Genres of “Amateur” Content Production

As well as writing up my Masters thesis, I’m putting together PhD proposals (targeted to the research interests of various universities) on the topic of vernacular creativity and new media – the current version is here if anyone is interested.

In trying to work out the areas I might select as case studies, I’m putting together a list of genres that seem to be particularly active sites of vernacular creativity. That is, active in terms of the production of content, in terms of dynamic social networks, and in terms of their importance as key markets for software and hardware developers.

I’m very well aware that genre blending and mutation is very much a part of the way creativity works, particularly online – so making a list of discrete genres might seem a bit beside the point, but it’s a start:

  1. bedroom music production – a PC, a pair of headphones and some cheaply bought (or cracked) software can be used to produce dance tracks in a matter of hours (or weeks, if the pleasure is derived from the process rather than the product) and uploaded in seconds to any number of web portals for “independent” music distribution. Electronic music lists and bbs are overflowing with vernacular producers who discuss gear and give or receive advice.
  2. blogs – the obvious one. won’t insult my readers’ intelligence by explaining how important blogs have been to a shift in notions of professionalism/amateurism
  3. photography – like the bedroom dj, the “amateur” photographer is vitally important to hardware and software producers (and ancilliary areas like magazine publishing). The combination of cheap digital cameras, more sophisticated “consumer” level imaging software, better connection speeds and the fotoblog has shifted things into high gear, though, and the professional photography world is feeling the heat in a big way.
  4. illustration/cartooning/zines – I would obviously be quite mad if I didn’t find a way to work Jenny Everywhere into the thesis. Open content is an important aspect of creative networks that are unconstrained by professionalism (i.e. IP becomes a different ballgame when nobody is making money out of it).
  5. Filmmaking – ifilm was an interesting experiment in the possibilities for independent filmmakers (perhaps armed only with an idea and a handycam) to distribute their work (although similarly to mp3.com, the “amateur” producers have been sifted to the bottom and Hollywood is now used to lure the punters)…possibly doesn’t work as well in terms of creative networks, or open content, but I’m yet to really check it out.
  6. gaming obviously can’t be ignored, and is a key to more new media literate definitions of creativity, definitions that are more process-oriented and recognize interactivity, and that aren’t tied to the producer-product-consumer model

Suggested additions welcome.

The Amateur in History

Alex from Relevant History provides a nice counterweight to all the mass amateurisation hoopla, reminding us of what Wimbledon tennis commentators never forgot :

The notion that being a ‘professional’ is a good thing, and that professionals know more than amateurs, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the mid-1800s, being a ‘professional’ meant that you were a shill, a hired gun: you dealt in skill or knowledge rather than coal, but you weren’t that much higher than the collier. The people who had real credibility were amateurs.

He goes on to explain how and why. It’s entertainingly written, check it out.

[found via Public Opinion]

Democratising Technologies?

A landmark Clay Shirky piece that I’ve just caught up with – in a nutshell, he argues that the widespread adoption of ICTs has made the concept of (media) consumers nonsensical. It rests on some problematic “before” assumptions about media audiences, making the “after” picture even more vibrant – i.e. that we were a passive and silent mass before, whereas now, “there are no more consumers, because in a world where an email address constitutes a media channel, we are all producers now.” As always, though, it’s a vigorous but loosely woven argument designed more to spark open debate than to close the book.

This optimism is reflected in the “we media” school of thought, as represented by hypergene, who have just released a white paper on the topic:

The venerable profession of journalism finds itself at a rare moment in history where, for the first time its hegemony as gatekeeper of news is threatened, not just by new technologies and competitors, but by the audience it serves.

But it is questionable whether widespread popular access to the technologies of content production has resulted in any truly significant decentralisation of news thus far, according to Geert Lovink’s essay The Technology of News:

One of the biggest treats to the current weblog movement is branding and re-portalization. New media dishes out old media. This may be a truism but is there anything to be done about it? The inwardly turned postmodern theory may have developed a refined system of concepts, but these insights haven’t translated themselves into a general consciousness. News goes on being vulgar propaganda to most people. That’s that. At the same time everybody knows that there’s no truth hidden behind the lies. The intotainment wave hasn’t succeeded in taking away the unease. It is therefore a tremendous task to open up this deadlock and to come to new means of gathering news, presentation and distribution with the help of all available theories.

[Found via Metal Machine Music, via Anne Galloway.]

[And of course, we have to be sceptical of both the veracity and value of the term “democratization” anyway – have a look at the blogosphere ecosystem, for example, and note the identity groups, subject matter, and geographical locations of the “A-list” blogs]

Link Dump: Democratization of Technologies etc.

