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Communications of the ACM


Clay Shirky: Doing work, or Doing Work?

Michael Bernstein

MIT Ph.D. student Michael Bernstein

photo by Jason Dorfman

MSN usability researchers were stumped. Their usability lab had tested just about every aspect of its MSN portal and had been pleased to find that it consistently scored higher than its competitors. Yet a user base didn't flock to MSN -- they simply could not attract and retain as many users as they wanted. Then Clay Shirky relayed the million-dollar question: Were these tasks that users actually wanted to do? Or were these highly usable aspects of the site going to remain unused because nobody wanted to use them? There was a gaping hole between usability and usefulness.

In a keynote delivered to this year's ACM conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), author and academic Clay Shirky captured this question in a distinction between work and Work. (Capital-W) Work is what we have considered for years: your boss tells you to do something, you do it, and you get paid. By contrast, (little-w) work is motivated by inherent interest and generally unpaid. Think of the difference between an Encyclopedia Britannica editor doing Work, and a Wikipedia editor doing work during spare hours. Big Work drives the economy; little work drives the Internet. Big Work builds skyscrapers; little work generates a half million fanfiction stories about Harry Potter.

Clay argued that user testing techniques developed over the past 25 years for Work no longer apply for work. We shouldn't be asking, "Can you complete the task?" but rather "Are you motivated to do it in the first place?" Excel needs usability testing because people are forced to use it for Work; technology for work instead needs to understand users' underlying motivations.

Extrapolating on my own here: usability is an important refinement technique when you have a good idea, but it is a horrible determiner of utility on a grander scale. (Sure, pay me $10 for a lab study and I'll use anything for an hour!) Usability is a local hill-climbing algorithm. We need techniques to make and evaluate that miracle motivational leap, whether it's derived from the design process or social science. Develop that and you could save thousands of man-hours developing tools that nobody will ever want to use.

I'm a Ph.D. student in MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, one of three graduate students who will be blogging this year's CSCW conference in Savannah, Georgia. CSCW is a premier venue for presenting research in the design and use of technologies that affect groups, organizations, and communities. We look forward to relaying the most exciting bits of research to you! (Also, personally, I'm glad to be in slightly warmer climes than Cambridge, Massachusetts.)


Joseph McCarthy

Thanks for blogging the conference! This is the first CSCW I've missed in 10 years .. and the first one that I won't be bloging about since 2004.

Clay seems like a good choice for keynote. Between your blog post and some of the related microblog posts (i.e., tweets, viewable via searching for "#cscw2010 shirky, I'm able to piece some of his points together.

His distinction between work and Work is interesting - though I find his choice of capitalization conventions curious, e.g., work I've read differentiating self from Self typically associates a larger sense Self with the capitalized version, and a smaller sense of self with the lowercase version.

In any event, Work may drive the current economy, but as more work displaces Work, I do wonder what will drive the future economy. I read a provocative article at the P2P Foundation on "Abundance Creates Utility But Destroys Exchange Value" (

I don't know if anyone asked Clay about the future of work, Work and the economy (or Economy), but I'm increasingly concerned that the increasingly pervasive expectation that information - and other products of creative endeavors - "wants to be free" that many knowledge workers and other members of the creative classes will "evolve" into a class of starving artists.

Michael Bernstein

Hi Joseph, nice points. I'd be surprised if "little work" actually displaced much of the economy --- it would be hard to get people to work an assembly line or draw up legal contracts purely from internal motivation. Little work seems to be more tied to hobbies, civic-mindedness and creativity than to required action. But, I agree with you that while the Internet has enabled a new generation of artists to reach fans they couldn't before (e.g., Jonathan Coulton) at the expense of making as much money doing it.

Fabian Pfortmuller

Hi Michael, great article, I've been thinking about similar issues for quite some time and posted a quick reply on my blog, check it out at

Ed Chi

Jared Spool, for years, talked about compelled shopping tasks, in which people were actually given money to buy things on internet sites, and could not. He really wanted to solve the usability problem, but also realized that decoupling the motivational issues with usability is difficult. Little 'w' work vs. Big 'W' Work suggest that we are going to have to dig much deeper into this issue than we had before.

PS: BTW, I tried to click thru to find all those Harry Potter stories, and I found 'only' 287612-ish stories. What gives? Did I miss a patch?

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