In defense of the content consumer

 Posted by (Visited 6223 times)  Game talk
Jan 162007

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:

Everyone creates, but only 10% do it in whatever tool you’re looking at right now.

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.

  18 Responses to “In defense of the content consumer”

  1. ’ll try to post links to Raph’s writing only when I have a full reaction to log (and not just a “wow, cool”). This should keep me from posting a link to everything. On using NWN for learning On consumer content (as opposed to user created content) On Viva Piniata On rich community tools for MMOs

  2. As one of your content consumers, let me say that I immensely enjoyed this post, I couldn’t have said it better. 🙂

  3. I agree with both of you. Creators and consumers have a symbiotic relationship and clearly most people are creating something or another. Also, the relatively passive act of hanging out in a guild and chatting with people, etc., IS content.

    That said, when looking at one of these games, yes it is the people actively creating and shaping that interest me most. Just as, say, blogs written by people who actually make games tend to interest me more than blogs written by those who just “passively” play them.

  4. Adding one more… let’s not forget that in many ways, participation in the world isn’t the same as passively consuming a creation. Our decisions, our acts of expression, our interactions with our teammates all are a form of creative process that we bring to a game. We all create a little content each time we log in. It may not be persistent or extend beyond a small audience, but it’s real.

  5. […] 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. […]

  6. Every motive can always be made selfish in the end, if you dig deep enough.

    Try arguing in favor of egoism in any philosophy course. You would be likely shunned by the students and mocked by the professor. I know this to be true from experience, thrice. For some odd reason, philosophers tend to not have a firm grasp of psychology; yet, they continue to prescribe their notions of humanity to the entire world.

  7. philosophers tend to not have a firm grasp of psychology

    As an untrained philosopher, I just want to say that I get around this by redefining the “self” part of selfishness. 🙂

    I liked the post, but nothing to add.

  8. I would take your argument a step further: In online spaces, content consumers aren’t just there to provide creators with an appreciative audience, but are actually a vital part of the content itself. Even when you don’t talk to the other players in an MMORPG, their mere presence is enough to set it apart from a single-player RPG in a way that the most cleverly scripted NPC can’t simulate. YouTube becomes unnavigable without “most viewed” rankings. Amazon can’t build its network of product recommendations without a zillion people generating transaction history. All of these environments would collapse without the presence of “passive participants.”

    On top of this, there are fewer and fewer passive content consumers every day. People chat and dance and gank in MMOs; they rate videos and leave comments on YouTube; they write user reviews on Amazon. Consumers may not be knitting or soldering the big pieces of the worlds we see, but they are generating vital content that enriches those worlds.

  9. Rheingold isn’t (necessarily) condemning consumers. He’s just saying that he finds in-game creators more interesting. That may be simply because he shares a common interest with them. I find, say, scientists more interesting than knitters, all else equal, but I don’t think knitting is a crime.

    As for creator vs consumer, I think the real issue is “contribution”, not “creation”. A useful metric for my contribution might be, say, the number of other people I affect, times how much “goodness” I bring each one. (Goodness can, of course, be negative!) This says that if I slightly help out lots of other people, or I greatly help out just a few people, I am contributing significantly.

    So, now, instead of defining a “consumer” as someone who isn’t interested in some provided set of content-creation tools, let’s say a “consumer” is someone with a low contribution score. Someone who doesn’t have much of an external effect in the world.

    Is it a crime to be such a person, one who just logs in and enjoys? No… but this person is an evolutionary dead-end, in a sense. He doesn’t shape the world’s future. The world would be the same with or without him.

    And thus, if like Rheingold, your primary interest is the world itself, of course you’ll find contributors more interesting. Contributors drive the world’s evolution.

  10. Yes, in the loosest sense of the word, everyone does create. But, you are ignoring aspects such as quality, quantity, and interest in the creation.

    For example, I used to knit when I was younger. Does that make me a knitter, even though I haven’t picked up a pair of needles in a few decades now? Not really. What about if I started knitting again, but only made simple, square potholders? While you could say I’m a knitter, I wouldn’t necessarily be on par with the person that knits a dozen sweaters for friends for Christmas.

