Amateurism, Individualism, and Collectivism

Videos of Chubby Kids

A storm has been a’brewin’. It’s about the wisdom of crowds, or according to Jason Lanier, the lack thereof. I won’t be so simpleminded as to say that “one side favors group thinking” while the other “does not.” But both all sides of the debate realize that the distributed nature of the internet is having a profound effect on the production of knowledge, art, and culture. Some find the new model preferable to what existed before, others, not so much.

Not surprisingly, those who have found fame and success on the web are defending their most cherished playground. Those whose privileged positions are now at risk because of the flattened media landscape are eager to point out the negative, unintended consequences of group-work and group-think.

I am a fan of collaborative culture. I am a fan of amateurism. I value content over its creator1. I despise hierarchies. I thrive on synergy. I believe that ten thousand watchful eyes do more good than a small editorial committee. And, dearest to my heart, I believe that thousands of volunteer amateurs can create a resource just as useful (despite their clear differences) as a few dozen, well-paid “experts.”

Yet, despite my own collectivist bias, I think that Lanier makes some very important points, among them:

  • We are so intoxicated by the thought that a Wikipedia article, Boing Boing link, or YouTube video was made by ordinary people, just like us, that we lower our expectations. (three of the most popular YouTube videos so far involve a dancing chubby kid, a chubby kid falling into a creek, and two guys arguing on a bus).
  • Aggregators are better funded than content creators. Floating in a sea of noise, we become dependent on islands of aggregation (Digg, Google News, del.icio.us/popular, Newsvine, Boing Boing, Global Voices) to guide us to the gems. Our dependence on those sites ensures their funding (either by investment, grants, or ads). But the people who make the actual content, the heart of the artichoke, go unpaid.
  • The more people who work on a single project or web page, the more distributed and hazy accountability becomes. When Global Voices links to a blog post that makes a false claim whose fault is it? The original blog post author? The regional editor who linked to it? The managing editor who didn’t catch the mistake? The casual reader who did catch the mistake, but didn’t take the time to leave a comment pointing it out? Who should take responsibility? Who is accountable?

I’ll even add my fourth point, unmentioned by Lanier, and that is: we become more concerned with the process of content distribution than with the content itself. (Which is why I typically despise writing posts like this one) The most popular blogs and active conversations on the internet are nearly all focused on the topic of blogging. A presentation by Ethan on the Global Voices model, for example, always gets much more attention than the actual (and amazing) content on GV.

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Drunk Lawyers Dancing in Brazil

Those questions are not what took me to Rio de Janeiro for iSummit 2006, but as it turns out, the conference gave me insight into all three. iSummit is the annual conference of iCommons, which is the international umbrella body of Creative Commons. (My Global Voices report on iSummit is here). Creative Commons is two things: 1.) a legal framework which gives content creators (writers, musicians, directors, etc.) more flexibility in how they want to license their work and 2.) a movement of “commoners” that believe both culture and knowledge is, by nature, Hegelian. That is, the knowledge and the art we create is always influenced by, and based on, the artists and thinkers that came before us2.

As such, the Copacabana Marriott (an admittedly strange place for a Creative Commons conference), was filled with lawyers, artists, bloggers, and entrepreneurs from around the world. The one thing they we all shared in common was a desire to augment the public domain. A desire to encourage creativity, conversation, and deep thinking without unreasonable economic restrictions. A desire for artists to find success, distribution, and livelihood based on the quality (an ugly, subjective word3) of their work, not the whims of a talent scout or terms of a recording/publishing/gallery contract.

It was one of the most exhilarating and eye-opening weekends of my life. It gave me reason for optimism and focused my thinking on what battles are worth fighting for and what will inevitably work itself out.

