The rise of digital media and networked communications is bashing apart the traditional boundary between amateur and professional, particularly in the creative fields. As Clay Shirky defines the ‘professional’ in his fabulous book Here Comes Everybody:
A profession exists to solve a hard problem, one that requires some sort of specialization…. Most professions exist because there is a scarce resource that requires ongoing management: librarians are responsible for organizing books on the shelves, newspaper executives are responsible for deciding what goes on the front page. In these cases, the scarcity of the resource itself creates the need for a professional class — there are few libraries but many patrons, there are few channels but many viewers.
The problem is that digital media and networked communications eliminate scarcity (although not the need to filter…which just gets shifted downstream). And that elimination or shift directly challenges the role of the professional, leading to significant (and well warranted) wringing of hands among creative professionals.
This blog post on ”The Difference between Amateurs and Professionals” is a perfect case in point, as it hits all the expected points and entirely misses the point at the same time. The post suggests that the professional photographers are defined by:
- Their full-time focus on the craft, rather than part-time avocation;
- their entrepreneurial spirit, and focus on the business elements of advancing their careers;
- their continuing quest for improvement and excellence;
- their study of other photographers toward the goal above;
- their individual and unique aesthetic style;
- their technical capacity to achieve excellence with fluidity and speed;
- their passion for the art form — shown in both a compulsion to create without being paid, and the ability to extract a significant fee for their work.
Yet almost every specific differentiation above can equally apply to credentialed ”professionals” and committed ”amateurs.” The common conflation of ”professional” with ”excellent” is subject to significant questioning now that the tools of the craft are so widely available.
Says Shirky again:
Sometimes, though, the professional outlook can become a disadvantage, preventing the very people who have the most at stake — the professionals themselves — from understanding major changes to the structure of their profession.
To my mind, this is one of the core and vexing questions of the on-line world for the arts (and for other industries…but that’s not my table): what is the role of the expert and the excellent in a distributed world? How do we preserve space and return value to those who are extraordinary (by whatever measure you pick)?
I don’t think that’s a professional/amateur question — although that’s the frame we tend to use. In fact, I think the professional/amateur debate in the arts is clouding the deeper conversation.