    But, let’s bring this closer to home. You can think about your last Sunday poem, Raph. Obviously you worked hard on that and take some measure of pride in it, as you should! It’s a quality piece of work. Now, compare this to someone like Dr. Gene Ray’s Time Cube. Which is the more worthwhile work? They’re both creations, but most rational people will say that one work is obviously more worthy of attention and recognition than the other. (I mean, the scientific breakthrough of the simultaneous 4-day Time Cube compared to a mere poem? No contest!)

    Of course, this is basis for familiar sayings like “Sturgeon’s Law” and the like. The simple fact is: while everyone may create, not everyone creates works of equal value. And, there are a lot of people creating works that have no ability or talent in creating those works. Also, some people “create” because that is simply what they are employed to do. An office drone creating TPS reports is technically “creating” something, but that doesn’t mean it has lasting or meaningful value.

    But, some caution should apply here; you can’t just assign universal value to creations. Some creations have deeply personal meanings: Raph’s recently posted poem speaks deeply to us geeky game designers (and wannabes), but may be just confusing words to our (grand)parents. I may appreciate a political screed that reinforces my own views rather than one that supports the opposition party. I may think pictures of my cats/children/velociraptors are adorable, but others may not find them so endearing. We should also be careful of assigning value to things that are more popular. More people probably read the most cliche romance novels than will read Raph’s latest poem, but that doesn’t mean the romance novels are better in an objective/universal sense. (Although Time Cube is more popular, and therefore obviously more important.)

    One problem is that we tend to get stuck in our own circles. It’s easy for game designers to think that everyone has the ability to create amazing works because everyone one of us have thousands of ideas bubbling just below the surface. Given infinite resources, we could likely keep creating continuously until the end of time. Most people attracted to gaming share this passion. Unfortunately, not everyone shares this deep passion for creating that we do.

    So, yeah, everyone creates in one way or another. But, taking the next logical step shows us that this phrase is not as meaningful as one might first think. The simple fact is that some people can create better than others.

    My thoughts,

  11. Does that make me a knitter, even though I haven’t picked up a pair of needles in a few decades now?

    Being a “knitter” implies a significant degree of interest in knitting. Typically, an individual will take on a label once they reach a point where they feel that such a label is justified. For example, as a guitarist, I’ve met people who merely play guitar. They don’t identify as guitarists because they, I assume, do not view their talents on the same level that a guitarist views the talents of another guitarist. That’s why, I guess, musicians are more appreciative of music than the average consumer. Of course, this all makes sense when you consider that creators are opinion leaders in their social networks.

    … the simultaneous 4-day Time Cube compared to a mere poem? No contest!

    “Time Cube” looks like the ravings of a lunatic. You don’t honestly believe that drivel, do you? That’s scary if you do.

    … while everyone may create, not everyone creates works of equal value.

    I’ve never played Meridian 59. I probably never will. Looking at the screenshots, M59 does not interest me, and its value to me is nil. Does that mean M59 lacks value? Certainly not. Value (e.g., beauty) is in the eye of the beholder.

    … you can’t just assign universal value to creations.

    Well, there you go! You’ve already invalidated your “simple fact” of creativity.

  12. “Time Cube” looks like the ravings of a lunatic. You don’t honestly believe that drivel, do you? That’s scary if you do.

    You must be one of those singularity thinkers. Think cubic 😀

  13. Yes, I’ve noticed before that Rheingold is part of the ideological substrate that props up this creator-fascism in Second Life, where only those who create things, i.e. work in PSP to texture skins or dresses or gadgets or who script or animate or program are acceptable as first-class citizens, and everyone else is a drone relegated to lower levels of the hierarchical and rigid caste system. There have even been some creators in SL who have called for an exemption to texture upload fees, or to make texture upload fees more expensive for those who would sign up and answer a yes/no question as to whether they planned to be a content provider or not.

    It’s perfectly fine to say that only 10 percent create and 90 percent consume in virtual worlds, or even to say that only 1-2 percent create anything that is any good. No need to dumb down or make up politically-correct crap about the differently-abled or “different intelligences” or yammer about how we are all content creators (though I would argue to some extent we are, given that gameplay and interaction in social worlds is content, too, just amateurish for the most part). It’s not denying that excellence can and should exist.

