With a little help from my friends

Note: this is the third in a series of columns looking at the history and future of Web 2.0.

Destroy!It all started with a spreadsheet.

In the last instalment of this series we looked at some of examples of user-created media such as mashups, fan movies and machinima. One thing all three forms have in common is that in each case the Internet is not a means of creating content but of delivering it. One of the unique features of computers, though, is their flexibility as a tool: they can be programmed to make doing almost anything easier – and that includes making media.

It wasn't always this way, of course. As we noted in the first instalment, one of the reasons why the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethic is so deeply ingrained in the computer world is because it has its roots in hobbyist culture. The original Apple was actually a DIY kit – users received a complete circuit board but had to add their own case, keyboard, monitor and power supply. Even that, though, was a step away from the DIY nature of other personal computers of the day, which required users to assemble the circuit board.

 By the time the Apple II was introduced little evidence of its hobbyist origins remained: the case, keyboard, monitor and circuit board all came from the same company in the same package. What really made the computer a success, though, was the software that was available for it – a program called Visicalc, the very first spreadsheet. For the first time a computer could actually make the average person's life easier, helping people with home and business budgets and even their taxes. From that point on the computer world would be divided into two camps. One believed that computers should make things easier, while the other believed that anything worth doing with computers – and computers themselves – should be hard.

Much of what was covered in the last column can be seen as typical of the “hard path.” Painstakingly matching beats and pulling samples to blend two albums together into a seamless whole, duplicating the sets and costumes of a forty-year-old TV series to shoot new episodes, using software intended for first-person shooter games to tell stories – all of these take enormous amounts of effort and commitment. The “soft path,” though, is equally well-represented in Web 2.0, providing a variety of tools which allow users to become creators without having to go to the extremes found in the last column.

One way in which the Web is making it easier to become a “media author” is by bringing creators together. A good example is Pathetic Geek Stories, a website that lets people submit embarrassing stories to be illustrated by cartoonist Maria Schneider. For whatever reason, Schneider never has any shortage of submissions – there are over a hundred stories archived on the site – and the ones she chooses to draw range from the simply silly, like this one, to the genuinely heartbreaking. Schneider's work, in its focus on the smallest of life's details, is reminiscent of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. Pekar is generally thought to be the overall author of his work even though it is drawn by a variety of artists; Schneider, on the other hand, draws from stories sent to her by many different contributors. This brings up a question that will come back repeatedly in looking at these collaborations: who is the actual author? Schneider's submission guidelines make it clear that she owns the copyright to the finished product, but authorship is a somewhat trickier question than copyright.

The question becomes even more complicated with more user-oriented sites like Bitstrips, a free online tool for making cartoons. Bitstrips allows the user to choose how much artistic control she wants to have: users may draw on a catalogue of established characters or create their own (a process which itself has several levels of complexity available.) The results tend to look fairly similar – there's a definite “house style” that results from the character creator, so that most wind up looking like this – but for those that want it there's enough flexibility to create much more distinctive-looking cartoons like this one. So far the content on Bitstrips is better enjoyed as an experiment than as art, but what's more interesting about it is the sense of it being a community: users are encouraged to share their characters, to be used in other comics on the site. As well, each strip is accompanied by a space for reader comments, which makes the experience more like reading a blog than a traditional cartoon. Bitstrips has addressed the copyright question in a King Solomon-like fashion, dividing the rights equally between the user and the site, but the question of authorship can't be resolved so neatly. Who, for instance, is the author of a strip created by one user featuring characters created by another and using a technique discovered by a third? (Bitstrips is just out of its beta testing period, and many of the bugs discovered by early users have been incorporated as features.) Or is the whole idea of authorship irrelevant in Bitstrips' collaborative culture?

A more corporate attempt to develop a similar resource is Electronic Arts' The Sims Carnival, which extends its popular Sims franchise into user-created content. The Sims Carnival, currently in a closed beta-test stage, provides tools that allow users to create their own games. Like Bitstrips, The Sims Carnival offers its users several levels of engagement: at the simplest, a program called “The Wizard” functions as a general-purpose “modding” tool, allowing users to customize one of several genres of games. Much more involved is “The Game Creator,” which allows for a tremendous range of creativity – games created so far include Bird vs. Cat, an action game whose graphics look (intentionally) like something you might find on the door of the family fridge; Wash the Dog, which features the grooming of a photorealistic mutt; the irreducible Stick Man Hammer Throw; and of course any number of more typical action games.

The wide variety and individuality of these games raises a still more complex question of authorship: unlike Pathetic Geek Stories, all of whose entries are scripted and drawn by Schneider, or Bitstrips, in which most of the cartoons are made with templates provided by the site, many of the games found on The Sims Carnival have content which is entirely original to the users. Electronic Arts has stated clearly that the games created are not property of the users (though users are allowed to link to them from other sites). The Sims Carnival seems to be aspiring to create the kind of collaborative culture found on Bitstrips – every user has the right to modify or borrow elements from any other user's games. A major difference is that Carnival is eventually intended to be a money-making venture, both for Electronic Arts and the content-generating users (exactly how this will work has not yet been revealed). Whether the collaborative culture of 2.0 can survive a collision with the profit principle remains to be seen.

The problem of authorship is inherent in nearly all user-created content – who is the author of The Grey Album? – but the “soft path” throws it into sharp relief. Is the author of a game created using The Sims Carnival the user who designed the gameplay and the graphics, or the company that built the tools with which the game was made? We wouldn't say that The Sun Also Rises was co-authored by the company that built Hemingway's typewriter: on the other hand, Hemingway could just as easily have written his book in longhand or, had such things existed in his day, on a word processor. Although the typewriter facilitated the novel, it wasn't necessary to produce it. But the games featured on The Sims Carnival, and the cartoons on Bitstrip, would not be possible without the tools provided by those sites.

Perhaps more important than the authorship issue is the fact that nobody on any of these sites seems much concerned. The same is true with user-created content in general: it's not so much that users are willing to give up their authorship rights, as we'll see in a later column, so much as that they've abandoned the idea of authorship altogether. Instead of intellectual property, the model is a commons – where Sims Carnival users modify each others' games, Bitstrips users share their characters, and the makers of Star Trek: Phase II lend their re-created sets to the makers of other Star Trek re-enactors. After two hundred years of exalting the individual artist, we may be moving back to a focus on the community. In our next instalment we'll be looking at a Web 2.0 phenomenon that is all about community, crowdsourcing.

For Classroom Discussion

  • The one case in this column where authorship is fairly clear-cut is Maria Schneider's Pathetic Geek Stories. Why, when she draws from other people's experiences, do we consider Schneider the author of her work? What guidelines could we take from this example to help us decide who is the author in other cases?
  • Bitstrips makes creating a cartoon very easy – the user does not even have to design original characters if she does not want to. Does this change how we view a Bitstrips cartoon as art? Does automating cartooning in this way devalue cartoons as a medium? What do you think a professional cartoonist might think about Bitstrips?
  • Bitstrips has very successfully created a community where sharing of creative work is expected. How successful do you think the Sims Online will be in creating a similar community? Why?
  • The Sims Online allows people without much technical skill to create computer games. Do you think the games its users create will be different from commercial computer games? If so, in what ways might they be different and why? If not, why not?