John McCann

Importance of communities

In Culture & society, Human nature, Video on March 30, 2006 at 1:54 pm

As evidenced in an earlier post, I have discovered the writing of Henry Jenkins and I will be writing more posts about his research, including this one. In a Technology Review article titled “Taking Media in Our Own Hands,” Jenkins focuses on the importance of supportive communities in spurring innovations by amateurs.

He uses an example of the filmmakers who use a Pixelvision camera that was marketed by Fisher-Price from 1987 to 1989, a $100 camcorder that was created as a toy for children. Although Fisher-Price abandoned the camera, it has become a tool for use by amateurs and avant garde filmmakers who use it. It seems to produce unique images that may only appeal to a small niche, but one that seems to be very enthusiastic. More information about the camera is available on the Internet, including this site.

Jenkins tells us how the Pixelvision camcorder provides a window into the grassroot communities that spring up around such tools.

Andrea McCarty, a graduate student in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, is studying the Pixelvision movement to better understand how grassroots creativity works. She told me: "Pixelvision's endurance and popularity prove that it was not a failed technology. The fascination with Pixelvision belies its obsolescence; collectors are seeking the cameras, artists are creating with them, technology fans are modifying them and fans are watching the films at the PXL THIS festival."

This is what a lot of us had hoped would happen in the digital age: the technology would put low-cost, easy-to-use tools for creative expression into the hands of average people. Lower the barriers of participation, provide new channels for publicity and distribution, and people would create remarkable things.

Think of these subcultures as aesthetic petri dishes. Seed them and see what grows. In most, nothing really interesting will happen. We can pretty much count on Sturgeon's law holding for amateur cultural creation: 90 percent of everything is bad. But if you expand the number of people participating in the making of art, you may expand the amount of really interesting works that emerge.

I have never heard of Sturgeon's law but I find it appealing because it rings true based upon my own exposure to the work of amateurs. If such amateurs work alone and in isolation from others doing similar work, they can easily become discouraged when others react negatively to their work, perhaps with comments such as "Who would want to watch THAT?"

And people working alone tend to encounter technical difficulties with their digital tools and have a major problem overcoming such obstacles. Jenkins provides insight into the importance of a community of people dong similar work with similar tools.

Amateur artists do best when they operate within supportive communities, struggling with the same creative problems and building on each others successes. Amateur creativity should be valued on its own terms, judged by the criteria of the subcultures within which these works get produced and circulated.

Such supportive communities were once limited to geographical hotbeds of activity. Today a community can form on the Internet and use its communication capabilities to provide support to other participants.

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