    What is important to reject, however, is any notion of a privileged Snowcrash-type of elite. It’s not just that everybody has their little note to sound. It’s that the rule of law should pertain and equal rights be available to all to have access to the ability to create and enjoy their creations regardless of whether they are amateur or professional, for free or for pay. The creators must be subject to some sort of higher law too, that doesn’t so fetishize the act of creation that it tramples on consumer rights.

  14. I agree 100% that everyone is (or can be) creative. As a writer, speaker and teacher on the subject of creativity, it’s amazing to me to hear so many people say, “Oh, I’m not creative.” And what they mean is, “I’m not specifically gifted at one of the main fine-arts crafts we traditionally celebrate in our society; painter, musician, writer, etc.” It’s some pretty horrible cultural baggage we hang on lots of people starting as kids.

    The available media for creativity are, as Raph points out, endless. And how we choose to interpret our own spaces and interact with others and the world is (or can be) a source of great joy, education, communication and understanding.

    That being said… there’s a vast difference, when examining a particular medium, between a creator and a consumer, and even between an active consumer and a passive one. And there’s a big difference between a medium for which the dividing line between audience and artist is clearly demarcated, and one in which it can be crossed much more easily. And we also have to take into account media in which “audience participation” per se — not direct content creation — is factored in as a value.

    For example, if I write a poem and you read it and say nothing… make no comment to me, ever, in any way… simple. I am creator, you are audience. A “hot” medium in Marshall McLuhan’s terminology. Now, if over millions of audience-only, reading interactions, millions of readers of poetry — while doing nothing more than reading the works of hundreds of poets — make decisions about which new books to buy and read… to a certain degree, even if they never write reviews… they will have “created” something; a change in the market for the work. But this is not “creativity” in the sense of the fashioning of content. It is, in this case, a misconstruction of the term. It is an audience response. And while the applause that an audience gives at the end of a performance may be an important part of the entire theater-going experience, it is not — and will not ever — engender its own applause. You don’t write reviews of reviews.

    The more a medium allows for audience/user interaction — both within and among levels — the more likely it is that creativity will take on multiple dimensions, which is where/when things get, well… more creative. One of the hallmarks of creativity is its ability to generate learning as a data-viral load, intentionally or otherwise. And the more vectors a medium has for achieving this, the more likely it will occur. In our poetry example, for example, if there is no way for two readers to discuss their favorite works, there is no way for them to share learning, ideas, reviews, etc. Growth in interest in the medium will be more limited. If, however, a medium allows for connections — and especially if those connections are built into the medium — growth will occur more quickly.

    Now… in a democratic sense, of course… I agree with Prok. A creator has no more rights than a consumer. In fact, a creator almost always has more responsibilities on top of whatever rights he/she has. Because creation implies an ability to affect change in a system, if only through implication or communication, and that almost always comes with responsibility. So, yes… an audience member has the same rights as a creator.

    That being said, an individual audience member will usually not bring to any media system the same *value* as a creator. Again… if at least one person doesn’t take the stage and sing, dance, or tell a story… you’ve got a really boring talent show, even if there are 1,000 really good listeners in the audience.

    One of the points I was trying to make during all the recent hullaballoo about the SL numbers was that SL is a medium that allows for much more robust and fluid audience/creator interaction and disintermediation in a sector (VWs) that hasn’t had much of that before. That’s powerful stuff. Sure, there are folks in SL that are consumers. But they are “living” right there on the grid with the folks who are “making the stuff.” As opposed to most MMOs, where the interactions are between players and other players, or players and bots (content). Which is, in a way, much more “audience on this side, creators on the other.” By mixing things up as much as it has, SL provides a much “cooler” (McLuhan) medium.

    Creating isn’t more privileged than consuming, Raph — you’re using a judgment term that’s inappropriate. Without consumers, creation is often meaningless and unmeasurable. In terms of systems, though… creating is more valuable than consuming, and media that encourage many levels of creation (everything from tagging to conversations to reviews to IMs) between all levels of creators and audiences are going to generate more value, simply because they can.

  15. Awesome post Raph

    “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.”