As my field of interest narrows again in response to the increasingly urgent requirement that I come up with a solid PhD proposal, I’ve been looking for blogs with a similar focus to what mine will be (soon, I hope). Here’s todays harvest.

Corante.com is a handy hub for several blogs hooked into the whole democratization/decentralization of technologies, “mass amateurization”, and participatory journalism nexus. Some of them are too far to the commercial side for my needs, but I particularly like this one:

Amateur Hour

Manifesto:

Mass media in the last half of the twentieth century turned us all into entertainment consumers; taking away much of our natural, human inclination to creativity as singers, pianists and storytellers. Who could be funnier than Carol Burnett or more charming than Johnny Carson? Will the nieces and nephews sit still for Uncle Joe’s guitar when they’re used to hearing Doc Watson or Eric Clapton or B.B. King? Why compete? Better to take a backseat becoming a passive consumer and sharing jokes from the previous night’s broadcasts around the water cooler. But as the twenty-first century dawns, mass media has fragmented, professional quality production tools have become desktop commondities given away with the purchase of a new camera. Paired with a dearth of innovative “professional” content these changes have led to a quiet, but quite real, revolution in the quantity and quality of “amateur” content.

Ideaflow is an eclectic mix of buzz, innovation, and both the commercial and social potential of blogs.

And it hardly needs to be said that Clay Shirky is always one to watch as well.

Jenny Everywhere

From the My Favourite Things Department…

A bunch of creative people have done something very cool with Tom Coates’ Open Source Comicbook Character meme (see here for the collaboration behind it all). The result is Jenny Everywhere, aka The Shifter:

She’s open source! She’s multidimensional! That’s right, the character of Jenny Everywhere may be used without permission by anyone. And you won’t have any continuity concerns with The Shifter, because… because she shifts.

Though the character of Jenny Everywhere is vague enough to allow for many different interpretations, there are a few things that define who she is. Do all these signifiers need to be represented? Absolutely not. But the fewer that you use, the less likely that your character will be recognized as Jenny Everywhere.

She has short, dark hair. She usually wears aviation goggles on top of her head and a scarf around her neck. Otherwise, she dresses in comfortable clothes. She is average size and has a good body image. She has loads of confidence and charisma. She appears to be Asian or Native American. She has a ready smile.

Not only that but she has very interesting powers, and she’s already used them in an (un)surprisingly wide range of amazing adventures. Go, grrl.

Cultural Value in the Age of “Mass Amateurisation”

Tom Coates’ insightful and focused article “Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of (Nearly) Everything“, and the followup by Tom of bbCity, have come at just the right time for me. For the last few weeks I have posted several short pieces on the social impacts of cultural profileration and the democratization of creative technologies, mostly concerned with music, but also touching on visual arts. What follows is a work in progress, an attempt to find a centre for some apparently disparate, but deeply related ideas about new and old technologies, the collapsing professional and amateur divide, and notions of cultural value or “quality.”

The democratization of technologies means that non-specialist practitioners (I won’t use “amateurs” because it does sound pejorative, but unlike some others, I am not accusing Tom of “kicking us in the guts” for using it) can create, edit and distribute digital images, music, text, and video cheaply and without enormous technical expertise (but, as Coates points out, this expertise can be gained more easily today than in the past through the use of online information networks). As we can guess from the behaviour of the wilfully obtuse and cranky print journalists’ move to stereotype blogging as a poor imitation of “real” journalism (see Kuboid for examples), the “mass amateurisation of everything” appears to threaten the monopoly on production previously enjoyed by specialists. I don’t see this so much as a literally economic threat however, but rather as a threat to social and cultural capital: a threat to the scarcity of expertise and authority. Thinking along similar lines, Matt Welch, in the time-honoured “fair and balanced” tradition, prefers to see bloggers as “alternative” journalists who may challenge and ultimately enrich the profession. In any case, it is clear that a view of bloggers as merely amateur journalists aspiring to professional status is an impoverished one. Bloggers and bedroom DJs may well stay “amateur”, as Clay Shirky writes, but there is something more interesting going on as well.

I would argue that the specialist art worlds move (again, consciously or not) to contain this threat by making distinctions between their own mastery of the technologies and discourses of production and the ‘mere’ consumption or unthinking use of them by consumers: you can see evidence of this even in some of the comments following Tom’s article. By insisting on their active mastery of technologies, the specialist producers disavow the their own status as consumers, while continuing to lay claim to the all-important characteristic of innovation (which, more often than not, entails the consumption of new technologies).

Some of these “strategies”, or less accusingly, patterns might include:

1. Insisting on the irreconcilable quality differences between consumer and high-end professional hardware and software tools; consumer products (cameras, synths, editing software, soundcards) characterised as simple, easy to use, cheap, but limiting, pedestrian, low quality results.

