Just Imagine a world without amateurs or free sharing

Co-founder of Flickr, Hunch etc. Caterina Fake is no stranger to the culture of sharing. One could easily argue that her and husband Stewart Butterfield were really on the front-lines of pioneering and cultivating that very activity on the internet. Enter Jaron Lanier, who among other things coined the term ‘Virtual Reality’ in the early-80s and recently wrote a book called ‘You Are Not A Gadget’ where he boldly claims sharing and collectivism have turned the internet into what he calls the ‘World Wide Mush‘ in a Wall Street Journal excerpt.

Lanier seems to imply that people who give their efforts, music etc. away for free or without credit are either killing innovation or on a crusade to force everyone to do the same. It’s hard to tell if Lanier is taking this position intentionally to ruffle the web’s feathers, is grumpy, or is it that he is so skewed by his own lens and experiences that he can’t see the value of other pursuits or motivations? To put it bluntly, he pissed Caterina off, and rightly so in my mind. I’d paraphrase Caterina’s response but she’s far too gifted with words to do that, so in the spirit of ‘sharing’ here is the gist of Caterina’s rebuttal.

…(Lanier) appears to believe that quality is a zero sum game. A bunch of amateur musicians singing in someone’s living room take nothing away from Lady Gaga. There’s a lot of tilting at windmills in this excerpt. I’ve never heard anyone assert, as he appears to think everyone in the digital arena is constantly asserting, that “collectives make the best stuff” — quite the opposite. Everyone agrees that 99% of everything is crap, and no one is claiming Wikipedia’s entries are better written than those of Charles Lamb or Edmund Gosse in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica (my favorite). But really, who cares? By sharing my (admittedly crappy) snapshots on Flickr, I’m not claiming to be Margaret Bourke-White. And my sister *likes* to look at photos of my dog. Who am I hurting? Should I charge a penny to look at my photo? Do I need a photo credit? No. If someone other than my sister admires my cute dog, they are welcome to do so for free.

Additionally Lanier does not understand that people do things for reasons other than bolstering their egos and making money. You shouldn’t need a motivation or justification to correct spelling or factual errors on Wikipedia — a certain desire for orderliness, good grammar, or truth should be sufficient. Those who enjoy correcting spelling and grammatical errors online — I do — are they thereby “robbed of dignity” as Lanier would have it? Of course not.

I could go on. I haven’t touched on his claims that we’re destroying innovation, or his implication that people who license their work with Creative Commons licenses or give their music away for free insist that everyone do the same. The open source software movement that could be mentioned, the free culture movement, or, frankly, any of the other many great things that are taking nothing away from auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard, and even Jaron Lanier. They’re safe from the incursions of amateurs like you and me. Of course the word “Amateur” comes from the French word “to love”. Good enough reason for me to participate. And you?

Yeah, but who wants to listen to amateurs anyway, right? 😉