Digital Society Forum Digital Society Forum
Dossier 04/07/2016

A society of active audiences

What kind of society is being built before our eyes by the amateurs who express their opinions, share photos, and create or modify the images that circulate on social media? Here, we look at three hypotheses: a creative society, a society of informed consumers, and a society where the posture and status of author are more widely distributed.

February 2016. Apple launched the second part of its "Shot with iPhone 6" campaign. In the words of the overlord of our digital future, the campaign featured 56 portraits or self-portraits by 46 photographers in 26 countries, "found on social media and sharing sites." Impeccable images, virtually worthy of advertising and communication professionals... Images found on social media and highlighted on billboards to encourage passers-by to feel like they, too, could create images of that quality (professional quality?) with a smartphone - or at least with the must-have iPhone 6S. Beyond its marketing genius, does this Apple campaign say that we all have what it takes to be artists? Or that we already are, and that a true "creative society" is already developing unbeknownst to us, thanks to digital?

In a May 2016 interview with Culture Mobile, image historian André Gunthert describes what he sees as a minor revolution: thanks to social media, image analysis and the ability to launch images in the media are becoming "widely shared skills," skills which until recently were the privilege of an elite formed of patented experts, journalists and photo jury members. In other words: "The ability to view and create images, talk about them, circulate them, and use them in debates has produced a new level of visual skill since the early 2010s." Everyday individuals like those highlighted by the Apple campaign, and above all on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, who until recently were simple consumers of images, taking everything as gospel, now act collectively as press agencies for the photos they comment on, select and in certain cases create. One illustration: on 15 April 2016, in his online research journal, L’image sociale, André Gunthert mentioned a photo of police violence which was shot by a professional but initially ignored by major media outlets. Thanks to its allegorical truth, this "moment captured on the fly by photographer Jan Schmidt-Whitley (CIRIC), on Thursday 14 April 2016 at 4:32 pm, at the intersection of rue Jean Jaurès and rue Bouret" was adopted by web users. It became a meme , an image modified by a multitude of users for their conversations "in images" on Twitter…

The hypothesis of a creative society

The shift described by Gunthert applies to web users to differing degrees, with very different implications depending on their level of enthusiasm for photography and their interest in the topics of these "conversations in images". However, it highlights a change which is under way - or at least has the potential to emerge: the transition from a consumer society to an access society, and from an access society to a society of interpreters and creators. In other words, a creative society. This transition involves anthropological considerations which decision-makers often fail to grasp: the need for everyone, especially young people, to appropriate their urban digital environment, a magma of fixed or audiovisual sounds and images, which create a new type of storytelling. Both the young and the not-so-young more or less consciously seek to take on this world, which is theirs whether they like it or not, through sharing, comments, debates and photography, and by altering mainstream texts, sounds, image or videos. Ultimately, they seek to act on their era, rather than passively accepting it, and thus to create their own singularity.

The hypothesis of a creative society is a return to the origins of photography and its practice by those wrongly dubbed "amateurs," as though only professionals were competent, a practice which according to Gunthert was "a crucial step, one which made a skill more accessible: the ability to make one's own images." This hypothesis also connects the great avant-garde movements of the 20th century, like the Dada and Situationist International movements, to our digital age. A connection which seems logical, given that the tools, arts and collage and détournement methods which were cutting-edge in February 1916, when Dada was born at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, have never been as popular as they are today worldwide.

But is the radical position which holds that digital is orchestrating the fusion of art and life really sustainable? If art is the life of the artist, and a good life involves creation, we should all aspire to be artists - or at least artisans. Digital gives us the means to do that. But isn't the idea that one day society will only need "creators" and that it would be ready to take on the consequences of that shift a utopia? All the more so because a society where everyone is a creator would do away with the authority of authors and "experts." A change which would also undermine our entire intellectual property structure. This falls in line with the philosophy behind Copyleft and Free Art licensing, as well as Creative Commons licensing, which is more flexible since it can either allow or prohibit the transformation or commercial use of derivative works. However, this concept of "commons" and "knowledge commons", induced by the idea of "all creators," disturbs the cultural industry, which holds that acting as an improvised creator doesn't make one a true artist who deserves to be treated as such...

The hypothesis of a society of informed consumers

This leads to the temptation to explore a totally opposite hypothesis, rejecting the transformation of amateurs into creators. Or more radically, denying the transformation of consumers into artists. From this perspective, digital is not shaking up society: the existing social order, castes and levels of status remain essentially unchanged, as do the sources of cultural, media and economic power. The question then becomes how to interpret an undeniable observation: if it does not represent the birth of a creative society, what does the explosion of improvised, amateur opinions and creations online mean? Is it the rise of a society of more active consumers, amateurs who remain spectators but are better trained, better informed and more aware? For cultural pundits and arts professionals, digital enables artists to become fuller, more independent artists, mediators to become higher-performing, and spectators to become smarter and more involved. In this paradigm, which is both traditional and open to the practices, opinions and recommendations found on blogs and social media, digital does not generate any transfers of authority but ideally has the potential to improve everyone's skills in their own field. That's certainly not a bad start.

Are the most open aspects of this ideal truly progressive? Or is the entire paradigm in fact conservative? Doesn't it minimize audiences' new activities, reducing them to serving stars or blockbusters in a fan-type dynamic, without ever questioning the pedestal on which these monuments of art are placed?

According to philosopher Jacques Rancière, the opposite utopia of the total dissolution of art into daily life - which more or less corresponds to our "all creators" hypothesis - is the utopia of art for art: in theory, it would do away with the notion of art as a consumer good in favour of the pure intransigence of exceptional artists refusing to bow to the market or even to consider the opinions of their public... Something which is far removed from our reality. The demand for profitability is encroaching on the territory of art and culture more than ever before. In fact, it is in the least recognised and "approved" genres, such as street art, machinimas , mashups and the explosion of memes that we find the motivations and expressions which are most purely non-commercial.

The hypothesis of a new way of sharing the status of author

This ultimately leads to a third hypothesis: whether or not they are good for the arts and culture industries and markets, the appropriation of works and a relationship to the works through criticism, as well as the increase in amateur creation, reveal a broadening of the aesthetic experience, where everyone becomes "a little more of an author" without, at least in the short term, changing our society. In short, moving the cursor away from the romantic notion of the all-powerful artist to a more shared, more collective notion of authorship, and thus a transformation of the aesthetic experience through the audiences' activities, making the author's position less monumental than it historically has been. In other words, the digital forms of appropriation and conversations around works of art are reconfiguring and expanding the aesthetic experience, at the price of partially removing control of the work - and even more so its reception - from the artist or institution.

This raises another question - could the increasingly democratic nature of the act of creating take on an activist, social, or even political dimension, as was the case of the memes based on the photo of police violence during the April 2016 Nuit Debout protests? In other words, how far could or should the sharing of the posture or status of authorship go in the future? Unlike most institutions, no matter how progressive, Bernard Stiegler, philosopher and director of the Centre Pompidou's Centre for Research and Innovation, would probably respond: it should go far enough to build a society of contribution, made up of unique individuals who enrich one another through their "work," all capable of interpreting and passing on their knowledge and creative inspirations, all creators of their own future even if they are not all artists.


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

Yolande Quirion
Yolande Quirion 21/03/2017 13:33:55

J'adore Ariel !

Consult the original sources of this article

Sign up

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