Increasingly collective digital creators
Digital for amateurs
New types of collective practices are enabled and structured by online self-publication platforms: digital pressed into service by amateurs. Like the photo service Flickr at its 2004 launch, most web 2.0 start-ups started by building free, group-oriented platforms which encourage users to upload documents and index them via tag systems. They are designed to create links and and foster the intrication of amateur production and socialisation. They are structured around profile pages, which facilitate networking and enable users to quantify their audience using view and friend counters. Researcher Jean-Samuel Beuscart explains that "metrics and meta-data comprise an important aspect of the user experience, by inciting users to assess their performance and implement strategies to improve their online visibility."
André Gunthert sums up the phenomenon in these words: "the objective isn't to amass content, but to use it to create nodes for conversation and circulation." These "conversational nodes" are organised by groups of different sizes and with different objectives. In the case of machinima enthusiasts, who make films using video game graphics, the idea is both to "learn the cultural codes of different genres" and to "learn the cinematographic grammar needed to create a 'good product'", according to researchers Nicolas Auray and Fanny Georges.
An online learning community
These groups give amateurs an opportunity to give and receive opinions and advice and to debate amongst themselves - but also to be read, seen and appreciated, and thus to find their public. "It is a learning community, but also [...] one that provides judgement and an audience," notes sociologist Patrice Flichy in "Le sacre de l’amateur".
These judgements are a mixture of encouragement and criticism, which can be harsh. Researcher Sébastien François, who analysed one hundred Harry Potter fanfictions, observes that "the comments exchanged on discussion forums reveal stigmatisation of [...] certain writing practices (stories which betray an overly "naive" reading): respect for certain rules of consistency with the "canon," the corpus of works recognised as original, is a key topic of debate." Because the members of these communities develop a high level of expertise, which is strictly normed. Evidence of this is seen in the themed groups on Flickr, like the group "Cats sniffing Flowers" (696 members).
"Enriched amateurs," "the soul of the web 2.0"
In the article "Pourquoi partager mes photos de vacances avec des inconnus ?" (cf. sources), we read that "it is precisely when, due to the specific rules of composition to follow, photo sharing on the site leads to a real-life practice of photography, that conversations can most easily develop ." These discussions, which are both technical and social, "enrich" the amateur participants, in the words of researcher Jean-Samuel Beuscart. These "enriched amateurs" are "the soul of the web 2.0", for a very simple, operational reason: "possibly after a period of fame-seeking (the race for clicks)," they "focus on a quest for recognition in the form of ongoing interactions with other amateurs who resemble them in terms of skills, tastes, practices, etc." That is how the endless array of online sharing communities arise.
One example of the extent of these practices is online knitting communities, studied by researcher Vinciane Zabban. One of the main uses of Ravelry, a social network with 4 million members, is to view the "projects" pages which show users' creations with comments by fellow knitters. Zabban explains that "socialisation of the practice involves sharing the experience of creation, but also sharing know-how." This is so true that, in the words of one of the knitters interviewed, digitally "staging" the project is a sort of completion of the object.
"Self-production as a relationship technique"
How can we explain amateurs' involvement, which according to Zabban can reach "addictive" proportions, in these informal communities? That explanation is grounded in various theories of identity, more accurate than ever before, adapted to the digital era. Sociologist Laurence Allard refers to "expressionism" and multi-faceted "individual DIYers" who build and express their identity online. She writes that, "the internet can be seen as a laboratory for experimentation with forms of subjectivation." Dominique Cardon adds that beyond simply making oneself visible: "self-production [is] a relationship technique," the "continuous and interactive production of a social identity." Others refer to the "recognition theory" developed by philosopher Axel Honneth, according to which requests for recognition fit into intersubjective dynamics. This doubtless explains why the "typical" enriched amateur ultimately prefers recognition by peers, i.e. other "real amateurs," rather than broader, more impersonal audiences.
As early as 1974, the thinker Michel de Certeau, who theorised the concept of active audience reception, recommended shifting from "questions focused on representations, cultural products and the exceptional nature of "cultivated" expression [...] to a perspective centred on practices, human relationships, and the transformation of the structures of social life." The present seems to prove him right, time and time again.