The Think System

Investors call it “user-generated content” while grassroots publishers prefer the term citizen media, but call it what you like I felt the power of this trend last night when my wife cajoled me into seeing a neighbor’s child appear in a middle school performance of The Music Man. Sitting in an auditorium that doubled as a basketball court drove home the notion that a sense of community can provide more entertainment value than professional polish. And the flim-flammy plot line of this absurd musical provides the ideal metaphor for thinking along these lines.

Traveling salesman Harold Hill blows into River City and invents a problem to sell a solution (sounds like text-book marketing!) — creating a town band to keeps the kids out of trouble. Of course this means selling the townpeople instruments and uniforms which is where Hill, who knows naught about teaching music, makes his money before hopping the train and leaving his marks with a lot of gear they don’t know how to use. But the scam fails when our smooth talker falls in love. Irate River Citizens are posied to tar and feather him when a plausible miracle occurs: the children show up in their uniforms and try to play marching band tunes using Hill’s Think System. That is they imagine they know how to play. What results is a cacophony. But the townspeople love it because it’s their childrens’ caophony.

The media evolution underway is one large exercise in The Think System. Low-cost media creation and distribution allow amateurs with varying degrees of technical ability to create, publish and share. A believer like Dave Winer revels in this uprising against the professional:

“Amateur is not below professional. It’s just another way of doing [media]. The root of the word amateur is love, and someone who does something for love is an amateur. Someone who does something to pay the bills is a professional. The amateurs have [more integrity than] the professionals. If you’re an amateur you have less conflict of interest and less reason not to tell your truth than if you have to pay the bills and please somebody else.”

Web 2.0 contrarian Andrew Keen “cherishes the age-old chasm between cultural producer and cultural consumer.” Adds Keen:

“I believe that writers should write and readers should read. If “audience” is indeed as “antique” a term as “record,” then our values and our culture are in crisis.”

If push came to shove I’d probably side with Winer even though I get paid to write and am frankly concerned about my future livelihood. But from a societal view we need more citizen creators. We need backtalk. We need peer to peer creation. Making media provides more satisfaction than viewing media. Amateurs probably need a little more than the Think System to create media that does not squander the good will of the audience, like the vacation slide show that goes on toooooo long. But with training and practice even middle schoolers can put on a credible musical. Surely their parents can do the same.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media