(Weblogs and) The Mass Amateurisation of (Nearly) Everything…

09/03/2003

1// Before the world of the weblog was the time of the homepage. Back before we knew any better, it was the homepage that was going to transform the world. Everyone was going to have them. They were going to democratise publishing. Together we thought we were going to change the world. But we didn’t..

Ten years on from the earliest homepages, and we now find ourselves with weblogs. There are now hundreds of thousands of active weblogs in the world – quite possibly more than a million – almost all of them powered by simple content management systems with names like LiveJournal, Blogger, Movable Type, Bloxsom… There are webloggers in pretty much every country of the world. There are celebrity webloggers, expert webloggers, political dissident webloggers, prison webloggers… Weblogs are becoming “Enterprise Solutions”, they’re creating empires of “Nano-publishing”. Across the world, faster and more randomly than anyone has yet been able to track and collate, webloggers are linking, posting, trackbacking, commenting, aggregating and moblogging their way through the first days of the 21st Century. The world now finally seems to be changing, and weblogging is part of that process…

This is an exciting time to be engaged with this explosive community of people – and there are many intriguing debates about the nature, function and value of weblogging starting to emerge. Some are debating about whether weblog culture resembles hyperactive academic citation networks – does the “best” stuff rise to the surface? Others are asking questions about the politics of weblogs – if it’s a democratic medium, they ask, why are there so many inequalities in traffic and linkage? Others are talking about a ‘world-wide free-market in ideas’ – with all the benefits and horrors that suggests. Still others wonder whether we’re all about to sell out. A few say we already have…

These debates are heady and passionate and focused with laser-like intensity – and often they are valuable debates to be having. But their focus comes with a cost – we’re losing a sense of context – why should we care about weblogs at all? What makes them different from the dying form of the homepage? How do they fit into the wider context of emerging cultural and technological trends? These are important questions because they situate weblogging within a larger shift in the way we relate to the world around us. And in the process, they gesture at our future. Where do we go from here? Through the rest of this article, then, I’m going to try and explain how weblogging fits into the wider world with an eye to showing how weblogs may form a ragged centre for our small-scale personal creative endeavours. And – as a sideline – maybe I’ll be able to explain the relationship between weblogs and homepages…

2// Technically, weblogs are trivial – a reasonable programmer can assemble their own weblog content management system in a couple of hours. It’s nothing but a form on a webpage glued to a database with some templating tweaks. Wherever the animating magic might lie, it’s not there. Instead we have to look towards what weblogs and weblogging software accomplishes. Clay Shirky phrased it one way when he wrote an article called Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing. In his piece, he described the way in which weblogging simplifies the concept of “Publishing” to the point that not only is it now so simple that anyone can do it, it’s also so simple that there’s no way of making money out of it. Publishing has come to the masses… This idea – of a form of publishing that’s almost completely lacking in barriers and cost – is fundamental to an understanding of weblogging.

Another popular approach to understanding what weblogs ‘do’ is to compare the process of blogging to the mainstream print media. Under this interpretation, weblogs constitute not just a mass amateurisation of publishing, but a more rarified amateurisation of journalism itself. This approach highlights the possibilities of the form – that the combination of timeliness and super-lightweight content management means that the ability to comment and report on the world around us is suddenly within reach of everyone. The journalism argument is perhaps less convincing than the one concerned with simple publishing.

But what both of these attempts to understand weblogging have in common is this sense of amateurisation. They both argue that weblogging software constitutes a radical simplification of previously complex tools. Updating a website on a daily basis is no longer an activity that only a trained professional (or a passionate hobbyist) can accomplish. It’s now open to pretty much everyone, cost-free and practically effortlessly…

But it’s not just publishing or journalism that are going through a process of mass amateurisation at the moment. In fact over the last fifteen years or so pretty much all media creation has started to be deprofessionalised. We only have to look around us to see that this is the case – as individually created media content that originated on the internet has started to infect mass media. Hard-rocking poorly-animated kittens that once roamed e-mail newsletters (http://www.b3ta.com) are now showing up in adverts and credit-sequences, pop-songs written on home computers are reaching the top of the charts, weblog commentators in Iraq are getting columns in the national and international newspapers, music is being hybridised and spliced in the home for competitions on national radio stations. The whole of the mainstream media has started to look towards an undercurrent of individual amateur creation because of the creativity that’s bubbling up from this previously unknown swathe of humanity. Mass-amateurisation is EVERYWHERE.

3// So what is generating this explosion in unprofessional production? Fundamentally it’s because the gap between what can be accomplished at home and what can be accomplished in a work environment has narrowed dramatically over the last ten to fifteen years.

The first shift towards the mass amateurisation of everything arrived with a rise in the power of computers and a drop in the price of sophisticated software. Desktop publishing was the first professional tool to meet the mainstream – but it was never going to have a massive effect because the price of producing and distributing a magazine were always going to remain relatively high. You still need paper. You still need someone to drive your creation to all the news retailers. But while desktop publishing was never going to create a massive network of underground magazine publishers, its bastardisations in products like Microsoft Publisher and Word did set a trend that has been ongoing ever since – a trend towards giving amateurs tools at inexpensive prices that have all the power that professionals have become used to.

