What better place to start than at the beginning? As my regular readers know, my publisher, Crown, and I have decided to publish reader comments on some selected material from my upcoming Crowdsourcing Book. Here's a snippet from last week's post with additional details:
My publisher—Crown Books—has given me the official green light to excerpt some choice selections from my book for your critical review. The most salient, witty or astute remarks will be published as an appendix in the final chapter of the book. I was inspired, in part, by what Clive Thompson did in his Wiredmag piece on Radical Transparency last April. He blogged the article before it was published, and ran the best comments he received in the margins. I was pretty impressed—but hardly surprised—by the thoughtfulness of the comments. The resulting piece created more of a dialogue than the monologue in which magazine writers generally traffic. The mechanics of storytelling, and the exigencies of print publishing, require that we smooth the corners—reduce complexities and nuances. What Clive did, and what I hope to do as well, is bring those sharp corners, the paradoxes and contradictions and exceptions, back into the final product.
In other words, I'm soliciting constructive criticism. For the most part, I'll be excerpting the more analytical, expository bits. The places in which I make arguments to which some, perhaps many, will take exception. At least I hope that's the case. Today's a bit more of a lark: A story.
But first some background. Chapter 1, an Introduction, essentially takes the reader through the basic concept of crowdsourcing and participatory culture, and lays out the structure of the book. Here's this from the Intro:
The book is laid out into three sections, each roughly corresponding to themes of past, present and future. The purpose of the first section of the book is to show how four seemingly unrelated developments created conditions that made a new form of economic production not only possible but inevitable. Chapter Two will focus on how the dramatic rise in education levels coupled with increased leisure time and increased access to the Internet to create a culture of amateurism. Chapter Three will show how the open source software movement provided an intellectual framework, ideology and practical model for crowdsourcing. Chapter Four will examine how the tools of production in fields ranging from architecture to design to science and photography became accessible to the masses. Then chapter four will look at how the Internet gathered these once isolated individuals into communities that self-organize into workforces capable of efficiently allocating tasks to the appropriate members of the community.
That should prime the pump for your reading. After the jump find the start of Chapter 2: The Rise of the Amateur.
Chapter 2: The Rise of the Amateur
The Grammys and the PLUG Independent Music Awards are both annual ceremonies held to honor the finest musical accomplishments of the year. All similarities end there. The Grammys are attended by thousands of the music industry’s leading lights; PLUG is attended by a few hundred unshaven hipsters from downtown Manhattan. The Grammys are televised across the nation; PLUG would be webcast over the Internet but the organizers can never seem to get the technology worked out in time. The Grammys give winners—who generally opt to attend the ceremony—a golden statuette to honor their achievement. PLUG winners may not even know they’ve been nominated, and wouldn’t receive anything even if they showed up at the event.
It goes without saying that PLUG doesn’t take itself too seriously. The ceremony radiates ramshackle detachment, and it’s difficult to say if anyone—from the musicians to the performers to the backstage technical crew—could be labeled a professional. In fact, PLUG doesn’t have one full-time employee. This is, of course, its appeal. The audience laughs and cheers at every technical malfunction. In the PLUG bizarro world—whose orbit falls well within today’s pop cultural universe—low production values trump slickness every time.
I attended my first PLUG shortly after starting work on this book. I didn’t come for the ceremony, such as it is, but to observe the 22 amateur photographers the organizers chose to shoot the event. For their part, the photographers agreed not to charge for their time. They work for an unusual agency called iStockPhoto, which markets and sells images created by some 35,000 photographers, nearly all of them amateurs. The company took advantage of an imbalance that had emerged in the digital economy: compelling, high-resolution images had become ubiquitous, yet professional photo agencies were still treating them like a scarce resource. iStock crowdsourced their product, undercut their competitors by over 99 percent and made a killing in the process.
