How to Design for Everyday Creativity
Presented at “Showtime at the Dig Site”
Visual Critical Studies undergraduate symposium April 23, 2010
The nature of cultural communication seems to be in the process of a radical upheaval.
The centralized, one-way model of cultural dissemination that dominated the previous century, has in the past few decades, been giving way to a decentralized, networked model, made possible by the use of new technologies such as the internet and mobile phones.
Paralleling these developments, we have become increasingly captivated by the idea of audience participation. In the capacity of an interaction designer, I have studied many of the online interfaces developed to facilitate participation, and built a few myself. I want to question the assumption that the momentum generated by massive numbers of everyday creative individuals engaged in the production of culture is necessarily a progressive and liberating force. In this paper I will survey the current state of mass audience participation, and discuss some of it’s inherent problems and contradictions.
Today, it is common place to see ad campaigns like Cottonell’s Roll Poll, inviting us to effect an outcome through our personal engagement. Elsewhere, we vote for our favorite reality television contestants, post comments to online newspaper articles, and customize our personal profiles. These are just a few examples of a much larger and widespread trend toward participatory engagement in all areas of culture.
A number of recently published books and articles have set out to characterize, champion, and occasionally demonize this shift. New terminology such as Web2.0, Reality Television, Mass Customization, Relational Aesthetics, Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming, and Human Centered Design have arisen to describe this trend as it is manifested in various cultural microcosms. By all accounts, this participatory impulse is re-shaping the topography of contemporary culture and commerce.
In the introduction to the much cited book, The Wealth of Networks, published in 2006, Harvard Law school professor Yochai Benkler, succinctly voices the widely-held hope that the burgeoning networked information economy will serve “as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self- reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information- dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere”. Although this aspirational vision is not in itself objectionable, I am not sure that it is actually realizable given the context in which mass participation usually takes place, that is, given the nature of the systems designed to facilitate such participatory activities. In fact, as i will soon illustrate, this rosy sentiment can be used to obfuscate a potentially exploitative situation.
Most often, mass participation occurs within the delimitations of a branded space specifically designed to facilitate the production of user generated content. this process of reaching out and harnessing a large group of users is called crowdsourcing, a term coined by Wired magazine journalist Jeff Howe in 2006. In short, crowdsourcing, is where “you take a task once performed by employees or contractors, and you outsource it online to a distributed crowd of experts or enthusiasts through an open-call invitation to participate.” There are many varieties of branded crowdsourcing spaces, which I call sourceories.
Examples of sourceories range from knowledge sharing wikis, to social networks, to design competitions, to publishing platforms. Although they are most commonly found online, sourceories are by no means limited to cyberspace or mass culture. For instance, Sophie Calle’s “Take Care of Yourself” can be considered a branded space for crowdsourcing artwork. Similarly, Banksy’s “Designated Graffiti Area” is a sourceory for graffiti. Though numerous, I think that sourceories can be roughly lumped into one of two categories, collectivist or individualist.
Collectivist sourceories are characterized by mass collaboration, where participants contribute a small portion to larger communal project. Examples of the collectivist model include Wikipedia and open source software projects such as the linux operating system. Like with Wikipedia, contributers are largely anonymous, and content can generally be edited or overwritten by other users. The Collectivist sourceory resembles what we might imagine a successful socialist society to look like. Benkler Wrote the The Wealth of Networks, with collectivist spaces in mind. However, since the mid 2000‘s, and particularly since the recent economic crisis, a large number Individualist sourceories have sprung up, and today are by far the dominant of the two forms.
Individualist sourceories tend to have much stronger brands than their Collectivist counterparts. They pinpoint you, as a unique individual amidst a community of unique individuals who, like yourself, express themselves by sharing their own creations and opinions, or those of others. Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr are all popular examples of the individualist model. On sites like these, users construct a self-contained yet connected media empire, and vie with other users for social, cultural, and sometimes economic capital. The most cut-throat, and accordingly, the most controversial sub-category of Individualist sourceories, are crowdsourced competitions like InnoCentive, Threadless, and Crowdspring where only a tiny fraction of hopeful problem solvers are compensated for their efforts. In Contrast to the Collectivist sourceory, the Individualist variety appears to be much closer to a free market.
YouTube exemplifies many of the characteristics common to Individualist sourceories. Users are attracted to YouTube as a powerful way to express their creativity, and get their message heard. Like many other sourceories, access to YouTube, is free. To create an account, and start producing, you do not need expertise or credentials beyond a valid email address. Once your account has been created, you have access to YouTube’s powerful infrastructure, composed of both a slick user-friendly interface, and a legitimizing brand that contextualizes your content and helps drive traffic to your channel. By leveraging this legitimacy, each video clip has the potential to reach a far greater audience than would otherwise be possible for most users on their own. This benefit goes both ways. As content accumulates within a sourceory, the cultural legitimacy of that sourceory increases—it garners a wider audience because it has more to offer, and thus, is better able to empower it’s users. In this sense it can be said individualist sourceories like YouTube are also collaborative: by contributing content, you increase the sites legitimacy and as a result, indirectly support your peers.
However, this relationship may benefit the crowdsourcerer more than the crowd.
By using a sourceory, your labor increases the brand’s ability to generate revenue through advertising or sales. Like in the factory, the design firm, or the artists studio, collaboration within the sourceory tends to increase the organizer’s or administrator’s reputation and bank account. Unlike these traditional models, the vast majority of creative participants go uncompensated for their efforts. Furthermore, through the process of legitimizing their users’ content creation, sourceories complicate the notion of individual authorship. Who should receive credit for the products of crowdsourcing—the owner of the template that made the creation possible or the creator of the content itself? The legal side of this issue is handled differently on every site. The social aspect is even thornier. On Youtube, and other individualist sourceories, an author’s name is significant only as a search category by which viewers can find similar content.
As these issues reveal, there is an inherent contradiction in the current participatory trend, owing, at least in part, to a confusion between collectivist and individualist sourceories. While this trend celebrates individual creativity and self-expression, participation tends to strengthen the group and the brand more than the individual.
This is not necessarily a bad outcome. There are a lot of people in this world, and despite our powerful new network technologies and the limitless bounds of cyberspace, it may be impossible to empower everyone as creative individuals unless they consciously accept a significant degree of collective authorship.
However, when users strive to express their own individuality within a sourceory, they participate in constructing a hierarchy of creativity, in which the conceiver, or administrator of a branded space is able to claim more authorial credit than the creative laborers who carry out the vision.
In this new cultural landscape, it is not the creative classes who wield the cultural power, but the administrators, the curators, in essence, the shepherds of cultural production. As we make transition to an increasingly participatory culture, we must become increasingly careful of how members of this burgeoning administrative class tend to their flock.