Today we have applications that are supplied free with our computers that allow us to assemble video footage into forms that can be burnt onto DVDs and played on our home televisions. Other free applications allow us to touch-up photographs or be our own DJ. There’s a vibrant culture in making animations with Flash or Director while for a few thousand pounds it’s possible to download enough high quality applications to record and mix music in the home – or even to compose it. Professional video-editing software and high-powered computers have dropped to such a price that now it’s possible to create broadcast-quality TV shows with little more than a DV camera, an Apple Powerbook and a copy of Final Cut Pro… Weblogging software is an almost trivial example of this process – but while the technology that lies behind weblogging is more basic – the power it provides is just as real…

But it’s not only equipment that separates the professional from the amateur, it’s also access to information. The dramatic increase in available information constituted the second shift towards mass amateurisation (and was the first that the internet provided). Suddenly it became effectively effortless to research information online and to connect with communities of people interested in the same things. Film-makers could meet one another, animators find out each other’s tips and tricks, audio-professionals could learn from and collaborate with their peers. Before the internet, large swathes of technical information had no accessible forum in which to be exchanged had previously been disseminated top-down via training courses, Universities and within industries. That remains true to an extent today but to a much lesser extent – today much more information is available to everyone – one way or another. This has had a parallel effect quite outside media production – helping to amateurise almost every field of human activity from fixing cars to fixing people. For good or ill, self-diagnosis tools, support groups and dedicated information resources are increasingly helping people to figure out what’s wrong with themselves and even (sometimes) to fix it.

The third shift towards the mass amateurisation of everything was another direct result of the creation of the internet – but now in terms of the distribution of amateur content. In terms of the written (or at least typed) word, the internet has already been the easiest, cheapest and potentially most targetted distribution channel for a good few years now. For webloggers, that’s enough – but for people creating video or audio content, it’s not. People producing video, audio, animations and the like need fatter pipes – greater bandwidth – to be able to show off their creations. Thankfully, they’re getting precisely that – broadband is making it faster to distribute personally generated content just as peer-to-peer technologies are making it easier. Inevitably, each and every day, more personally produced media content is appearing online and being distributed net-wide. This process shows no sign of slowing…

4// So where does the weblog fit into this picture? Weblogging software creates a highly effective and simple way of helping people create fully functional – if unflashy – regularly updated websites. In these respects it’s a clear parallel to iMovie and iPhoto – applications that help us make things. And just like the video and photography communities online, there’s a community of weblog enthusiasts who have been empowered by the internet to share tips, insights, new technologies and with whom one can engage in debate. And just like these communities, webloggers are distributing their content online. Our three drivers towards mass amateurisation are clearly making their presence felt.

But I think there’s more going on with weblogs than with some of these other forms of media. And I think to understand what that is, we have to return to the homepage. We have to see what has changed since publishing last claimed a mass amateurisation…

At the beginning of this article I wrote, “Before the world of the weblog was the time of the homepage. Back before we knew any better, it was the homepage that was going to tranform the world. Everyone was going to have them. They were going to democratise publishing. Together we thought we were going to change the world. But we didn’t.. “

But maybe we did… There’s not a lot of difference between weblogs and homepages in some respects. Both are spaces to put written content online, for one. But the fact that homepages had no sense of standard structure, required manual updating, were unbound from time and were resolutely non-discursive meant that they were static, lumpen. At their best they became monolithic tomes – bunkers for content, guides updated haphazardly that infinitesimally accrete “content”. In terms of the distribution of the word, the homepage was like a “Time Out Guide to {your name here}”. The simple addition of structure and mechanisms for ease of publishing have made the comparable form of expression on weblogs so fluid and quick that it borders on speech. In terms of self-representation, the homepage is like a statue carved out of marble labelled carefully at the bottom where the weblog is like an avatar in cyberspace that we wear like a skin. It moves with us – through it we articulate ourselves. The weblog is the homepage that we wear.

And this is the big leap forward – this is where the value of weblogs lies in the newly amateurised world. This flexibility of publishing creates a fluid and living form of self-representation, the ‘homepage (as a place)’ has become the ‘weblog (as a person)’ that can articulate a voice. And when there are a multiplicity of voices in space, then the possibility arises of conversations. And where there is conversation there is the sharing of information. And conversation about what? Well everything from music and movies and animation and medical information. Weblogs are becoming the bridge between the individual and the community in cyberspace – a place where one can self-publicise and self-describe but also learn, debate and engage in community. In other words, weblogs are not only a representative sample of mass amateurisation, they’re becoming enmeshed in the very structures of information-retrieval, community interaction and media distibution themselves. Weblogs are now facilitators of mass amateurisation. They’re almost becoming one of its architectures…

5// So what will we see in the years ahead? We can expect computer power and technology to develop at a similar – perhaps even increasing – rate. We can expect applications to develop and evolve, leaving legacy versions in their wake that become ever cheaper and which provide ever more creative power to the hobbyists and amateurs of the world. And we can expect the internet to bring more bandwidth to our home computers and (gradually) to other devices too. And this will bring an ever-evolving culture of amateurisation into every form of creative production (or at least those that require little in the way of capital investment). Whether or not this shift will result in an explosion of creativity or a debasement of quality remains unclear. What effects it may have on mainstream media is at the moment unforeseeable. But one thing is clear – at the centre of all of this amateurisation is likely to be the weblog or something very much like it – far from them most flashy or obvious of the technologies we’ll be using, but a place around which we can connect with our interest groups, learn new skills and distribute our creations.

As to the specific form the weblogs of the future are likely to take – and the ways in which they’ll directly connect to the other stuff we make and the communities that are generated – well we don’t know as yet… But maybe the tools and skill-sets needed to design them are starting to become mass-amateurised as well. If that’s the case, perhaps we’ll all be able to have in hand in their creation…

This article was originally delivered to Aula Meeting of Minds 2003 – Exposure in Helsinki on June 16th 2003 (pic).