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How to Make Money and Not Sell Out

It’s taken a really long time for new business to catch up with new media, but I’m convinced the two are close to shaking hands. Don’t quit your day jobs just yet, but I believe that within three or four years, your average “amateur” will be able to make a living doing what he or she loves most. If you are a photographer, you can submit your work to Scoopt and Shutterstock and get paid each time they are used in a magazine, newspaper, or website. If you’ve always wanted to direct your own film, but don’t have the connections with a hollywood production agency, who cares? Now you can. Make a movie about mentos and coke and get paid $25,000. Likewise, if you’re a writer, you can submit your essays, short stories, and novels and wait for the right editor to come across them, publish, and pay. If you’re bilingual, you can subtitle an indie movie or low-budget documentary and, if it gets picked up by a movie house, your bills will be paid for months. If you’re a musician, well, come up with a catchy album that people will bob their heads to, and let the internet take care of you.

And in each case, your only boss, the only person telling you if you’re doing well or not, are the consumers of your work. Of course, it will help if you make a name for yourself first. Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris are able to publish every single thing they write not because every single thing they write is incredible, but because they are Malcolm Gladwell and David Sedaris. To do that, you need people talking about you.

And that’s why a Creative Commons license is so important: because it says, sure, you can show my work on your own website or magazine as long as you don’t make any money and as long as you link back to me. But once someone turns a profit on it, I get my cut as well.

Or, if you don’t want to be the artist, why not be the editor? Find the undiscovered writing or music or film and start a recording label, or publish a book and find a way to market and distribute it.

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The Myth of Extreme Democracy

My biggest realization at iSummit was about the myth of extreme democracy, or, the notion that new tools (blogs, forums, online polls) will necessarily encourage more democratic, egalitarian governance. They can help, yes, but when you try to replace clear-cut rules and frustrating bureaucracy with mailing lists and blog posts, it only encourages undemocratic and opaque decision making.

Global Voices, for example is, on the one hand, literally run unfettered by a community do-gooding volunteers. On the other hand, it’s impossible for you to find out how much money we are given, how it is spent, how our regional editors are chosen, how our contributing authors are chosen, nor how we choose what to link to and what to ignore. (In other words, we pretty much run like any other publication) “It just sorta works itself out” was our decision-making model for the longest time. But as our website and community have both grown, it’s become apparent that specific policies and guidelines need to be articulated and followed. “Budgets, board of directors, weekly reports.” Boring! But necessary.

Global Voices began with an entirely sensible and idealistic idea: now that all these people are talking (writing) about their lives all over the world, why not create a space where we can all talk to each other, share our realities, transcend borders, learn from each other? Who would be in charge? The community. What would we talk about? Whatever we feel like. Who would make the leadership decisions? We all will.

Whenever we asked Rebecca and Ethan what the project should and should not be, their answer was always, “whatever you want it to be.” Likewise, as Becky Hogge writes, when Lawrence Lessig was asked the same question about iCommons in Rio, he offered the same vague response.

That model works well in small groups where group decision-making is possible, where it’s easy to get a feel for how each individual views a situation or dilema. But once a handful of people turn into hundreds, those blurry rules create a deafening silence of uncertainty.

We are far from the only online community having this conversation. And it’s because we are more than a community, we also make a product. The same is true with Debian, Mozilla Foundation, Wikipedia, and even iCommons4. We are all discovering that success necessitates hierarchies, clear-cut rules, procedures, and transparency.

The bad news: hierarchy is precisely what we wanted to avoid. The unattainable pot of gold was equal voice by every voice … and in that we failed. The good news is that increased organization, articulation of roles, and transparent policy will ensure our longterm existence in the 21st century media market. When bombs hit Bombay and when missiles strike Beirut, our understanding of those events won’t be bottlenecked by the understanding of a few dozen reporters. We will hear directly from those who ride the trains, those who tell their stories and their histories as the missiles come down.

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Footnotes so boring, you’re condemned to loserdom if you read them.

