of the public opposes the war, and it is also visibly the case that the protests that did happen didn’t affect the current administration.

    I’d suggest that the paucity of anti-war demonstrations is best explained by the ineffectiveness of protest in an environment of open discontent and by a well defended administration, rather than by general political apathy. As a counter-example, I’d point to the 40,000 student walkout in LA in protest of proposed US immigration policy as evidence that protest culture is alive and well in circumstances where the protesters disagree with the larger culture.)

    Anyway, to the main theme, which is the effect of TV on the populace. Your list of the things we did other than watching TV is, I think, wrong in the manner of first approximations. This is the remarkable thing about TV, a thing I have always known but never fully struck me til recently: other than the hallowed activities of work, sleep, eat, there is no activity that has ever taken as much time as TV has.

    I grew up in a relatively rural environment, and spent the requisite time playing in trees and jumping the creek, but as much as I’d like to tell a story where that was the normal case in my youth, it isn’t true, for me or for society as a whole. There is not even a close second to TV watching as a sink for free time, so as charming as the activities on your list are, TV still represents the plurality of discretionary activity, and by a long chalk.

    There is, at the very least, a correlation between the rise of interactive media and, for the first time since the 40s, a year on year reduction in TV watched. I believe that this link is a) causal and b) good. The first is an interpretive judgement, the second a normative one; even the tiny bit of time directed away from TV towards other forms of engagement seems like a win to me, even when it is as ridiculous as the creation and dissemination of lolcats.

    You may disagree, but as I read your thesis, little of any import has changed with the advent of the web, which is probably the main point of our disagreement (and is, as you know, the thing I have the hardest time squaring with your book, which makes a BW/AW argument for the workplace that is, if anything, considerably starker than any claim I have ever made.)

  12. Tom Lord


    Let’s go over that paragraph at a time.

    First, nice product placement in the first ‘graph. Now, this isn’t just a cheap shot but relates to a theme of my criticism of you. You talk big about crowds doing stuff and, per the Colbert interview, you don’t acknowledge he role of ringmasters such as yourself. What’s a little product placement there other than throwing meat at a passive, TV-like audience.

    Second, of course you mention “downsides.” When you pander, you need to hedge.

    Third, there is a very strong argument that TV very much enabled the international happenings of 1968. 1967, you will recall, was the first live satellite broadcast to go around the world. All you need is love.

    Fourth, if you think that public discontent about Viet Nam was silent, one can only infer you haven’t consulted original sources.

    Fourth, you ought to give the benefit of the doubt here and frankly Nick is a little off here as well: the paucity of protest is in no small measure because of the paucity of actual dissent. Many people are alarmed about the prosecution — bu behind the effort.

    Fifth: you are making stuff up.

    Sixth: you are making stuff up.

    Seventh: (lolcats and such): you offer no evidence of “better” and one can only note your conflicts of interest in pimping that moral hypothesis.

    Eighth: You apparently don’t read Nick with care.

    C’mon man: that is disgraceful. Let’s have a real debate.


  13. Kevin Kelly

    Good points, Nick!

    But not good enough.

    There is indeed BW/AW just as there is BTV/ATV (Before/After TV). Does TV explain everything about the 1960s? No. But it explains a lot. 1968 happened not just in the US (where we watched Gilligan) but in other parts of the world where they had TV (but no Gilligan). Without TV there would have been no 1968. Part of the explosion of that year was due to the medium of TV itself, and the fact that everyone was watching it. A lot.

    Was TV liberating in the 60s? I think there was an element of liberation ignited by TV, but the cost of that element was the attention debt that Shirky talks about. BTW, TV is still liberating the rest of the world. There is a strong correlation between the arrival of TV in third world provinces and the demographic shift to smaller families. Women see role models on TV. But that’s another story.

    TV did not deliver all the revolutionary benefits many hoped for and some promised, but it is hard to discount its affect on our lives. I agree with Shirky that there was a huge sucking sound as TV became the dominant (not the only) pasttime. TV was a revolutionary force, but it had its heavy costs.

    I think the Web is likewise revolutionary. It doesn’t explain everything, and it doesn’t have to. It is not introducing the end of history. But like TV, I think the liberation that the Web produces also comes with a cost. Those costs are not emphasized by Shirky (or me), but they are real. The costs of participating in prosumerism on the Web will be significant — and different than the penalty of TV consumption, although many will confuse it with that.