    True enough, this goes beyond the arts as well. Sometimes reaching the audiance facilitates understanding and change. Hell even data miners can be creative, and spawn unforseen change. Most people who do create on any level are compelled to create it would seem.

    “We disdain consuming, and consumers, at our peril, because there is little creation in a vacuum.”

    True, almost no industry completely ignores its customer base. The only time ignoring consumers is feasable is when a product has an inelastic demand curve.

    Content seems so often to be tied to value judgements about interactivity and often ignores the permutations of creativity that flow from that interactivity (or consumption). Are guys fragging eachother online while chatting and playing halo consuming or creating mutual content for eachother, even if that content is unsustainable, and has no impact on the VW created (even the VW is temporal) is it of any less value than a WOW player creating armor and weapons, a SWG entertainer dancing in a cantina, someone in UO RP’ing an Orc, or a SL resident making a table or protesting French right wing facists?

    Personally I dont think theres a content creation difference, there is a difference in longevity and impact on the system and VW. There is a difference in quality perhaps, but that is qualified by opinion.

    Rheingold’s opinion about content is from the POV of a “resident” of SL actively creating content for SL. It therefore applies to SL, but not to content created elsewhere IMO, it convieniently ignores consumer input because perhaps either he’s not concerned about consumers, or does not rely on them for an income.

  16. In terms of systems, though… creating is more valuable than consuming…

    Could you elaborate? I spend way too much time consorting with economists and not enough with philosphers [and none at all with artists]. What do you mean by valuable here?

  17. JuJutsu wrote:
    What do you mean by valuable here?

    I think you’re digging too deep, because the economic answer seems to be the most obvious: you can make more money from consumers than from creators, in general. Therefore, creating creates value because it gives the consumers something to consume.

    That’s really the point of most user-created content sites, right? These sites get people to create content for other people to consume, and the consumers are traffic for the site. If the site were all consumers and no creators, the site could pay to find creators for the consumers (hopefully before they leave). If a user-created site were all creators and no consumers the creators would leave; it doesn’t make much sense to try to pay to find consumers. This was the method for most of the pre-“Web 2.0” sites, before site operators figured out they could get people to make the content for them on the cheap. 🙂

    However, in many cases the creators will also be consumers. I write (create) comments for Raph’s blog, and I also enjoy reading the comments. So, attracting creators and giving them sufficient tools to create (even if it’s just to upload content they’ve already created) can be a smart business move.

    Morgan Ramsay wrote:
    Being a “knitter” implies a significant degree of interest in knitting.

    I don’t agree 100%, but it does bring up a good point: if the creator does not have a significant interest in creation, are they really a creator? That limits people who are “creators” in relation to Raph’s post.

    You don’t honestly believe that drivel, do you?

    The author of that site is creating in a general sense, but what’s the worth of his creations compared to others, even in a non-financial sense? When Raph says “everyone creates” and assigns significance to that statement, it implies that the creations have some value. Obviously some creations do not have much value. At least in your singularity way of thinking! 🙂 (Actually, links to that site are an old injoke from the days of Lum the Mad.)

    Does that mean M59 lacks value?

    For you, it does. You just admitted it yourself. But, there are multiple ways to judge value.

    On a financial level, M59 has significantly less value than many other online games. I suspect that WoW makes more in 2 hours of operation in North America than M59 does in a whole year.

    On an aesthetic level, most games have more visual value (are prettier) than M59. This is what you were judging the game on according to your comment above.

    On a historical level, however, M59 has more value than many games since it represents one of the games that was one of the transitions from games on proprietary networks (usually for an hourly charge) to standalone games charging a monthly subscription.

    What’s the overall value of M59? Depends on the individual and what aspects they value more than others. I think the historical value is important, so I do what I can to keep the game running (even if it doesn’t have enough financial value for me to continue to expand the game significantly.)

    In the end, different works have different values. This is why I think Raph’s post is mostly meaningless; even if everyone does create, the results are not equal. And, even if “only 10% [create] in whatever tool you’re looking at right now,” if I only value whatever is created with that tool, then this is a meaningless statement.

    More of my thoughts.

  18. […] a great blog post by Raph Koster from several years ago in which he observes that “everyone is a creator”: “…the question is ‘of what.’ Everyone has a sphere where they feel comfortable exerting […]

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