Schmatler and Waldhead’s last laugh
Applying open source collaboration models to other creative endeavours
[this article originally appeared on the now defunct iCommons.org website on 2007–12–09, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine it’s being re-run here]
As we sit down to pen this final article in our series on “why people share their creative works” we can’t help but get misty-eyed while we look back on our achievements over the past months (although this could also be due to the squinting caused by a new pair of bifocals Schmatler recently purchased). In some ways it was a sad year — our very own Larry Lessig hung up his coat and, if the picture above can be believed and it really is him, forgot to put on much else (while holding up a print-out from one of his famous keynote presentations).
Back to reality. This series was the result of some light prodding by the lovely ladies at iCommons who asked us ageing technocrats if we could try shed some light on the reasons for people sharing their works based on our centuries of experience in the software world. We agreed to write “a couple” of articles, having no idea that this would turn into a series of 7 plus a podcast created over a period of 9 months in 4 countries, winning us many accolades (Waldhead’s grand-daughter voted for an article of ours on the site once, nothing to do with the inheritance surely), thousands of screaming teenage fans, and even breaking a couple of elementary school teachers’ hearts along the way. So to end things off we are going to summarise our earlier discussions and also look at a few factors which didn’t have enough depth or backing research to deserve full-length articles of their own. Of course this is just a ploy for us to keep on writing.
Our initial name for this series had the rather racy title “dare to share” but we binned this in preference of the far more professional sounding “applying open source collaboration models to other creative endeavours.” The general idea remained the same — we wanted to find out why would perfectly reasonable people share their creations with others? Our first article introduced these ideas and laid out the framework for the series. We then started off in earnest by looking at the fact that many people enjoy creating things (like knitted scarves) just for the sake of creating them, while others make stuff because they actually need it themselves (like spy-cameras to install in your neighbour’s bedroom), and don’t mind giving the results away (no, you can’t have the pictures!)
To make sure nobody (least of all ourselves) nodded off we then made sure we got some long overdue naked ass on the iCommons website as we looked at people sharing their work in order to shamelessly self promote themselves and get noticed. One could argue that this desire for attention runs deep in many humans (and this is indeed the subject of psychological theories from the venerable Mr. Freud and many others) and underpins much of our creativity. Its not the happiest thought — that people create and share in order to draw attention to themselves, but if the end result is good and benefits others, is it really so bad? Continuing in this dark analytical vein we looked at another very powerful motivator for most human beings — cold, hard cash. Even though not everyone might like to admit it, a good reason to create things can be that someone pays you, allowing you in turn to pay for the rent, child support, divorce lawyers, and general expenses that come with our sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyles.
While the desire for attention and money could both be construed as rather selfish reasons for sharing creativity, our next article looked at improving one’s self and one’s works due to the feedback loops that sharing creates. Seen through our cynical spectacles, this is also a rather selfish reason for sharing, but somehow self-improvement just sounds less bad. We briefly touched on the notion of improving on the works themselves by allowing people to take each others’ creations and modify them, transforming them into something better (and if not better, at least different). Moving closer to the light we then considered altruism and with the help of Joi Ito went off on a philosophical tangent to propose that some people create, share and collaborate because it is a way to attain happiness (rather than satisfaction — although we don’t see anything wrong with that either, occasionally, and under strict medical supervision in our case). One could argue that this is the big idea behind volunteer work sponsored by organisations such as GeekCorps and Mark Shuttleworth’s philantropic forays into the world of education and development as people feel like they should “give something back” to the community.
There were a couple of other ideas that we scribbled down in our original outline for the series which didn’t ever become real articles. Ideology and politics came up again and again — the free software world is a shining example of such libertarian shenanigans as Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation helped start an entire movement of developers writing code in strict accordance with their ideological beliefs. While some might write these people off as a lunatic fringe, they have contributed a huge amount of software that is in use by millions of people all over the world (often without them knowing it) so the power of an ideology as a factor motivating creativity should not be underestimated. This applies just as strongly to other forms of creativity — there are many examples of musicians, film makers, photographers and others who’s work pushes a strong political or ideological message.
Guilt as a motivating factor is also something to think about although extending this past software is a bit of a stretch (and Bill Gates hasn’t done nearly enough to redeem himself for Windows 3.1). The idea here is that at some point software developers might feel a bit bad making a living off taking bits of other people’s code and cobbling them together and presenting them to their managers as the fruit of weeks of hard work while they were actually playing World of Warcraft. After a while this guilt builds up and when they get the opportunity, they donate some of the improvements they have made to the original code back to the community. We are not sure whether this applies more broadly (or just to Waldhead’s nephew who lives in London) — will someone who listens to a pirated piece of music or watches a bootlegged DVD they “found” on the street feel motivated to record a song or make a movie and share them back as a form of penance? Schmatler thinks not, but then he is the one individual in the whole world who has never given back anything, to anyone.
So for now, it’s over to you dear readers — can you think of a motivating factor that we didn’t cover? What, besides a blaring alarm clock or a nagging partner, gets you out of bed in the morning to create things? We’d love to know and welcome comments that we can sarcastically reply to below. That just about sums it up for this time but don’t worry, unlike Mr. Lessig, we are not hanging up our moth-eaten coats (or even auctioning them off). Although it might come as a disappointment to some of you, we are not leaving the Creative Commons movement just yet as we have plenty more in store and, as long as our pacemakers keep on ticking, we’ll be back in top form with some new columns next year. To answer the obvious question — what motivates us to share our work with you lot? The answer is simple of course, all of the above (and we also do quite like those naughty letters we receive from the iConvent in Johannesburg, keep them coming girls!)
“I liked that last number.”
“Because it was the last number.”
Words by Schmatler (Philipp Schmidt) and Waldhead (Mass Dosage)