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From the Editor: Participatory Culture Is Not Communism

Even people who have never owned a computer (and still think Al Gore invented the internets) know that the web is changing society in dramatic ways. They know that there's this newfangled thing called "participatory culture" that's causing folks to do the darndest things; things like writing publicly about their sex lives (or worse, writing about their public sex lives.) And most people know that Time magazine recently named us its "person of the year." Thanks to the easy availability of information, people are dabbling in all sorts of things. Even old fashioned activities such as knitting and farming have become hip pursuits. But behind the scenes, especially in professional circles, a backlash is brewing.

That backlash is most vocal in the creative sector. Writers, photographers, graphic designers"--all of them have watched as the buyers of their work (web sites, magazines, etc.) have turned to vast legions of amateurs for material. It's a phenomenon known as "crowdsourcing."

The crowdsourcing paradigm rests on the availability of a huge crowd, enabled by the free availability of tools and information, which is willing to create content for free. Sometimes these amateurs are lured in by prizes for top entries (even the government has gotten in on the crowdsourcing game as evidenced by DARPA's Grand Challenge contest for a computer-navigated off-road vehicle) but often they will generate content simply because they enjoy doing so... because they feel they have something to offer and they want others to see it. Naturally, crowdsourcing also generates a swath of terrible content, but if the crowd is large enough, brilliant gems will always emerge.

It's easy to see why this is a scary model for creative professionals. It seems to threaten their livelihoods. Many have spoken out against crowdsourcing, arguing that reliance on amateurs leads to substandard quality and an eventual end to their professions. Andrew Keen, a dot-bomber who failed in his attempt to make a business out of the web hype of the 1990s, has written a book called "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture." Keen writes that "Web 2.0 worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone "-- even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us "-- can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves. Web 2.0 "├▓empowers' our creativity, it "├▓democratizes' media, it "├▓levels the playing field' between experts and amateurs."

And this, he argues, is not a good thing. This new "leveling of the playing field" is, in fact, nothing more than the latest incarnation of communism, a Marxist assault on our American values and culture.

I can understand the notion behind his reasoning. Participatory culture is rearranging the old order. It's toppling old structures and new ones have yet to clearly emerge. For those occupying the old buildings, these amateur newcomers can only be seen as a destructive force. But they're not.

They are, in fact, builders of a new kind of audience that will be the ultimate venue for the works of talented creative professionals. The destructive work of the crowds is a necessary clearing away of a system that equated access to tools with talent. It's also, and this is the important part, a clearing away of an audience that has been conditioned for vicarious entertainment.

This realization came to me on a bike ride with friends. We were discussing our general dislike of traditional ball sports like baseball, basketball, and football, trying to rationalize how we could have such disdain for those sports, but still have an appreciation for bicycle racing. We concluded that our disdain had nothing to do with the various activities themselves, but rather, with the audiences that watch them.

Ball sports fit nicely into the old audience model. Emphasis has long since been shifted away from any direct correlation between participation in sports and watching sports. Football fans who haven't held a football in thirty years will put on a jersey and feel like they're out there on the field. If their team wins, then they won.

Whereas for us, watching bicycle racing on television is a bit different because we ride. Bike racing has not been marketed as extensively as traditional ball sports in the U.S. and therefore attracts an audience primarily of amateur participants who watch not because they live vicariously through the accomplishments of the top riders, but because they want to witness the amazing refinement of an activity they themselves enjoy. For an amateur participant, watching the pros is the recognition of an incredible feat and the relation of that feat to one's own experience. This is a powerful form of appreciation. As one of my friends on that ride said, "When I hear that lance Armstrong averaged fifteen miles per hour through the Alps, I know what that means."

Knowing what something means is paramount to appreciating it. And that is why participatory culture will ultimately be good for creative professionals. It's building an audience of people who will know what it means to create great writing, great paintings, and great film. In the same way that more bike commuters will lead to more people watching the Tour de France, more citizen journalists and citizen farmers will lead to a greater appreciation for (and subsequent market for) the amazing output of professional journalists and farmers who spend their lives advancing the state-of-the-art in their respective professions.

Participatory culture is not communism, it's freedom"--freedom from a marketing campaign that has long told us to just sit back and watch. But the professionals need not worry. Their services will soon be in demand once again, only this time, the audience will demand real talent, and will pay for it not just with dollars, but with a deep, meaningful respect because participation, breeds appreciation.