2. Lofi is King: minimalist aesthetics (e.g. constructing a project studio around one piece of software or hardware, and exploiting its “full potential”, hand-coding webpages, insisting on simple (un)design); the reversal of obsolescence (e.g. analogue hardware synths, pinhole or polaroid cameras, super 8 film)

3. Demonstrated command of the science/technological expertise/professional practices of sound, text, or image production, and insistence on its necessity for quality output.

4. Specialist artists abandon stylistic features that have been taken up by “consumer-producers”; familiar avant-garde moves towards the obscure, cryptic, unreadable, and intellectualisation of work

5. Insistence on uniqueness (e.g. never use a preprogrammed synth patch, a Blogger template or a Photoshop plugin without tweaking, hacking, or transforming it first)

6. Invention of new genres as critiques of source genres e.g. experimental drum’n’bass, refusal of 4/4 metre to prevent danceability (cf. Bebop vs. swing).

7. Playing the early adopter card, displaying historical, as opposed to (barely, in my case!) working, knowledges; emulating the techniques of retro classics (I not only like their early stuff, I can make sonic/visual references to it that insiders will get).

In the blogging context, web developer/journalist Adrian Holovaty’s comments about the “one-big-siteness” of weblogs (found via plasticbag.org) contain at least a couple of these:

I believe in my heart that people should come up with their own publishing methods. Frankly, it’s boring to surf the blogosphere and see so many sites using the same, tired weblogging tools. The same basic templates, the same “post a comment” form, the same URL schemes… It’s almost as if they’re all small parts of one huge site.

There’s also the Crutch Factor. I dislike cliche blog publishing systems for the same reason I favour hand-coding over using Dreamweaver […snip…]
Of course, I have a deep appreciation for how these tools have enabled hundreds of thousands of non-Web-developers to broadcast their ramblings on the Internet with minimal effort. But I have a much, much deeper appreciation for people who have taken the time to write a system for themselves. And as far as I’m concerned, people who do Web development for a living yet don’t use a custom-built weblogging system shouldn’t be trusted.

Emerging Art Worlds: Beyond the Professional/Amateur Divide

Viewed in their own terms, and not disparagingly from within the fortified worlds of established artworlds, what are the forms and functions of the new art worlds growing around non-professional practice (blogging communities, bedroom DJs, amateur photographers)? What are their systems of cultural and aesthetic value, i.e. what makes a good personal blog in its own terms?

Questions of Value

With so much stuff “out there”, the question remains for the most democratic of us: how are we going to sort through it all to find our regular reads or favourite listens? Now that the broadcast model of the internet is dead, now that the producer/consumer and professional/amateur divide is history, we need to find better and better ways to create our own cultural “nodes”, to build and maintain quality social networks based on shared interests and values (or mutually interesting values–hooray for diversity), without letting them proliferate beyond the point of all usefulness (see Tom’s Guardian article). There are interesting times ahead.

Follow-ups: Creative Networks: Smaller, Better, Smarter

Gatekeeping the Fruity Loops Revolution

Been thinking about the links between the new definitions of creativity, especially how creativity is increasingly tied up with technological innovation. At the same time the technologies used in creative production are becoming cheaper, easier to use, widely available to “ordinary” consumers. I’ve started to notice the strategies highly specialised areas of producers (the professionals) use to keep their heads above water when there is such an overwhelming and ever growing amount of “amateur” production, particularly in the digital media. Particularly, there is a lot of work going into making value distinctions between “authentic” specialists/artists, and lay practitioners (i.e. “mere” consumers).

A case in point from a recent post to a list for (primarily experimental) electronic musicians:

I think CDRs are the now the most destructive thing around other than MP3s. …music is becoming generic. Not just pop music (which has been generic for a few decades now), but all music. CDRs and MP3s blow apart tradtional distribution and remove those barriers to people releasing music. The problem is everyone is releasing music. And most of it is not very good. Add to this the ease of getting a cracked copy of Reaktor, Cubase or whatever and its a recipe for disaster.

Now that’s disturbing, but also interesting — a perfect example of the social strategies used by subcultures to protect their restricted field of cultural production, and all the (sub)cultural capital that goes with it. Another bit of evidence to support my arguments that high cultures are subcultures too.

Follow ups: Subcultures and Sonic Proliferation, Part 1

Invisible Artworlds

Howie Becker has proposed that we need to study “amateur” cultural producers in the same way (high) cultural sociologists already do: that is, as participants in art worlds that interact with other art worlds (e.g. co-determinous relationship between amateur, avant-garde, and professional systems of practice). The full article, written in his usual and somewhat brilliant no-frills style, is at Howie’s website.