Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Crowdsourcing inspiration

One of my favorite features of the twenty-first century world of social networking is how visible inspiration has become. It used to be up to art and technology historians to identify who was an influence on whom. But as we assemble our plans and creative impulses in tiny pieces scattered across the internet, our browser histories themselves become a record of our sources. In addition, it's become customary -- indeed, expected -- for those keeping online project notebooks to note and link to the items and ideas that inspired them.

Inspiration is always a delicate matter in academia. We are socialized simultaneously in the art and ethics of referencing our sources, and in the value of originality. Paying homage to our inspirations, in that environment, can come to feel like a chore and a cheat. We overwhelm our readers with references to convince them of the thoroughness of our research. At the same time, we struggle to assert that we are neverthless doing something new, unique, and valuable -- something worthy, we hope, of being cited as inspiration or authority by another.

Perhaps there's something to the two terms I just juxtaposed. Academia -- well, the humanities, at any rate -- operates according to structures that bestow and honor authority. The fear of the limitless eclectic synthesis ethic of the Internet is based in the horror of lost authority. Yet everywhere I look in my social networks, I see people citing each other -- spreading the word about what others have done, adding their own spin, and putting what they do out there to inspire in its turn. The arts have long understood that there is a distinction between inspiration and authority. Even though originality is far more highly prized in those circles, it stands in tension not with the repetition of truths implied by the notion of authority, but with the participation in a communal process of choosing styles and elements of meaning.

As usual, I see a lot to be optimistic about in the emerging folkways of social networking. My hope is that these environments are socializing their participants into an expectation of generosity and appreciation. It seems unlikely that the need for critical engagement will go unfulfilled by other corners of the 'net -- or even in some activities in the same communities I'm discussing. I seek only to praise the existence and growing normativity of counterbalancing forces.

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