This past Thursday night, I was delighted to be a guest on the Seedlings’ show on EdTechTalk, hosted by Alice Barr, Bob Sprankle, and Cheryl Oakes. My daughter, Sarah, joined us for the conversation and chimed in with both her ideas and questions for other participants. Near the end of the show, Bob asked me a question I’ve been asked a few times in the past: How do you find all the time to publish what you share? I fumbled around for an answer, and ended up saying something about MarsEdit (my favorite offline blogging software) and the value of creating and sharing for my own learning, long term memory, and digital archive of ideas (this blog.)

I don’t think that was a very good answer. A better answer, and much shorter one, would have been similar to the message of Clay Shirky at the Web 2.0 Expo in April 2008. The answer I SHOULD have given to Bob was this:

I don’t watch much television.

Note in this answer I am NOT saying I do not watch ANY television. I do. But it’s in very, very small quantities and not very often. Apparently I am not alone in this behavior pattern. Shirky discusses (in part one and part two of his talk) how we, as a society, now have a tremendous “cognitive surplus” of time on our hands which we have largely spent watching sitcoms and other television programs in the past few decades. Since the industrial revolution, Shirky contends alchohol and sitcoms have taken up a lot of this surplus. That is now changing, and this is a fundamental shift in the way people choose to interact with media and with each other.

According to Shirky, Internet-using folks in the United States watch, today, an aggregate total of approximately one trillion hours of television per year. That is a LOT of time. Just think of how many hours of time were spent this past Saturday in the United States, watching college football both “live” and on the television. We’re talking about LOTS of heartbeats, when you add them all together.

Vancouver triathlon

Media, says Shirky, is a triathlon. In the 20th century, it was mainly a marathon for most people: and the activity was consumption. Generally the more media that was produced, the more media people consumed. We’re now living in a day of three hundred television channels in many North American markets. Where are people getting all their time to do different things like play World of Warcraft (WOW) or edit WikiPedia? We’re not seeing a majority of people today engage in these activities regularly, just a small minority, but given that HUGE aggregate amount of time spent watching television even a one percent change in behavior results in BIG numbers of hours spent on the “other” two events in the triathlon of media: producing and sharing.

Shirky shares a clever story at the end of his talk about a four year old who was poking around behind her family’s television. When asked what she was doing by her parents, she responded, “I’m looking for the mouse.” What many four year olds know today, but many school superintendents and school board members may not, is that media worth spending time on is media which provides opportunities to PARTICIPATE. This is another layer of the answer I wanted to give in my last post, in which I discussed the reasons I’ve left commenting turned ON for my daughter’s popular YouTube video. “This audience” online wants to participate, and EXPECTS to participate. These are the same students sitting in desks, arranged in rows, in our classrooms each day. Teachers and parents are wondering why kids are so bored in school today, and many students are wondering, “Where’s the mouse?”

Don’t just take my word for it, give a listen to Shirky (via YouTube) if you’ve got about 17 minutes to spare. The ideas he shares are worth your time.

Read (and listen/watch) more from Clay Shirky by subscribing to his blog.

H/T to Will Richardson for continuing to discuss Shirky and how important his ideas are for understanding our changing media landscape today.

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  • http://www.cheryloakes.com Cheryl Oakes

    Wes, thanks for continuing the answer! That was exactly my point when I asked Sarah a series of questions about how she prepares to write a story, vs. how she prepares for her Cooking Videos. I loved her answer, I practice in my brain. Our media rich environment and our media guzzling youth interact differently than we did and we do. We educators need to offer different ways and accept different ways for our youth to create. Thanks so much for Sarah’s explicit answers and for teaching us more.
    Cheryl

  • http://www.apaceofchange.com Damian

    This is the /exact/ answer I give whenever I get that question (which is fairly frequently). My kids are still little, so they’re in bed by 7. My wife and I may watch one or two DVRed shows, and then she usually goes to bed between 8 and 8:30. I’m much more of a night owl, so figure I get minimum 2.5 hours a night to myself to consume, reflect, and produce. 2.5 time 7 days a week = a minimum of 17.5 hours per week.

    I’m not saying it’s all spent 100% productively (we all need some time to zone out and recharge), but it’s still a significant chunk of time in which I continue to learn, grow, and contribute. I’ll take that over reruns any day.

  • Sue King

    I had many thoughts about this as I watched and digested Shirky’s presentation. In thinking about how we are educating our students and how I have seen various aspects of people’s ability to participate, share, and produce in so many different realms (political events, sporting events, etc) – I grow concerned that we lose sight of our need/obligation to TEACH students how to really listen, understand perspectives of different people, to analyze, to reflect, etc. I still want people to read an entire book or watch an entire movie and take in what the producer of that piece was trying to communicate – without interrupting the author with their own opinions and thoughts – they should have them (we try to teach students to “interact with text” by making notations in margins or on sticky notes as they read) – but they also need time to be reflective and to think before they speak and react.

    Instead, I see the danger of further promoting what seems to be a growing narcissistic culture, judgmental culture, and a culture in which people cluster in silos with shared beliefs, opinions, or ideologies. Should we not also spend time “consuming” – if it is done thoughtfully? Although I am an ardent supporter of technology and its power to break down walls and allow communication across the world, I also see the risk in increasing the factions and the divisions – people ONLY interacting, sharing, and producing with others who hole the same beliefs or responding to others who have different beliefs in hostile and aggressive ways. I think it is critical that we explore ways to develop the skills and benefits of listening and being open to others’ perspectives; of being able to hold and understand more than one perspective. In our fervor to embrace the 21st century tools, we should put as much time and energy into empathy, tolerance, acceptance, and the benefits of diversity.

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    I agree, Sue. In my work with educators and students in oral history projects, I’ve found the interview process is MUCH more challenging for most people than the technical / point and click aspects. This gets to what you are saying, I think: We need to explicitly help others (and practice ourselves) the art of listening, thoughtfully processing, and reflecting. These acts don’t come naturally for many. We should not expect them to.

    I think this metaphor of media as a “triathlon” is very helpful. I triathlete cannot merely run and bike. They also have to swim. Similarly, we can’t just produce and share if we want to be media literate. We have to consume as well. This new media landscape is not devoid of consumption, it is filled with it, but not to the extent it was in previous generations.

    I think your point about the need to practice reflective and constructive consumption, and listen to other perspectives besides our own in our selected echo chamber(s) is well said.

  • http://teachingcollegemath.com Maria H. Andersen

    I stopped watching television years ago and never looked back. Of course, it’s a bit easier when you don’t like to watch sports (which seem to require that you have a working television).

    Television just seems like a colossal waste of good brainpower to me. The laugh tracks, the 30-second “news” stories – how does anyone stand it? Now when I’m forced to watch TV (at restaurants and airports) it really grates on my nerves and makes me feel like humans have become zombies with respect to the media they consume.

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