Cover Art: Cognitive Surplus; Illustration: pydubreucq
Clay Shirky on Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
People’s intrinsic motivations are strong enough that they gravitate toward experiences that reward them. They also sometimes act out when they are offered phony versions of the participation.
Back in 1998, People magazine’s website asked its readers to rank a list of the 50 Most Beautiful People of that year, a list chosen but not yet sorted by the site’s editors.
In an online poll they requested that their readers help them separate the most beautiful from the merely fabulously beautiful.
Cognitive Surplus describes the potential of “Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.” It’s a book about community and social media that’s provocative as well as a pleasure to read, and whose lucid arguments are worth understanding. Clay Shirky’s thesis is straightforward: we have a lot more free time on our hands now than we did a century ago, and for decades in the twentieth century, that time was occupied by television.
But it’s the twenty-first century now. Media, and what we want to do with it has changed.
Television, for example, is one-way media: it thrives with a passive audience. It is one-way media that empowers those who control the industry and who create the TV shows, not the consumers of media who watch them.
With the rise of social media, says Shirky, people have been able to find and communicate with other people who share their perspectives and interests. They are able to create interactions that satisfy them, whether that’s charity fundraising events, multi player games or Wikipedia.
Social media is two-way media. It thrives on interaction and participation. Social media empowers participants, that is, it is a tool that empowers people who participate and create out of love of what they are doing.
Participants are different. To participate is to act as if your presence matters, as if, when you see something or hear something, your response is part of the event.
To act as if your presence matters
What better fit to current yoga community events could we have than the serendipity of Shirky’s description of People magazine’s “participatory culture” debacle over a decade ago. People expected its readers to codify choices the editors had made of the 50 Most Beautiful People, choices intended to confirm the centrality and scene-making power of People itself in its competition against other magazines in its market.
It’s hard to imagine a more cynical way to involve readers. The editors were confident that the participants would internalize their publication’s view of the world and produce a list – with Leonardo DiCaprio first, then Kate Winslet, or whatever – as acceptable to their audience as a list they could create themselves.
The polling effort was a fairly transparent attempt to drive traffic (when we are not targets or eyeballs, we are traffic).
But People’s otherwise hermetically sealed chamber of beauty had one tiny crack, and that was the write-in vote. With this option, People’s traffic (which is to say, us) could participate without choosing from the proffered alternatives. Write-in votes are usually a way to let individuals blow off steam without changing an election’s outcome, since voters cannot easily organize enough support around a particular write-in candidate to challenge the listed ones.
[Write-in candidate] Hank [Nasiff] won by a landslide with nearly a quarter of a million votes; second place was the professional wrestler Ric Flair, another write-in. DiCaprio, the first of People’s original choices, came in third, with a mere fourteen thousand votes.
In this discussion of media, it would be difficult to miss the parallels to contemporary yoga. When yoga first came to America, it thrived on a consumer audience. You did the yoga you were told to do; you asserted your teacher was the authentic one and that others were phonies. If you wanted to belong, you liked what you were told to like, and avoided what you were told to avoid. Anything else was “resistance.”
To exploit in any manner
But the people who practice yoga today want yoga’s empowerment to be two-way media, in which their participation constitutes – creates – culture, and where their personal value is not relegated to the role of consumer.
Witness the exchange about the Yogitoes advertisement in Yoga Journal last year, and our own columnist Anna Guest-Jelley’s open letter to Yoga Journal about the size of its models earlier this year, and the gorgeous variety of the many voices of bloggers, tweeters and commenters in between.
In the past few weeks, Yoga Journal ran a Beautiful People contest of its own, inviting practitioners to submit photographs of themselves that readers would vote on, with the winner granted the opportunity to participate in a Yoga Journal photo shoot.
No less an astute observer of the yoga scene than YogaDork noted both the opportunity and the catch-22 Shirkey describes in Cognitive Surplus about People magazine.