The iStock photographers fit right in: They were jammed into a reserved area just in front of the stage and if not for the all-access passes dangling from their necks would have been indistinguishable from the fans. This is appropriate: PLUG is essentially a festival of the raw passion and talent of the crowd, be it expressed in music or images or the stand-up comedy between the awards. PLUG celebrates everything that’s best about amateurism—authenticity, spirit, passion and perhaps most of all, a well-developed sense of humor about its own humble place in the world. At one point in the green room I complement one of the founders, Gerry Hart, on having pulled off the show at all. “Well,” he said, “We knew we’d never do it right, so we figured we’d do it wrong.”
I wanted to get to know this unusual workforce firsthand, so between performances I cornered Nick Monu, one of the iStockers. Nick looks young enough to be shooting the awards for a high-school newspaper, and in fact he’s not much older than that. Tall, handsome and intelligent, Monu has the sort of easy smile that often leads to lucrative careers selling securities, or cars, or expensive homes. From looking at him you’d never guess he represents the greatest threat to professional photography since the Kodak Instamatic started putting portrait photographers out of business.
Monu wants to be a doctor, for all the reasons people still admire that profession, and is enrolled in his third year of law school at Brown University. Nick was born in his mother’s hometown, Kiev, grew up in Lagos and went to high school in New York City. He spent much of his childhood watching his mother and father, a pediatrician and cardiologist respectively, tending to the impoverished in various Third World clinics. “My mom made helping people look fun.”
But Nick’s mother also made her two sons study art. “We both had to take piano and drawing lessons. My Mom was really serious about that.” Nick took to drawing early, and when he got to high school he started taking photographs. “When I was in high school I was doing these photo-realist paintings, and I bought a digital camera so I could project the images onto the canvas.” Soon he realized he liked taking pictures more than he liked painting them, and Nick pursued photography with the passion that has infected shutterbugs ever since George Eastman—who started as an amateur photographer himself —introduced the medium to the masses.
And if this was 1985, or 1995 or even 2002 that’s all taking pictures would be to Nick: a hobby. Instead, photography is putting Nick through medical school, with a whole lot of spending money to spare. “I made $10,000 last month,” he admits sheepishly, as if he’s committed some minor indiscretion. Not that financial success has gone to his head. “It’s still just a hobby. I don’t see why I can’t practice medicine and shoot photos at the same time.
Nick has an exclusive contract to shoot for iStockPhoto, and has come to the award ceremony by the invitation Bruce Livingstone, its tattooed, 37-year old CEO. Livingstone radically upset the cozy, insular world of stock photography with iStock’s business model. Simply a pre-existing photograph licensed for re-use, the stock image is the little white lie of publishing. That image of a beatific mother nursing her infant in a woman’s magazine? Stock. Those well-groomed, racially diverse executives on the cover of the Merrill Lynch prospectus? You might recognize them as the well-groomed, racially diverse insurance agents from the All-State brochure.
The first stock photo agency was founded in 1920, and for most of the 20th Century the industry was an afterthought, trafficking in the outtakes from commercial magazine assignments. Very few photographers tried to make a living off the market in pre-existing images alone. Rather it was a supplementary revenue stream. This changed after the desktop publishing revolution led to an explosion of magazines, and a commensurate demand for images. Suddenly photographers were making six-figures a year shooting stock images. But what technology giveth it can taketh away.
In 2000 Bruce Livingstone was running a small graphic design and Web hosting firm in Calgary. Bruce is an avid photographer himself, and over the years had developed an extensive network of photographers and designers. Early in the year he took 2,000 of his images and put them online. Anyone could download his photos in exchange for giving him an email. Livingstone’s friends decided they wanted to share their images with the public too. That June the budding community instituted a credit system: A user could download one image for every image of theirs that had been downloaded by someone else.