    I can’t speak for Clay, but I think he would agree with me on this. So why doesn’t this temper and dull our huge enthusiasm for the freedoms that the web is engendering?

    Because even knowing there will be huges costs (even if we don’t know exactly what they are), they are dwarfed by the new freedoms.

    Would I have “permitted” TV to spread around the world Before TV, aware of the harm it would do to the brains of a generation? You bet!

    So it is now. I will gladly pay the costs of the web (bomb recipies, twitter, cell phone obsession, fragmentation of truth, etc.) to have the liberation of the web. The real question, which I think you close your piece with, is what will those costs be?

    You worry that “the Web is not an engine for social activism but an engine for social passivity.” That is possible, but I think it is too early to tell. It doesn’t feel that way to me.

    You say the web hasn’t yet produced — and therefore may be incapable of producing — a 1968 yet. But that may simply be because in web years it is only 1961. In 1961 there was not much evidence at all, anywhere, that seven years later we’d have 1968.

    To keep the TV metaphor, if we line up the invention dates of the web and TV, as of today we haven’t had our Gilligan’s (web) Island yet.

    And when it comes, it ain’t gonna look like a sitcom.

  14. Seth Finkelstein

    Regarding: “You may disagree, but as I read your thesis, little of any import has changed with the advent of the web, which is probably the main point of our disagreement”

    How about this formulation: The things that have changed do not pre-determine either good or bad social outcomes. And web-evangelists are prone to exaggerating former and minimizing the latter, in emotionally appealing but factually unsound marketing stories.

  15. mark liversedge

    Hi Nick,

    With you most of the way. I do believe that it is wrong to compare the 60s with today and suggest that we are less or more prone to activism, or more or less organised.

    Look at the Olympic torch demos or anti-Iraq demonstrations. Maybe we are more desensitized to mass participation and activisim or maybe it has become more of a mainstream activity. To argue there is less of it is folly, IMHO.

    I could also argue that the emergence of so many activist movements in the 60s was a product of timing, AW.

    I personally believe that the Web experience for many is a conversation rather than a collaboration or participation. People are using the web to publish and share ideas and knowledge much more than to organise and take action. That’s not to say that activists aren’t using the internet and websites to organise themselves but they are exploiting the tech rather than enabled by it.

    Mmmm, on reflection I’m not sure now if I’m agreeing or disagreeing with you.

  16. Phil

    I couldn’t get past the bit about the Industrial Revolution. I’d love to know who that historian was.

  17. timbauer

    First off, Mary Ann … girls like Ginger are too complex for a simple guy like me.

    Secondly, Nick is one of my favorite writers … but in this case I would side w/ Clay in that I would agree TV consumes far more time than people realize. In addition, I think it was insightful to point out that, like gin, it was the best drug for the moment.

    On the flip side, sometimes I suspect the web is just the new drug (distraction). I wrote my thoughts in more detail around what Clay said here:

  18. Nick Carr

    as I read your thesis, little of any import has changed with the advent of the web, which is probably the main point of our disagreement

    Clay: That’s not what I wrote, and it’s not the main point of our disagreement. The main point of our disagreement here is your assertion that not only has the form of self-expression changed significantly in the wake of the Web (true) but that the quality of self-expression has also improved significantly (bogus). In order to make that case, you and the other liberation mythologists have to exaggerate the “badness” of the pre-web days and exaggerate the “goodness” of the post-web days. We see this in the caricature you draw of humanity sitting alone in a basement, passive and stupefied, and we see it (to take another example) in David Weinberger’s assertion that when we used to buy vinyl records we weren’t doing it for artistic reasons (as we stupidly assumed) but for purely economic ones.

    What I’m pointing out is that people were every bit as capable of living rich, multidimensional, interesting, creative, and “participative” lives before the web came along as they are today – and a lot of people did live such lives. And they often lived them even while spending considerable portions of their time watching TV or drinking gin or sitting in a lotus position intentionally frittering away their “cognitive surplus.” (There’s a creepy kind of neo-Puritanism at work in your calculations of how productively we’re “deploying” our “cognitive surplus,” but that’s a different story.)

