Walter Bender, MIT Media Lab, 9 May 2005

What is Normal? How can open architectures change expectations about who is creative?

In the early 1990s, MIT professor Henry Jenkins gave a lecture in which he discussed a cultural anomaly: fans of television shows that create "fan vids", fan-made videos that are expressive extensions of the television experience. Jenkins described these producers as a "tail" in the normal distribution of television viewers. Listen to the lecture, my immediate reaction was one of concern: as a parent to two preadolescent children who regularly appropriated characters and narratives from television, books, movies, etc., I was worried that, by Jenkins's description, they too might be abnormal. But then I began to observe their friends; they too routinely illustrated the books they were reading and role-played based upon characters from their favorite stories. I hypothesized that all children live in the tail of the distribution and that perhaps puberty or school "corrects" this aberration.

Normal distribution

One might contrast the fan-vid culture with the community that contributes to the Wikipedia—"the free-content encyclopedia that anyone can edit." In less than four years, over 500,000 articles have been written and edited by tens of thousands of volunteers. However, a closer look reveals that only 5% of registered contributors have edited articles "at least 10 times" since they signed up. Does this suggest that the active appropriation of media—"consumer as producer"—is always going to be an eccentricity? Or is there something inherent either in the underlying technology of or cultural adoption of media that predisposes people to consume but not create? Or, as hypothesized, is there something intrinsic in the epistemological framework of our schools that curtails the seemingly natural impulse to express?

As computing technologies migrate from our laboratories to our lives, technology in vivo, we are able to focus on their application to the problems facing people: how they inform, entertain, and express themselves. Technology is not just about providing efficiencies, but it is also about giving people tools and models to think with. The reason for the rapid growth of the Internet over the past 15 years is its transparent nature. The Internet is the first medium that lets every consumer "look under the hood": every Web browser has a menu item labeled "View Source"; thus any piece of content on the Web reveals itself and its inner structure. This means that reading and authoring—to a greater extent than ever before—become synonymous; it is this transparent nature of the Internet that gives us an unprecedented opportunity to rethink who is a learner and how they engage in learning.

I present two examples of creation within the context of open systems, where "doing" supersedes and contextualizes "learning." The first, TalkTV, is, in a sense, "view-source TV" designed to let viewers directly appropriate a previously passive medium. The second, Silver Stringers, provides a forum for expression through the openness of the Web and the facility with which HTML enables one to appropriate ideas of form and expression from others.

Access to videos, developed characters and storylines enabled the fan fiction described by Jenkins. TalkTV, a utility developed by Erik Blankinship at MIT, explores how television fans appropriate video for personal expression and how technology can support such creative appropriation. Televisions do not have an equivalent to a Web browser’s view source option; however, programs can be structured by their transcripts, embedded as closed captions in the signal of most shows. With TalkTV video-editing software, rearranging lines of dialogue automatically creates new scenes, thereby enabling television viewers to become authors and editors. The creation of the videos enables learning of storytelling in the medium television, as well as insight into the tools themselves.

An organization known as the Silver Stringers, a group of 60-, 70-, and 80-year-olds, formed ten years ago in order to publish a newspaper on the Internet. The goal of the group was not and is not to master the foibles of computer; what drives them is a passion for telling their stories. They convene face to face every week to "argue" about content and process, critiquing each other’s words and works. The Silver Stringers are just one example of a community that has discovered the power of self-expression and social construction; they have changed in their relationships with each other and the traditional media; they have very high expectations regarding storytelling, accountability, and process; they are addicted to discourse, design, and debate.

Whether built upon proprietary or open systems, architectures that are amenable to direct manipulation by the intended end-user provide a wonderful source for creating (and hence learning) by having access at appropriate levels of expression to what others have created; access to the source material serves not only as an example of programming ideas and implementations, but also the development community serves as a accessible social-learning community of practice. Learning happens through doing: the consumer is willing to wrestle with even presently clumsy technological tools—in order to be self-expressive and engaged as thinkers. It remains an open question as to whether we will succeed in making expression be the "normal" modality of engagement with media. If we are successful, we will have created a vibrant society fueled by a population that is learning through expressing.