1.) Coincidentally, I finished reading Milan Kundera’s “Testament’s Betrayed” while writing this post. Kundera, the man with the mind I respect most. And yet, despite our similar worldview, we have some major differences when it comes to art and the artist’s moral rights. He claims:

The Modern Era made man – the individual, a thinking ego – into the basis of everything. From that new conception of the world came a new conception of the work of art as well. It became the original expression of a unique individual. It is in art that the individualism of the Modern Era was realized and confirmed, found its expression, its consecration, its glory, its monument.

If a work of art emanates from an individual and his uniqueness, it is logical that this unique being, the author should possess all rights over the thing that emanates exclusively from him. After a centuries-long process, these rights attained their definitive form during the French Revolution, which recognized literary property as “the most sacred, the most personal of all property.”

I remember the days when I was enchanted by Moravian folk music: the beauty of its melodic phrases; the originality of its metaphors. How are such songs born? Collectively? No; that art had its individual creators, its village poets and composers, but once their invention was released into the world, they had no way of following after it and protecting it against changes, distortions, endless metamorphoses. At the time, I was much like those who looked upon such a world with no artistic-property claims as a kind of paradise; a paradise where poetry was made by all and for all.

I evoke this memory to point out that the great figure of the Modern Era, the author; emerged only gradually over these recent centuries and that in the history of humanity, the era of authors’ rights is a fleeting moment, brief as a photoflash. And yet, without the prestige of the author and his rights, the great blossoming of European art in recent centuries would be inconceivable, and so would Europe’s greatest glory. Its greatest or perhaps its only glory, because if reminder is needed, it’s not for its generals or its statesmen that Europe was admired even by those it caused to suffer.

2.) It’s an epistemological question, but I have never been convinced that an idea, a story, a character, a canvas, nor a song has ever been so original as to deny any prior influence. In my book, no one can say “I created this, it is mine and only mine,” because any work is necessarily influenced by something the musician heard or something the philosopher read.

3.)One of the stranger characteristics of new media is that “quality” is no longer defined by reviewers and critics, but by the number of times an item is linked to. We no longer can rely on experts to distinguish between high and low culture. Instead we are doomed to the frightening prospect of either 1.) deciding for ourselves or 2.) trusting the anonymous crowds.

4.) Tom Chance has a very clear critique of iSummit, which echoes many of the same concerns of Lanier’s Digital Maoism and, unlike Lanier, offers concrete recommendations of what can be done to address them.

5 Comments

  1. Jaron Lanier is still around? What ever happened to him? He was supposed to be the next great visionary, spent a couple mil in VC funding on some ridiculous virtual reality headgear and then apparently disappeared off the face of the earth. In 1999, having dreadlocks and knowing how to use a computer meant instant VC cash. Thank god times have changed.

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  2. I think I am too tired right now to fully engage your ideas and thoughts. However, I am going to offer some random responses to what I just read:

    I always find it fascinating how people flock to places to discuss the public concern as if they were the voices of the public. For example, the No-Global meetings in Porto Alegre where the participants claimed to speak for those who have been disenfranchized by global capitalism. Most of the participants were rich kids from the industrialized world. Where I understand meeting to discuss the merits of Creative Commons etc., the people who stand most to benifit from these new forums and collaborative processes are those who cannot afford to head off to Rio and wax philosophically.

    Oso, you yet again reaffirm how we are products of our culture – even in our creative endeavors.

    I find the footnotes to be the most fascinating part of any text. The real gems of thought are always burried in the footnotes. But then again I am a geeky academic. So never mind…

    Maybe I will comment more if I ever get some rest and my brain once again functions somewhere closer to full power.

    Nonetheless, interesting ideas…

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  3. Yes. You’re getting warmer.

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  4. My blog is back… comment spammers hurted me… I am healed.

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  5. Indeed. It has been a while. We might address those occasions by saying something like “A long time ago, in a cantina far, far away…”

    As for my affinity to tech wizardry, I guess I just like to learn while I procrastinate ;-)

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