    I think Tom Slee is making a similar point. I don’t see anything in his piece that suggests he is guilty of “expecting repetition” in history; what he points out, and backs up with actual historical examples, is that the phenomena you suggest are unique to the post-web era were actually common in the pre-web era — and in forms that may in fact turn out to be superior to those we see today on the network. If anyone’s guilty of “expecting repetition” it’s you and Kevin Kelly, with your essentially faith-based assumption that because (a) the printing press and/or (b) the television were on balance positive developments, then we can expect that every new media or technology will similarly be positive developments on balance. That’s a religious view.

    You suggest that anything people do on the web is “good” while any time they spend watching TV is “bad.” (You say, for instance, that creating a lolcat is inherently a more productive use of brain capacity than watching a sitcom.) That’s a distortion, even when judged by your own terms of “consuming” (bad) versus “participating” or “producing” (good). There’s a reason that the Web is often referred to as “the greatest time-wasting device ever invented.” It’s because people are fully aware of the fact that they spend a whole lot of time goofing off on the Web. I think you’d agree that if you analyzed the total amount of time humanity has spent online, you’d find that the vast majority of it has been spent “consuming” stuff, not “producing” stuff. (And feel free to include the creation of lolcats in the producing category.) Therefore, to give an honest accounting, you really need to add the “web consuming” time to the time people still spend “consuming” TV. Once you do that, I think you’ll find that the arrival of the Web has not reduced the time people spend consuming media but increased it substantially. It marks a continuation of a cultural trend, not a reversal of it.

    I still think such calculations would be silly – people goof off; get over it – but at least they’d be accurate rather than fantastical.

    But the important question, as Kevin notes, is how, exactly, the web is changing us. Is it really making us more active citizens, or is it giving us a pleasing sense of activity while in fact increasing our passivity? Is it tempering our consumerism, or is it redefining more and more of our activities in consumerist terms? Is the time we spend creating lolcats replacing the time we used to spend watching Three’s Company, or is it replacing the time we used to spend reading good books or having real conversations with real friends? Are we sacrificing engagement with real, local communities in order to take the less socially risky route of joining bloodless virtual clans?

    I don’t know what the answers to these questions are, but I know they’re not simple answers. I know they can’t be boiled down to a facile faceoff between “TV” and “Web.”


  19. Nick Carr

    May I just add, so as to avoid any confusion, that I don’t believe I ever actually watched an episode of Three’s Company. I’ve wasted my cognitive surplus in some pretty depraved ways, but I do have some standards.

  20. Ed Cone

    Mary Ann — that argument broke out (again) just this week at my blog.

    No disrespect to lolcats, but a better illustration of Clay’s point would be his quantification of Wikipedia-writing and teevee watching:

    So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project […] — represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human 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.

    Of course we were creative and interactive before the web, and of course both Nick and Clay are too smart to follow either argument to some point of reductive foolishness, but I’d point to this thread and the essays that provoked it as a point in Shirky’s column.

  21. Tom Lord


    That is a common last-refuge for the Web Theologists: basically to claim, without consideration of context, meaning, or consequence, any and all on-line communication as “supporting evidence”.

    Maybe there’s a “falsifiability” way to look at it. Is there any non-corporate on-line material that you think would not serve as support for Shirky’s point? And, if not, then doesn’t Occam suggest his main point boils down to “gosh, there’s a lot of stuff on-line”?


  22. Tony Healy

    Another point Shirky overlooks is that television was not actually a completely passive activity. Television as a medium sparked a revolution in news gathering and reporting, and viewers, as a community, can be said to have participated in that revolution, albeit via proxies.

    It was during the rise of television that reporters dispensed with their previous deference to authority and started challenging government and business spokesmen in interviews. Probably the revenue from TV gave reporters the power to adopt that new independence. The visual nature of TV also exposed authority to greater scrutiny both in letting viewers see personal evasion, and letting them see the reality of war, as in Vietnam.

    Television also exposed people to science and other cultures, and contributed to a greater social dynamic and middle class ambition. So I agree with Nick that Shirky’s representation of television is simplistic.

    On the other side of the coin, too, web communications is not necessarily mind expanding. A lot of blog communication is just self-reinforcement, even verging on witch hunts and groupthink.

  23. Tom Lord

    A lot of blog communication is just self-reinforcement, even verging on witch hunts and groupthink.

    Hello, Clay!

    (As long as I’m the snarkiest voice in the comments, I may as well double down.)


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