Studying Creativity in the Age of Web 2.0: An interview with David Gauntlett (Part Three)

In talking about Star Wars Uncut, you touch on an issue very important to my own work – can we build creativity onto borrowed materials? Does it matter if those raw materials are physical objects (recycling of trash or driftwood, say, as the basis of new artworks or fabric scraps as the basis for quilting) or media content (as in many forms of fan productivity)? How would you situate fan culture within the larger logic of DIY Media?

Ah, this is interesting – this is where I think my priorities might be a bit different to yours, Henry, perhaps. Of course there’s lots of lovely, amazing stuff out there made by fans. I talk about Star Wars Uncut in the book as one of the things that led me to reflect that the kind of tangible joyfulness involved in the process of creativity, which you can get a sense of in its outputs, is more important than the empirical originality of the outputs. Star Wars Uncut is a project by fans to remake Star Wars in 15-second chunks. There’s a huge amount of inventiveness on display in the many different kinds of animation and recreation which fans have used to produce this amazing patchwork, and it’s the funny little homemade details that make it especially touching.

Star Wars Uncut “The Escape” from Casey Pugh on Vimeo.

But the thing that I don’t like about the emphasis on ‘fans’ as the new generation of creators is that they are inevitably positioned as, to some extent, subservient to the producers of the big, mainstream (or at least industrial or professional) media thing or things that they are fans of.

So on the one hand, the fans do very clever, very creative things within their fan practice. But at the same time, they are not the ‘ultimate’ creators, but instead take their inspiration from the successful professional media producers who are, in this sense, the ‘ultimate’ creators. So it seems a bit of an odd emphasis to me. There’s so much wholly original stuff out there in the DIY/online creative world, and I think the focus on ‘fans’ may tend to feed the egos of professional media producers who feel they are the rightful creators of original content – the kind of authentic creative work that ordinary mortals could not make and which such mortals could, at best, only be ‘fans’ of. Do you know what I mean? As advocates of a new, alternative participatory culture, I don’t think we should always pick examples that are derivatives of, or in some way dependent upon, the offerings of the traditional established media.

Henry Jenkins: We may have to agree to disagree on some of this. Yes, fans are not the only form of participatory culture out there and part of what I love about this book is that you really engage with a broader array of DIY practices. For me, participatory culture would refer to any form of cultural practice which is open to a broad range of participants who have access to the means of cultural production and circulation. My own work has focused primarily on fans because this is a form of cultural production I have been tracing — and engaging with — for more than thirty years, but in my forthcoming book, Spreadable Media, we deal with a much wider array of participatory culture communities. Sites like YouTube and Flickr and Etsey have certainly increased the visibility of these other sites of grassroots production. Fans interest me because they inhabit the intersection between the old media culture and the new and thus they illustrate the contradictions of a moment of media in transition. But I am not saying that they are more creative than any of a range of other communities who are similarly transitioning from the pre-digital to the digital.

That said, I do not see fans as “subservient” to commercial media, any more than I see any artist as “subservient” to the raw materials out of which they construct their art. So, let’s imagine a range of different DIY makers. One of them works within a genre and builds on its established icons and their encrusted media. One reconstructs historical artifacts and thus builds on the crafts of the past. One works within a tradition and thus starts from a set of practices inherited from other crafters. One remixes existing media content and thus builds upon the meanings and associations contained there. One takes discarded coke bottles as physical material out of which they construct something new. For me, there is nothing fundamentally different about these processes. All are working with the resources they draw from the culture around them to create something new and distinctly theirs.

I am purposefully avoiding assigning high or low cultural status to these practices because any of the above could end up in a gallery space or a crafts fair or fan convention in the current context and any could be posted online. Cultural hierarchies work both to make fan production “less valuable” than, say, the work of a postmodern artist dealing with the same materials or “less authentic” than a traditional craftsman doing, say, “primitive” art about Biblical characters.

As critics, we may be interested in these objects from many different vantage points. A media scholar might be interested in what the fan work says about the program to which it responds, but I might also be interested in the relations between the fans and leave the commercial producer out of the equation altogether. I might, for example, studying how different DIY communities pass along craft and knowledge from more experienced to newbie participants, and in that study, the sources of the raw materials are going to be less important to my analysis than the sources of the knowledge being exchanged between participants. But in terms of whether the participants are being “creative” or not, these differences in source materials are not that important to me.

David Gauntlett: Yes, you’re right of course – everything builds on some things that have come before, whether it is ways of using materials, or styles and genres of creative work, or the elements and practices of storytelling. I certainly did not mean to suggest that fans who make stuff within an already-existing narrative are ‘less creative’ than other makers. It was just that it means that the grand narratives, or the powers to create original story universes, remain in the hands of traditional media. But no matter. As you say, creative fans are just as interesting as creative anybody, and working at the ‘intersection’ between old and new media can be especially revealing.