It was a classic example of the gift economy, the non-monetary exchange that grew up alongside the World Wide Web. Money, it has become clear, isn’t the only, or even the most important incentive driving the explosive creative output that one finds on the Internet. People contribute for the simple joy of participation, or to learn something, or even for enhanced status within a community of like-minded creators. On iStock, everyone took something and gave something in turn. Everyone profited, but no one made—or spent—a dime. Soon friends of friends heard about Bruce’s nifty idea, and started uploading their images too. Then around 2002 a wider public got wind of iStock, and the site began to hit critical mass. Soon Livingstone was paying $10,000 a month for the bandwidth to support it. He could have taken advertising to cover the cost of hosting, but felt it violated the spirit of the site. “The focus was on the community, and good design. Advertising would have cluttered the site,” says Livingstone.
Instead he started charging a quarter for each image, and opened the system up to the public. Traffic to the site, now christened iStockPhoto, started increasing exponentially. Livingstone raised the prices to $1 per image. “I thought it might become a sideline business.” It quickly became much more than that. The emergence of the Internet, digital cameras and user-friendly photo editing software combined to undermine the boom in stock photography. Suddenly anyone, it seemed, could take a half-decent picture.
The quality of the images weren’t always as high (or as consistent) as a traditional stock agency offered, but the differences were indiscernible to all but the most discriminating consumer, and you couldn’t beat the price. By 2004 a host of other so-called “micro-stocks” had sprung up with strategies similar to iStock’s. The professionals panicked. Microstock photos, they charged, were shoddy quality images that would bring on the ruin of the industry. The two goliaths of the stock image world, Getty Images and the Bill Gates-owned Corbis, promised to put up a united front against these hobbyist upstarts. But in early 2006 Getty reversed course and bought iStockPhoto for $50 million. Business is business, after all. “If someone’s going to cannibalize your business, better it be one of your other businesses,” Getty CEO Jonathan Klein told me shortly after the sale. Smaller magazines, non-profit organizations and all manner of Web sites have continued to flock to iStock’s high volume, low-cost model. As of June 2007 iStockPhoto had 1.2 million regular customers purchasing photographs, video footage, illustrations and animations. Though Getty won’t say exactly how much revenue iStock has brought into the company, the number has more than tripled since the acquisition, making it Getty’s fastest-growing, and most profitable, business. “Bruce’s brilliance,” Getty CEO Jonathan Klein once told me, “is that he turned community into commerce.”
“And I turned commerce into community,” Bruce adds, when I remind him about Klein’s comment as we lounge on a sofa in the green room during the PLUG awards. It’s true. iStock offers the budding shutterbug all manner of free tutorials, and the forums buzz with questions about lens sizes, Polarized filters and F-Stop settings. iStock doesn’t offer a chance to get rich. It offers the chance to make friends and become a better photographer. “iStock is its community,” says Livingstone simply.
iStock is one of the primary sponsors of PLUG. In fact Livingstone helped start it. In 2001 Livingstone and Gerry Hart, an old friend from his punk rock days, decided to take their passion for mixed tapes and turn it into an awards show. “It was really born of a disdain for the MTV awards and every other awards ceremony.” Now in it’s sixth year, PLUG displays their deep devotion to the amateur ethos.
For a while I sit in the green room talking to Bruce, Gerry and the musicians. But eventually I meander back down to the main floor to watch the action. I’ve covered music for years, often in tandem with a photographer. Rock photographers and writers tend to gravitate to their calling for the same reason: a passion for the music. Then the calling becomes a career, and at some point a job. The beer-sticky floors lose their appeal, and bands blend into one another. The professional music journalist posture becomes one of studied detachment, and they can be spotted in any crowd as the ones not bobbing their heads or tapping their feet to the music, but writing in a notebook with a vague smirk on their faces.
Louis and the other iStockers, then, are a study in contrast. By the end of the closing act, Louis has cast his equipment bag to the floor and begun banging his head in the rhythm with the music. He holds his camera above his head and is taking exposures blindly, carelessly, joyfully. He looks at me, smiles, and hoists his index and pinkie fingers into devil horns, that universal sign of rock’n’roll abandon.