Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 09/06/2016

Amateurs in the digital era

"Nobodies have taken over the internet" wrote sociologist Patrice Flichy in the introduction to his book "Le sacre de l’amateur". As early as 2010, Flichy started analysing this new form of expertise, "between the uninitiated and the virtuoso," which is boosted by the spread of new technologies. His work is more relevant than ever in 2016, in light of the explosion of these "amateur" digital practices. The profile of the digital-era amateur remains to be sketched out: are we all creators now?

Amateur creativity unleashed

The development of digital technology and high speed internet has transformed self-produced cultural content and fostered the emergence of new forms of expression, particularly with the development of digital cameras and mobile phones. In his 2008 study on "French cultural practices in the digital era," still regarded as the latest quantitative reference on the topic, sociologist Olivier Donnat showed that amateur photography and video have changed and expanded dramatically in recent year - and for good reason, since they are now mainly digital. For example, the percentage of French people who had shot a film or video in the past year doubled between 1997 and 2008, rising from 14% to 28%. Those figures are corroborated by a 2014 Médiamétrie study which showed that participative activities are highly poplar among social media users: 28% of them post videos and 60% post photos. The 2013 Eurostat study also highlighted the fact that 11% of the French population have published cultural content online in the past twelve months and that 5% have created their own website or blog with cultural content.

New forms of content production have emerged alongside more traditional practices, particularly in music, writing and visual art and graphic design, blurring the definition and the boundaries of amateur creation. For example, how should glitch art, in which the bugs created by voluntarily corrupting a file become art, be classified?

Amateur practices transformed by self-publishing platforms

Successive studies on "French amateur cultural practices," which began in the 1990s, have highlighted the overall increase in amateur practices. The emergence of digital technology has accelerated that growth, but has also transformed cultural practices, particularly by making it easier to publish the content created. The shift is thus both quantitative and qualitative. The way that amateur content is distributed has changed with digital. In particular, use of self-publishing platforms which require few technical skills, like YouTube, Flickr and Instagram, is increasing exponentially. With 1 million photos shared each day, and 92 million users in 63 countries since its creation in 2004 according to the website TechCrunch, Flickr is a model for the genre. Particularly because the immense majority of the accounts opened are currently free (96.3%, according to a 2006 study by Jean-Samuel Beuscart and Dominique Cardon).

Amateur creators online: mainly young and educated

Donnat, however, highlights several reservations regarding this explosion in amateur content creation. These include "curiosity effect" and one-off or occasional practices, which have not "really increased the actual base of regular practitioners, except among the very young." Creative production does, in fact, very often drop off dramatically after age 30. He also evokes the generation of under-30s (writing in 2008) who had grown up surrounded by screens in "a context marked by increasing content virtualisation and the omnipresence of high-speed internet: this is the generation of an emerging third media age." Several researchers have also noted that education and income are decisive factors in online content production. In The Participation Divide (2009), a study of 1060 students, American sociologists Eszter Hargittai and Gina Walejko noted that "students who have at least one parent with a graduate degree are significantly more likely to create content [...] than others." A finding which is hard on the utopian ideal of an egalitarian internet thanks to universal access to technology.

The reality of the increase in amateur practices, even if only among the young and the educated, is, however, undeniable. The graphs in Grant Blank and Bianca C. Reisdorf's study "The Participatory Web, A user perspective on Web 2.0" (2013) highlight the fact that younger and, to a lesser extent, more educated, individuals are more likely to make online contributions, like creating a blog or posting creative content. They show that these groups' higher participation rates are mainly due to their higher level of trust in the platforms and experience in using them. In other words, older people could well start to contribute more over time.

The "pro-am" revolution

The development of amateur creators through the web 2.0 should be understood within the broader context of valuing and promoting "everyone's ordinary skills," according to sociologist Patrice Flichy's book. He argues that these amateurs deserve to be considered experts, or at least "experts from the bottom up." The spread of skills, enabled by the online circulation of information, would be the apotheosis of the reign of "pro-ams" (professional amateurs).

The term was coined by Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller, authors of a 2005 report entitled "The Pro-Am Revolution. How enthusiasts are changing our economy and society . "Pro-ams", whether their creations are digital or not, generate radical innovations: they are just as competent as professionals, but with a capacity for creativity and innovation which professionals, bogged down in the constraints of routine production, lack. "Pro-ams" are dedicated, working outside professional organisations but with tremendous rigour. Leadbetter and Miller claim than "Pro-Am leisure is a very serious activity." In short, they are "knowledgeable, educated, committed and networked, by new technology."

And while amateur activities have been boosted by the emergence of digital, particularly the increasing accessibility of production resources, the two researchers conclude their report with a reference to Marx. Marx who, in 1850, looked forward to a world where "material production leaves every person surplus time for other activities," a world where "labour" would be replaced by "self-activity." According to Leadbetter and Miller, we are now seeing the beginning of that world.


To react to this article, I log in I sign up

Thierry Poulin
Thierry Poulin 24/02/2018 18:05:21

Super article, très bien écrit et instructif :)

Samuel Ben
Samuel Ben 14/06/2016 16:25:44

Merci Elsa pour cet article bien construit et très intéressant ;)
Je me reconnais dedans

Sign up

Join the Digital Society Forum to discuss and react on articles and be informed of upcoming events