Corinna @ Plinky pointed me to a Clay Shirky talk from the Web 2.0 Conference in April, which I missed. In his inimitable style, Clay uses back-of-the-envelope math to quantify what might be called the participation gap, a term (I just came up for lack of anything better) to describe the difference between where we are at any given point of time and a world where we are fully leveraging the architecture of participation.
Clay’s main point is that much social surplus is trapped in countless hours of passive media consumption.
So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of 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. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.
Think of the participation gap as the opportunity cost of passive as opposed to active, participatory engagement. Not all passive engagement is bad and not all participatory engagement is good but it is hard to argue that there is an imbalance.