Yes, they still would like a shiny happy yogi, but there’s a catch. It’s readers’ choice! Which means we can all VOTE for the winner! Sort of. Official rules state: “Of the top five finalists with the most reader votes, Yoga Journal’s editorial team will choose a grand prize winner and model based on skill of pose, alignment, creativity of written answer, personality and suitability for Yoga Journal.
The Official Rules also stated:
All submissions will become the sole property of Active Interest Media, which may reprint or otherwise exploit the entry in any manner, in any media. By submitting the entry, you agree that your name, voice, likeness and biographical data may be used by Active Interest Media for promotional and advertising purposes without compensation -
After the contest opened, polling shifted repeatedly.
One participant described how “at first you could vote all you wanted and it (the web site) told you how many votes you had. Then a few days later, without any explanation, you could only vote once a day, but it still told you how many votes you had. A few days after that it changed again, and you not only could you only vote once a day, you could no longer see how many votes you had.”
Why the change in transparency? Why no explanation? Why hold on to the photos of those not chosen, to “exploit in any manner, in any media?” What are the ethical – let alone yogic – principles in action here?
In the end, as YogaDork pointed out, Yoga Journal had it both ways: 3,000 free photographs it owns the rights to, a passionate participatory poll from which only Yoga Journal has the data, and five semi-finalists, all quite lovely, who as far as anyone knows were chosen by Yoga Journal, not by readers.
In Clay Shirkey’s words, it’s hard to imagine a more cynical manipulation of readers.
Just like television, a corporate entity with a producer somewhere chose the stars and broadcast their shows. In the past, in response to the feeling of being condescended to practitioners could, at best, change teachers or quit practicing, which 700,000 people who had previously been practicing yoga did between 2004 and 2008 based on Yoga Journal’s press release of its own marketing study.
But options – and opportunities – are growing.
Practitioners creating culture, not consuming it
Yoga practitioners and teachers are taken for granted as consumers of a cultural product rather than recognized as the producers of a culture, something almost no other community of people puts up with in the twenty-first century.
But there are increasingly positive signs of a cultural revolution and a flowering of yoga among people who actually practice and teach, as they free themselves from the outdated one-way media of those who regulate and profit from granting access to an inner circle.
For example, rather than contributing energy and ceding control to an opaque system of exploitation, practitioners can contribute images to Yoga Dork’s Gallery
Anna Guest-Jelley’s Curvy Yoga Gallery
where they will be assured of being seen and connected with other practitioners. These galleries serve to empower the participants, not a panel of judges. Other practitioners benefit from the range of practice styles, body shapes and sizes, and variations of expression.
With the rise of web sites, easy-to-use blogging software, Twitter and Facebook, studios, freelance teachers, independent practitioners, philosophers of every stripe are able to open shop and have their ideas compete for intellectual traction, popular opinion or market space with yoga power players that have run the yoga industry since the mid twentieth century when yoga media first became available on VHS tapes and television.
Shirky compares the current media situation to the cultural upheaval brought on by the printing press.
Before Gutenberg, the average book was a masterpiece. After Gutenberg, people got throwaway erotic novels, dull travelogues, and hagiographies of the landed gentry, of no interest today to anyone but a handful of historians.
Lowered costs in any realm allow for increased experimentation; lowered costs for communication mean new experimentation in what gets thought and said.
This ability to experiment extends to creators as well, increasing not just their number but also their diversity.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther, whose success depended on the dissemination the printing press enabled was dismayed that it also benefitted others. “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing; every one must be an author; some out of vanity, to acquire celebrity and raise up a name; others for the sake of mere gain.”
Shirky, with typical wit, sums up
Luther and [Edgar Allen] Poe both relied on the printing press, but they wanted the mechanics of publishing, to which they had easy access, not to increase the overall volume of published work: cheaper for me but still inaccessible for thee.”
In terms of yoga, this all sounds very familiar, too.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.