I was struck by the passage you quote from Ivan Illich: “A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenges known.” It struck me that you could swap out “educational system” with “communication system” and come up with a pretty good definition of what I and others call participatory culture. By these criteria, how would we evaluate the current state of web culture?

I agree, it’s a good aspirational definition of participatory culture, or for the Web in general. We are not there yet, but the potential is still there. Some commentators write as though the Web has already been entirely taken over by the big commercial companies, such as Google, or that Web 2.0 has been entirely absorbed by them as a profit machine. I would really hate for that to happen. But to act like it has already happened is, in a way, giving up, I think; and reveals a lack of awareness of what’s really going on.

Yes – you offer some sharp criticisms in the book of some contemporary critical studies work which has seen Web 2.0 largely if not exclusively as a form of exploitation. How would you situate your work in regards to current debates about “free labor” in the digital economy?

Well basically I argue that those people who are only interested in saying that Web 2.0 is about the exploitation of free labour are making a category error, and using an exclusively economic lens where that actually isn’t the best way of understanding what’s happening. Someone who makes an original music video, say, to share with their friends, and with anyone else who wants to take a look, and who chooses to do so by putting it on YouTube, a convenient and free platform, is hardly being ‘exploited’ in the way we would normally use the term in a Marxist analysis of labour. Obviously those services do seek to make profit from the advertising revenue, and from the value of the user data that they capture, on the back of stuff provided for free by users. But users themselves see it as a decent bargain – the site hosts your material for free, and enables you to engage with a community around it, and in return it gets to keep that associated revenue. In most cases, the value associated with any particular video or other piece of content will be very small, and it is only when it is multiplied by millions of other bits of content that it becomes a viable business.

These arguments create confusion about what Web 2.0 is about. A really great, archetypal example of Web 2.0 in action would be if there were an encyclopedia which was entirely written by users around the world, writing about the things that interest and engage them, and collaboratively editing it to make it get better and better. And it would be owned and run by a non-profit foundation. What an outrageous and unlikely idea! But that already happens, of course, and it’s called Wikipedia.

Another archetypal example of Web 2.0 in action would be if an international consortium of organisations – such as, say, a collaboration between the Library of Congress, and the British Library, and perhaps the BBC, and some of the great European museums or cultural institutions – would set up and support, but not interfere with, a non-commercial platform for creativity, along the lines of YouTube, where people could share their creative works, comment and rate the work of others, and form supportive groups and communities of practice. That one hasn’t happened yet, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t.

Web 2.0, or participatory culture, is not inherently commercial, and it might be healthier and more reliable in a non-commercial environment. One of the best things about non-commercial Web 2.0 services is that they make those comments about ‘exploitation of labour’ immediately redundant. The critics of the commercial services are not entirely wrong, but they are missing the most important thing that’s going on.

You have discussed, in your work, theories of education. What kinds of educational practices and values do you think will best prepare people to participate in the world you are advocating?

Well, unsurprisingly, I favour educational processes which are about students exploring for themselves, asking questions, being curious, tinkering, and learning through making things. One inevitably thinks of that point made by Ken Robinson, in his very popular TED talk online, that we are meant to be preparing young people for the future but not one of us knows what that future will look like. What we do know is that people need to have powerful ‘learning muscles’, as Guy Claxton has put it, which means that they need to be creative, and questioning, and they need to be resilient – which means that when things go wrong then they are not crushed by this event, but instead know that things going wrong is a normal part of life and something which you can learn from. As educators we should model learning – in other words, show that we ourselves are learning all the time and are engaged in any number of ‘learning projects’ at once.

One thing I have been learning recently myself is how to make a Kindle book. Amazon enables authors to self-publish Kindle books, but the process is not quite as easy as you might expect, if you want to do it properly. For instance, to make a logical table of contents file I had to learn some XML for the first time. I became proficient in HTML fifteen years ago when you had to make Web sites by hand using Notepad, the standard function-free text editor in Windows. But I’ve shied away from trying to master XML – until this new challenge came along. I like new platforms for self-expression in general, and this is one I wanted to crack. Kindle books aren’t restricted to people who own Kindle devices these days – there are free Kindle readers for iPhone and Android phones, iPad, PC, Mac, Blackberry, and probably soon for your toaster.

This looks like a complete aside, but actually is relevant because I have pieces on both the content of what I think media and communications studies should be about, and also on how we should try to orchestrate learning about it (you see I avoided saying ‘teaching’ there), in my new Kindle book which I am publishing in August 2011. It’s called Media Studies 2.0, and Other Battles around the Future of Media Research, and pulls together some previously published but uncollected writings, and some new stuff.

Thank you very much indeed, Henry, for inviting me onto your blog to be interviewed. It’s an honour to be here and I have really enjoyed it.

Links:

Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, site for the new book (May 2011) with extracts and videos

• Media Studies 2.0, and Other Battles around the Future of Media Research, new short Kindle book (August 2011):

Amazon USA: I ($7.90)

Amazon UK: (£4.80)

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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