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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

I have found the cognitive surplus, and it hates pigs

2008: Clay Shirky, outlining the basic idea that would become his book Cognitive Surplus:

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.

2010: Hillel Fuld, citing data from Peter Vesterbacka of Rovio, the Finnish company behind the hit game Angry Birds:

Another mind boggling statistic about Angry Birds, and you should sit down for this one, is that there are 200 million minutes played a day on a global scale. As Peter put it, that number compares favorably to anything, including prime time TV, which indicates that 2011 will be a big year in the shift of advertisers’ attention from TV to mobile.

Some math: 200 million minutes a day / 60 minutes per hour * 365 days per year = 1.2 billion hours a year spent playing Angry Birds.

Or, if Shirky’s estimate is in the right ballpark, about one Wikipedia’s worth of time every month.

Just a lighthearted reminder that, even if the lure of the connected digital world gets people to skimp on the Gilligan’s Island reruns, that doesn’t necessarily mean their replacement behaviors will be any more productive. They could instead bring an ever greater capacity for distraction and disengagement and slingshot precision.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a couple more levels to get three stars on.

[Aside: Note that Angry Birds still has a long way to go to catch up to television: 200 billion hours a year vs. 1.2 billion hours. And the TV number is U.S. only, while the Angry Birds one is global.]

What to read next
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Marshall Kirkpatrick

    I know! I was looking up a bunch of complicated, historical stuff on Wikipedia today and I was thinking, “if only all those people could rip themselves away from those damn birds and pigs – these wikipedia entries would be so much better!”

  • Marshall Kirkpatrick

    Sorry, I mean to put a smile and wink emoticon at the end of that comment. It’s a thought provoking set of numbers for sure.

  • gregorylent

    a diversion economy, and the “winners” should not be lionized.

  • The Mad Hatter

    And that’s why I:

    1) Quit watching TV
    2) Quit playing computer games

    when I started writing. It’s amazing how much time people spend glued to the boob tube.

  • Carl Spackler

    I see your point and I agree with your message, but your apples-to-oranges comparison (US TV watching vs. global Angry Birds) can be misleading.

  • Norik Davtian

    Thanks for sharing the analysis, very interesting data. Sad but facts are facts, what else to say. I wish there was a scientific justification about why the numbers are so odd for Wikipedia. IMO watching TV is something that could be multi tasked when eating food, cooking, jogging on treadmill or etc, but writing a Wiki article is not a multi taskable process.

  • malcolmspeakeasy

    People spend 17.52 trillion hours a year on sleep. The good news about those hours are that they are not available for the Devils mischief. One hour of good thought vastly outweighs a trillion hours of trash thinking.

    Just trying to be helpful. Beer time! :^)

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  • dave cormier

    I think that angry birds will do more for mobile than any other item. It is the tetris of the home gaming system market. was number seven on my top ten list this year :P

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  • Bobby

    Watch less TV ads, play more video games.

    Game Developer

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  • Peter Vesterbacka

    To put the Angry Birds numbers in perspective, Angry Birds is just one game, so comparing one game to the entire TV watching number is not the most appropriate comparison. If you compare Angry Birds to any individual prime time TV show, I think it will be very hard to find a show that can match the numbers and the engagement. The Angry Birds number is global, but about half of the usage is in the US alone. That said, we are seeing very significant shift in how people spend there time and that is about to have some serious impact on things like ad spending on TV. Will be an exciting year!

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  • Jonas Roberg

    Something to think on regarding international potential and future marketing! Remarkable!

  • Rcreutz

    What about playing Angry Birds while watching TV?

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  • BobD

    Yes, the Angry Birds number is global, but it’s only ONE App. Comparing to TV which contains hundreds of shows. Better comparison would be time spent on all mobile apps vs TV.

  • BobD

    Yes, the Angry Birds number is global, but it’s only ONE App. Comparing to TV which contains hundreds of shows. Better comparison would be time spent on all mobile apps vs TV.

  • BobD

    Yes, the Angry Birds number is global, but it’s only ONE App. Comparing to TV which contains hundreds of shows. Better comparison would be time spent on all mobile apps vs TV.

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    i’ve been outside, it’s overrated

  • digg hot shop

    that’s amazing movies with a clear dialog submit your site

  • Simon

    thought provoking article, but it’s quality not quantity that counts when it comes to thought.

  • Anonymous

    wow, there are some *serious* leaps of logic being made here, in the particular academic hothouse of Neiman Labs…

    Look at the bigger picture:  we don’t have the “cognitive surplus” we had before the economic crash, simply because there are more people out of work and need to now get paid for the things they used to give away for free..

    think about it:  it’s probably part of the reasoning behind the ire expressed by people who used to write for HufPo for free….

    Further, people being out of work for long periods of time = people totally stressed out.  They are looking for something to keep their minds engaged beyond the stultifying pap of reality shows that populate today’s tv landscape.

    Not to mention that Angry Birds engages the mind in interesting ways:  one has to look for patters and visually determine trajectories that will not just get the pigs, but destroy the structures too.  One can advance just by killing the pigs, but if one wants to get the highest score, one has to destroy the structures too.  So, the brain is as active and engaged as much as it is distracted from what one cannot control.  

    I’ve just about had it with the whole “cognitive surplus” thing.  as i said, we don’t have it any more.  We have foreclosures and a rising gas prices and growing unemployment.  We don’t have time to be farting around giving away our labor for free.  We have time to look for jobs, as much as we can (there’s a limit there, too) and then we want to simply have some fun.  Angry Birds isn’t taking anythign away from the cognitive surplus.  it’s just fun in a time when fun is in short supply for a lot of us.

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  • Peter Harmer

    My maths may be letting me down here, but here goes anyway:

    It looks like a massive number, but if you break that down across the entire world’s population (which I know is obviously flawed) it equates to everyone taking a 10 minute break to play Angry Birds once a year.

  • J Dys

    I watch TV while playing Angry Birds


    Can anyone out there help me find stats on sponges (those soft things that fit in your hand), so I can compare them to stats on Mt Everest (that big pimple on the planets surface)? :)

  • Jen

    Everyone should read Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they can change the world

  • MnM

    ok…call me crazy, but this article totally just made me want to whip out my iPad and play a session of Angry Birds…#addict

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