Amateurism or Art?

Photo by jayhem from Flickr used under Creative Commons

Photo by jayhem from Flickr used under Creative Commons

I read another great entry from Emails from Crazy People the other day.

This one attacks an amateur photographer’s pictures (fauxtos as he calls them) posted to a Flickr group as “artsy and cute” but not “real” photography. Funny stuff, but only if you’re not the poor person who received the email.

Reading these emails, I wonder if every mail client should have a state-of-mind filter like Mail Goggles for GMail.

Anyway, beyond the hurtful commentary, this email gets at a point similar to what Andrew Keen has espoused in his, erm, scathing works like his essay on the perils of Web 2.0 and Cult of the Amateur. The central point being, leave the blank to the experts. Fill in the blank with photography, analysis, commentary, journalism, whatever.

New Web has obviously provided easy ways for people to find outlets for their creative, emotional and analytic juices, as well as simultaneously providing them with a potential audience of millions. Aside from citizen journalism, the merit or beauty of user-generated content is solely in the eye of the beholder.

I figure if you’re reading, I can guess which side of the argument you support. So, no need to debate that. What I find interesting is the stance that people’s opinions somehow make them dumber, that somehow there are right and wrong paths.

Say you look at a Flickr group with photos of sunsets from variety of photographers. Most of us know what we like and don’t care what the background of the photographer is. Some people have a trained eye for photography and prefer well-composed shots with great lighting. Those groups probably overlap. What I don’t get is what the harm is in letting people see these professional and amateur photos in the same group?

If anything, the expert work should shine brightly (pun intended) next to the amateur work, right?

Similarly, if I see Techmeme coverage analyzing an acquisition or new product that includes posts from mainstream media (WSJ, NYT), big tech blogs (TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb) and small, insignificant blogs (like this one), what’s the harm that they’re lumped under the same heading?

I suppose the main objection is that New Web doesn’t enforce standards and training requirements that typically equate to excellence in these fields. I can also see that those people who’ve invested their lives into becoming experts would be stung when grouped with amateurs.

Still, I’m a big boy. I can read and form logical or artistic decisions for myself.

I can watch an indie film or a big studio one. I can go see an amateur baseball game or a professional one. My entrainment can be decoupled from the level of professionalism I’m observing. Why, then, should I rely solely on the proclamations of experts and enjoy only the art of masters?

At the core of what feels like a blatantly elitist argument is the warning that we, as a society, will be captivated by our own opinions, where everyone is an expert, simply because s/he publishes content. Yeah, news flash, that’s already the case. So, why not embrace all the voices and let people decide for themselves?

Collecting information and opinions is a natural process in decision-making. People have been making good and bad decisions forever, that’s not going to change. Seems like having more information at your disposal would only help, but even if it doesn’t, who really cares?

Obviously, the experts do. Their objections are rooted in fear of competition. If anyone can do what you do because the barriers to entry are low, you have to raise your game or find another one.

Find the comments and share your opinion. There is no expert moderator here.




  1. Totally agree. Everyone is entitled to their opinion… whether it's good or bad. However, this type of behavior is what makes people not want to share their creations.

    As an aside, I've been thinking about submitting some designs on Hopefully the community of voters there aren't as harsh as the dude you point out above.

  2. Fuck the elite.

    How's that?

    If they are so elite then, like you said, they have nothing to worry about.

    For me database dev and baseball. Those are 2 things I know pretty well. I can watch you throw a baseball and give you a rough idea of if you are any good or not. (David Eckstein is excluded from that list though.) It doesn't mean I think less of them.

    Similarly, I can look at someone's code and give you a rough idea of where they stand technically. Does it mean I'll be a dick like “Heretic?” No, I would try to help (if they wanted it…sometimes you run into an evil person).

    Those that know can decide for themselves. I want the noise…I'll filter it as I see fit.

  3. +1 for Threadless, that would *rock*.

    The thing about New Web is you're going to get people like “Heretic” who hate you. If you can't handle the hate, you're not ready, Grasshopper. That's the negative side-effect of allowing everyone access to publish.

    I like the approach taken though, i.e. out this dude as a complete tool to everyone.

  4. +1, I like choice, even if it's sometimes not so good. At least I have options, right? Yeah, some people will be jerks, but you should expect that. Otherwise, you fail at interwebs.

  5. “I like the approach taken though, i.e. out this dude as a complete tool to everyone.”

    Exactly. Self-policing. Perfection.

  6. The problem with journalists is that they are expert writers, but quite often not as knowledgeable about the field they're writing about. I rather read something written by an expert in their field, but and amateur writer, than the other way around.

  7. Interesting point. I think it varies from publication to publication, but I agree that I'd rather read an expert's poorly written analysis than a great piece of writing with no substance.

  8. Yay for amateurs! As someone with claims to many interests and to very few areas of expertise, I certainly prefer low barriers to participation. 🙂 I also have greater respect for experts who invite people to draw their own conclusions instead of relying solely upon their expert pronouncements.

    There are limits, though. In the journalism example, an analysis delivered by an expert with bare minimum writing skills may not be readable enough to actually add value. I guess that's the reason for ghost writers. Good writing is hard, and even competent writing takes practice.

  9. I respect experts too. We should all have the chance to weigh a variety of analysis and art. Communication is sometimes lacking in experts, whether in writing or in interviews. I find that lends credence to the opinion in many cases; I guess I figure if some dude is a terrible interview s/he probably doesn't waste time on public speaking skills 🙂

  10. Question, Grasshopper, should you stop drinking because you don't like the bartender or begin the search for another bar? Yes, grasshopper, I have chosen this analogy with the new web wisely.

  11. You're on fire today 🙂 I guess if the bartender poured terrible drinks, I'd seek out another bar, but if I liked him/her, I might stick around for the conversation 🙂

  12. Tricky one. My Dad has been a Sports journalist for decades and freely admits he writes articles criticising sportsmen for performances he couldn't hope to get near. But he knows the topic from 'the bench' and has whinged about a news journalist who was supposed to be covering a boxing match and offering descriptions on the lines of “He's hitting him.” And don't get him started on 'feature writers'. On the flip side, you have talented sportsmen who can't string sentences together.
    There's a lot of people who know Oracle. There's a lot of people who can write. There's a small overlap of people who and write about Oracle.

  13. “What I don’t get is what the harm is in letting people see these professional and amateur photos in the same group?”
    Depends on the group. If it is a professional group, and an amateur walks in voicing ill-informed opinions, then a “You don't fit in here” can be okay, or a 'Be quiet and you might learn something”.
    If there are a stream of amateurs walking in, doing the same, ignoring 'hints' and FAQs, then someone is likely to snap and it may see an extreme over-reaction.

  14. Maybe, but if you have strict expectations for posting, why not use an invite-only group? There *isn't* any harm in allowing amateurs to contribute. If anything, wouldn't that improve the professional work by comparison?

    If you don't want contributions from anyone, use a private group. New Web, ur doin it rong.

  15. I think there's room for all these opinions. You can usually tell how much someone knows about a topic pretty quickly. Sporting events on TV have a tried-and-true formula, expert+broadcaster, which usually works pretty well.

    The barrier to entry in many cases of New Web is embarrassment by hordes of loud commenters, not that different from facing a bunch of angry fans I suppose.

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