Studying Creativity in the Age of Web 2.0: An Interview with David Gauntlett

The expansion of participatory culture and its relationship to the emergence of Web 2.0 is a theme which has run through my recent work, but it is also a key concern for researchers thinking about everyday creativity in all of its historical and contemporary forms. Over his past several books, British scholars David Gauntlett has been asking researchers to think more deeply about the nature of “creativity” and its place in our everyday lives. Gauntlett’s exploration is central to his most recent book, Making is Connecting:The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, which I read recently with a sense of encountering a kindred spirit with whom one can have productive disagreements (as surface later in this exchange) and from whom one can draw core insights.

Part of the richness of this book is its expansion well beyond the sphere of things digital to place grassroots creativity and DIY tinkering in a larger historical and philosophical context, one which will be valuable in helping to further clarify the core point that Web 2.0 is simply one model for thinking about what happens when more people have the capacity to produce and circulate media and other cultural materials.

Gauntlett’s accessible and engaging writing is a gift, all the more so given the urgency of his message. All of the above come through loud and clear in this interview, which I will run over the next few installments of my blog.

Let’s start with something very basic – the title of your book, Making Is Connecting. What do you mean by making? By connecting? What do you see as the relationship between the two in an era of networked computing?

Well, I’m using these words in their recognised senses – I don’t believe in making up new words, or jargon, for things that can be expressed simply. So, by ‘making’ I simply mean people making things. This can be with new technologies, or ancient ones, and can be on the internet, or offline. So it refers to James knitting a scarf, Amira writing a poem, Kelly producing a blog, Marvin taking photographs, Michelle making a YouTube video, Jermaine doing a drawing, Natasha coding a videogame, or hundreds of other examples like that.

And ‘connecting’ means social connections – people starting conversations, sharing reviews, providing information, or making friends. But also it refers, for me, to a connectedness with the world which we live in. So I say ‘making is connecting’ because you put together ideas and materials to make something new; because creativity often includes a social dimension, connecting you with other people; and because I think that through making things, you feel more of a participant in the world, and you feel more a part of it, more embedded – because you are contributing, not just consuming, so you’re more actively engaged with the world, and so, more connected.

I think this is almost always the case, regardless of what technology is being used, and was the case for centuries before we had a global wired network. But in an era of networked computing, which you mentioned, I think that these benefits are amplified, and many new opportunities and connections are enabled. Creativity didn’t begin with the internet – far from it. But in an obvious and well-known way, the internet enables people to connect with others who share their interests, regardless of where they live in the world – whereas previously, geography, and the practical difficulties of finding people, made it far more difficult to have conversations with others who shared niche interests.

Having easy access to people who share their passions means that individuals can be inspired by each other’s work and ideas – which can lead to a positive spiral of people doing better and better things and inspiring more and more activity by others. This could happen before the internet, in clubs and societies, but it would tend to be slower, and the inspiring inputs would most likely be fewer, and less diverse.

Across your past couple of books, you have been working through a definition of “creativity.” What is your current understanding of this concept and why does understanding creativity seem so urgent at the present moment?

Well I never wanted to get bogged down in arguments over a ‘definition’ of creativity. But in Making is Connecting I do put forward a new definition, basically to provoke a conversation around how we think about creativity, and to shake up the consensus which seemed to have formed which casually accepts and cites the definition put forward by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about 15 years ago. That definition emphasises that creativity is some kind of novel contribution or innovation which makes a visible difference within a domain of expertise, or in the wider culture. So it’s a definition of creativity which requires us to focus on the outputs of a creative process; and then it actually goes further, and says that those outputs don’t really count for anything unless they are recognised and embraced by a significant or influential audience.

Now, Csikszentmihalyi developed this definition for a particular purpose, for use in his sociological study of the circumstances which enable creative acts to be recognised and to flourish. So it’s fine for his own purposes, and he clearly didn’t mean any harm. But now, because Csikszentmihalyi is a well-respected expert in more than one area, widely cited in academic papers and featuring strongly in Google searches in this area, his definition pops up in all kinds of other contexts where someone wants a definition of creativity to put into their talk, article, or presentation.

So the unintended consequence is that creativity is increasingly likely to be understood, these days, as the generation of innovative products which become popular, or at least widely recognised. Now, that is one kind of creativity, but as a definition it seems much too narrow.

One problem is that it runs counter to our common-sense understanding of ‘creativity’, because it is far too demanding. I’m sure you can think of quite a few friends or colleagues whom you would say were ‘very creative’ – and you would really mean it – and yet they have not invented a new process which has revolutionised the field of architecture, and have not written a novel which sold over a million copies, nor done anything else which goes over the very high bar set by Csikszentmihalyi. But you still really believe that these are creative individuals. So that’s one difficulty.

