Participatory Media and Why I Love it (and Must Defend It)

I love participatory media, collective knowledge systems, user-generated content and the like, and spent much of my life and career participating in them and making them. As I say in this post from 2005, the internet is built on a culture of generosity -- the first web page I built was when I noticed there was no page on Nabokov and realized I could just make one. Amazing! And it dawned on me that every other page on the web -- this was 1994 -- had come about for the same reason. Then the dotcom thing happened. And then Web 2.0 brought us back to the web's roots -- communication and contribution. That is why I love participatory media and must defend it.

There are so many things wrong with Jaron Lanier's recent manifesto in the Wall Street Journal (excerpted from his book) that I hardly know where to begin. The self-proclaimed "father of VR" believes that people who don't get credit or compensation for their work are lesser, humiliated beings without dignity -- the work in question being such activities as saving a bookmarks to delicious, correcting spelling errors on Wikipedia, exposing one's listening history on, and the like. As the "father of VR" and a musician who has had various other occupations he has a particular lens through which he is viewing our latter-day participative media. He seems not to have built participative web sites, hailing from a Mondo 2000-era view of the world. For a non-participant all these new types of media would naturally appear to be what he calls a great "global mush". To discerning users of social media, you see what you deliberately select. The point is to filter out the noise, the mush. Obvious, no?

Systems such as Wikipedia, Flickr, Delicious, Facebook, Twitter, Hunch and various parts of the open source movement are based around small contributory systems, bodies of work in which there are incremental improvements by multiple contributors, or exposing small actions that would be insignificant in isolation, but are meaningful in the aggregate. These types of software and platforms are specifically designed for conversation and contribution. That is the point. There is no final product such as a book, movie, song or album. This method of creation would be pretty poor for designing a space shuttle or an ad campaign or writing a biography. There is no final product to which the epithet "design by committee" might apply. He is misconstruing goals.

He also appears to believe that quality is a zero-sum game. A bunch of amateur musicians singing in someone's living room take nothing away from Lady Gaga. There's a lot of tilting at windmills in this excerpt. I've never heard anyone assert, as he appears to think everyone in the digital arena is constantly asserting, that "collectives make the best stuff" -- quite the opposite. Everyone agrees that 99% of everything is crap, and no one is claiming Wikipedia's entries are better written than those of Charles Lamb or Edmund Gosse in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica (my favorite). But really, who cares? By sharing my (admittedly crappy) snapshots on Flickr, I'm not claiming to be Margaret Bourke-White. And my sister *likes* to look at photos of my dog. Who am I hurting? Should I charge a penny to look at my photo? Do I need a photo credit? No. If someone other than my sister admires my cute dog, they are welcome to do so for free.

Additionally Lanier does not understand that people do things for reasons other than bolstering their egos and making money. You shouldn't need a motivation or justification to correct spelling or factual errors on Wikipedia -- a certain desire for orderliness, good grammar, or truth should be sufficient. Those who enjoy correcting spelling and grammatical errors online -- I do -- are they thereby "robbed of dignity" as Lanier would have it? Of course not.

I could go on. I haven't touched on his claims that we're destroying innovation, or his implication that people who license their work with Creative Commons licenses or give their music away for free insist that everyone do the same. The open source software movement that could be mentioned, the free culture movement, or, frankly, any of the other many great things that are taking nothing away from auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard, and even Jaron Lanier. They're safe from the incursions of amateurs like you and me. Of course the word "Amateur" comes from the French word "to love". Good enough reason for me to participate. And you?