Cooking Light magazine launched a website in 1994. As editor in chief 10 years later, I reasoned the more ways we could give readers to interact with the magazine (and each other), the better, so we established a channel on YouTube and set up a Facebook fan page. I personally launched @Cooking_Light on Twitter, every day parsing out 140-character behind-the-scenes tidbits about the magazine and teasers to upcoming issues. Readers responded enthusiastically; in a year, more than 8,000 followers submitted recipes, shared story leads, and delivered near-instant issue critiques. Today, @Cooking_Light has more than 38,000 followers. What began as an exercise in reaching out to readers now transcends the magazine with separate online communities that use its feed as a jumping-off point for their own supper clubs and recipe swaps.
David Gauntlett (@davidgauntlett on Twitter) would not be surprised. A sociologist who studies media and communications at the University of Westminster in London, Gauntlett traces a handmade line from the 19th century to today in Making Is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity, from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. In it, he maintains that creativity’s value is in the making, and that the communities built by people who share their work—people like the followers of Cooking Light—can aggregate the social capital needed to effect change.
Gauntlett, an engaging writer whose other books include Creative Explorations: New Approaches to Identity and Audiences (2007), and Media, Gender, and Identity: An Exploration (2008), specializes in media studies, and often conducts research by asking study participants to make assigned items—videos, drawings, Lego models—to reflect on the process of makin
Gauntlett is hardly the first sociologist to write about creativity; Howard S. Becker obliquely covered the topic in his classic book Art Worlds in 1982. But scholarly books on the subject are far more frequently written by educators such as Keith Sawyer (2006) and D. N. Perkins (1981), or psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) and Teresa Amabile (2011). The thrust in their work is on creativity’s effect on individuals. By exploring what’s at stake when society exercises creativity, I find Gauntlett covers important new ground.
Explaining the present through the past
Intriguingly, he invokes John Ruskin and William Morris, two preeminent English philosophers of the Industrial Age, to set the stage for his modern argument. Ruskin, an art critic and social thinker, wrote emphatically about his concern that the technological upheavals of the mid-1800s would rend people from the soul-nurturing countryside, and the shifting consumer economy would rob them of self-sufficiency. Morris, a prototypical industrial designer, imagined a future revolution when everyday people would reject buying cheap, often ugly, mass-produced goods, and instead make their own beautiful things.
That future, Gauntlett claims—with the additional assistance of social theorist Karl Marx, futurist Clay Shirky and educator Ivan Illich, among others—might be now. For the last 60 years, mass media have cast a long shadow in the western world, entrenching the restrictive, didactic culture Ruskin and Morris feared. The model of having an exclusive few create programming, products, and doctrine for the many even extended to schools, where “factory learning” produced successive generations of passive consumers.
A subtle but important shift occurred in the 1970s, during a counter-culture-inspired craft revival; Gauntlett sees today’s bloggers, YouTube videographers, and extreme crafters as their aesthetic heirs. He also sees changes in the way teachers approach students who are used to contacting each other online and sharing photos and videos; their classes take a collaborative bent, where inquiry is more important than parroting a teacher’s answers. With that, they are starting to succeed in the wake of flawed programs such as “No Child Left Behind” in the U.S.
What ‘creativity’ means now
Gauntlett devotes chapters to what it means to make, exploring both craft and digital creation. Then he ties together the sociological significance of connecting with sections on happiness, and social capital and communities. At the heart of the matter is Gauntlett’s own definition of creativity, one I believe should hold special interest for scholars of the domain. He begins by identifying Csikszentmihalyi’s generally accepted 1990 definition of eminent creativity as stemming from the “sit-back-and-be-told” culture, where a network of gatekeepers, God-like, judge what is creative. Instead, Gauntlett links everyday creativity with process, allowing anyone to determine what is creative. His version:
Everyday creativity refers to a process which brings together at least one active human mind, and the material or digital world, in the activity of making something which is novel in that context, and is a process that evokes a feeling of joy (p. 70).
The human drives to make and share have the power to transform culture, he says, as people gather online and in person. Furthermore, people are apt to be joyful and healthy if they work together on meaningful projects; Gauntlett quotes economist Richard Layard as saying that shared purpose is essential for human stability, a purpose that online communities can foster.
Yet, as much promise as the wired world might offer, it is no utopia. Gauntlett points out that privacy issues, the success of aggregators (including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter) that don’t pay for content, and the creativity-restraining, socially isolating matters of group think and one-size-fits-all templates are very real concerns.
What it could mean in the future
To counter, Gauntlett, like Morris, imagines futures for media, education, work, and politics and the environment that allow people to share their creativity with tools that don’t filter the results. He also envisions that people might be able to do so easily, without gatekeepers.
He admits things won’t effortlessly change. People are “comfortable with the undemanding role that contemporary culture expects us to enjoy,” he says (p. 244), yet the social cost is high. On the other hand, making and connecting are not necessarily easy, but convey more substantial rewards:
Making things is about transforming materials into something new, but it is also about transforming one’s sense of self. Creativity is a gift, not in the sense of it being a talent, but in the sense that it is a way of sharing meaningful things, ideas, or wisdom, which form bridges between people and communities (p. 245).
As a former media executive (one arguably, if benignly, complicit in the “sit-back-and-be- told” culture), I see the strength of Gauntlett’s logic. My experience with the magazine’s readers helped me understand that new media’s chief advantage is its ease as a platform for sharing, and that platform is changing the way mass media are produced and distributed, quite possibly forever. Encouragingly, the theories behind Making Is Connecting offer broad insight into the directions the times might take, and invite further scholarly research to render proof. As a student of creativity now, I find it compelling to consider participating in that research, illuminating what is happening, and perhaps helping create what happens next.
Having learned to knit and crochet in the 1970s, Mary Kay Culpepper considers her graduate education at the ICSC another form of extreme craft. Her website is www.MaryKayCulpepper.com.
Amabile, T., & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Becker, H. (1982). Art worlds. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Gauntlett, D. (2007). Creative explorations: New approaches to identity and audiences. London, England: Routledge.
Gauntlett, D. (2008). Media, gender, and identity: An exploration. 2nd ed. London, England: Routledge.
Perkins, D. N. (1981). The mind’s best work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sawyer, K. (2006). Explaining creativity: The science of human innovation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.