Another problem is that this now-standard definition is focused on outputs. Indeed, you can only assess creativity in this way by looking at the outputs of a creative process. I wanted to shift the conversation about creativity so it was more about the process, not the outcomes. But I also thought it was weird that this Csikszentmihalyi perspective on creativity meant that you literally could not say if something was creative or not without consulting an external system of experts or publications. Someone might show you an amazing work of art, or an invention, or a new way to do something, and you might exclaim ‘oh that’s very creative!’, but in strict Csikszentmihalyi terms that would be inaccurate, unless this thing had already become influential or successful.

I talk about all these issues at some length in the book. But I arrive at a definition which emphasises the process of creativity, rather than outcomes, and prioritises feelings rather than levels of external success. It’s a bit long. It says:

Everyday creativity refers to a process which brings together at least one active human mind, and the material or digital world, in the activity of making something. The activity has not been done in this way by this person (or these people) before. The process may arouse various emotions, such as excitement and frustration, but most especially a feeling of joy. When witnessing and appreciating the output, people may sense the presence of the maker, and recognise those feelings.

I also did a shorter one, trying to make it a single sentence:

Everyday creativity refers to a process which brings together at least one active human mind, and the material or digital world, in the activity of making something which is novel in that context, and is a process which evokes a feeling of joy.

This shorter definition is OK, although for the sake of brevity it misses out some bits that I thought were quite important. But in both cases you can see I have emphasised emotion – even the word ‘joy’, which comes through strongly in interviews with makers. They are not filled with joy all the time of course – creative work is often experienced as hard and challenging – but you get moments of pride and accomplishment which make it all worthwhile.

Understanding creativity is perhaps no more or less important today than at any other time. But we do see, I think, an explosion of visible, accessible, shareable creativity online, which it is interesting and important to study and understand, and which is so diverse, and done by people just because they want to, that I wanted us to have a working definition of creativity which embraced the key dimensions of this work – rather than sniffily dismissing it because it had not yet won awards, gone global, or made an auditable impact.

In particular, I was very taken by your claim that “creativity is something that is felt, rather than something that needs external expert verification.” Can you spell out a little more the internal and external dimensions of everyday creativity? On what basis, from what perspective, can it be appraised?

Well as you can tell, I’m not so bothered about an understanding of creativity which can be counted or quantified. So it’s a bit like ‘happiness’. On the one hand, as economists and social scientists have found quite recently, happiness is perfectly measurable – you can do large-scale surveys which ask people to say how happy they are with their lives, on a scale of one to five, for instance, and then you can compare with other data and variables, and build up a picture of the self-reported levels of happiness in different groups or areas, and the factors which are correlated with them. Those statistics are really interesting – and indeed I use some of them in Making is Connecting to show the importance of personal relationships and creative projects. But of course, this data doesn’t tell you anything about what happiness feels like.

I think creativity is in the same boat. The most important thing about it is what it does for the person doing the creating – the sense of self-esteem, the sense of doing something in the world, being an active participant, feeling alive in the world – these are all feelings which are reported by people who make things in the physical world and, with striking similarity, by people who make things online. But the things they make are also important – those are the things which, at first, connect us with others, which say something about ourselves, and which perhaps contain ideas or inspiration which will make a significant difference to our own or other people’s future experiences of the world. So the internal and external dimensions of creativity are both important, but I would say that the most important thing is just doing it.

You suggest early on that the key question you want to answer is “Why is everyday creativity important?” I’ll bite, why is everyday creativity important?

I think there is a tendency to think of everyday people’s acts of creativity as ‘nice’, on an individual level, but insignificant, in social or political terms. So it may be personally pleasing, or emotionally rewarding, for someone to make a toy for their child, or to maintain a blog about their everyday experiences, or to make some amusing YouTube videos, or to record and share a song – these all sound like ‘nice’ things, and nobody would really want to stop them from happening – but they are not considered to be much more than that.

And as you know yourself, Henry, there are people who work on the more obvious, formal ‘political’ issues in media and communications studies – government broadcasting policies, or the business practices of multinational corporations, or the impact of political advertising on public opinion – and they would not recognise an interest in everyday creativity as part of serious or proper critical study.

But I think these acts of everyday creativity are extremely important. You can cast them as just ‘a nice thing’ for individuals, and normally they are a nice thing for individuals, but they are much more than that. Every time someone decides to make something themselves, rather than buying or consuming something already made by someone else, they are making a distinct choice, to be an active participant in the world rather than an observer or a shopper in the world. And through the process of making, they get to enjoy, as I’ve said, that sense of purpose and connection, and satisfaction.

Taken one by one these are all small things, seemingly insignificant moments; but when more and more people make more and more choices like this, and then also when they go online to amplify and inspire further activities, it builds up to something really big, and powerful.

David Gauntlett is Professor of Media and Communications at the School of Media, Arts and Design, University of Westminster, UK. His teaching and research concerns people’s use of media in their everyday lives, with a particular focus on creative uses of digital media. He is the author of several books, including Creative Explorations (2007) and Making is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0 (2011). He has made several popular YouTube videos, and produces the website about media and identities, Theory.org.uk. He has conducted collaborative research with a number of the world’s leading creative organisations, including the BBC, Lego, and Tate.

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