CNet sat down with Howard Rheingold within SL to discuss his take on the overall virtual world and online community sphere. He sides with those who assert that the size of SL matters less than the quality of the discourse within:
As far as I am concerned, tens of thousands of people who are actively creating new stuff are more interesting than millions of more passive participants.
There’s something about this quote that bugs me, despite the great respect I have for Rheingold. And it’s this: is creating really more privileged than consuming?
I write. I compose music. I make games. I code. I draw. I am not all that unusual in that sense. Others knit, or they do watercolor painting, or they whittle, or they scrapbook… to be human is to be creating stuff. Even down the millions of people who doodle in office meetings every day. In that sense, to be creative is not really special. When we say to someone “oh, you’re so creative!” (something it sometimes feels like we stop hearing in high school) what we really mean is usually something subtler: that the person in question has a different angle on things, or just works harder at creating things, or has practiced it sufficiently to have more practical, applicable skills. Even the person we decry as “uncreative” is probably simply not in his or her sphere of expertise.
So on the one hand, nothing is special about tens of thousands of people creating stuff.
On the other hand — absolutely everyone is a consumer. In fact, often creators are the most voracious consumers. Few people read more than writers do — they get into writing because they love reading. Musicians love to listen to music. Knitters obsess over yarn. And so on. That’s part of how they get to be expert creators — a wide and deep appreciation of the field they choose to create in. And, needless to say, people consume outside of their chosen creative fields quite constantly. There probably isn’t a one of you reading this blog who doesn’t have a collection of something that you choose to consume in largish quantities: be it television shows, craft magazines, sci-fi books, or games. Even Rheingold himself;
I guess I’m an information junkie, so of course I have to feed on RSS for an hour every morning. And I wander wherever the links lead, stashing useful stuff in wikis and Delicious along the way.
All of this is, of course, an expression of the user content pyramid, which is usually expressed as “10% create, and 1% of it is any good.” But I’d like to propose an alternate extended definition:
In virtual worlds in particular, we’ve tended to have fairly narrow avenues of creation. This is ironic, because of course, in theory you can knit in a virtual world, you can scrapbook in a virtual world, you can code, you can sculpt, you can write, you can sing, you can, well, generate RSS feeds. But no virtual worlds actually let you do all of those things. Instead, they focus on specific tools, perhaps with the argument that they are foundational given the nature of online worlds: 3d modeling, texture mapping, scripting. Right off the bat this puts us in that realm of 10%… in comparison, when you take a step back from the real world, and see the real world as a platform and a tool, you an honestly say that 100% of the userbase is creating content.
In effect, getting a figure of 10% means that your platform is narrowcasting somehow — it’s knitting needles, not paper; it’s a soldering iron, not a whole tool shop.
There’s a longstanding debate in the world of the arts about whether one does it for oneself or for the audience. It’s a silly debate in some sense; the creator always does it for themselves, and sometimes what they are doing for themselves is trying to reach an audience. Every motive can always be made selfish in the end, if you dig deep enough. Creators often speak of being compelled to create.
It’s relatively rare, however, to encounter a creator who really truly does not care what the audience thinks. Oh, there’s plenty of posturing, to be sure, but everyone likes having approval from peers. The audience matters. It’s not accidental that we often judge creations based on their popular appeal. Sometimes the appeal is to more refined palates and sometimes it’s aimed at mass audiences.
In the end, though, we’re all looking for cool new experiences, because we’re always learning, we’re always enjoying the input of our senses. It’s a fundamental aspect of our natures. The millions do matter. We disdain consuming, and consumers, at our peril, because there is little creation in a vacuum. Creators need consumers, and are consumers. Simply wanting to log into a world and enjoy it is not a crime.
All this means is that when you look at a world and say “whether there are millions here or not matters less than whether there’s a thriving community of creators,” what you’re really saying is “check out the knitting club.” And I say that as a proud knitter, so to speak.