The democratisation of everything and the curators who will save our collective ass

Over the last few years we’ve seen old barriers to creativity coming down, one after the other. New technologies and services makes it trivial to publish text, whether by blog or by print-on-demand. Digital photography has democratised a previously expensive hobby. And we’re seeing the barriers to movie-making crumble, with affordable high-quality cameras and video hosting provided by YouTube or Google Video and their ilk.

Music making has long been easy for anyone to engage in, but technology has made high-quality recording possible without specialised equipment, and the internet has revolutionised distribution, drastically disintermediating the music industry.

Even sculpture is going to succumb, as Second Life residents can create complex avatars and then have them 3D printed into a physical item. It’s early days now, but it’s not going to be long before you can create any shape you like and have it printed, allowing anyone to become a sculptor without ever having to deal with physical materials.

What’s left? Software maybe? Or maybe not.

If you read my personal blog, Chocolate and Vodka, you’ll know that I’m learning Ruby on Rails. Ruby is a programming language, and Rails is a programming framework. The way it works is that you set up your database, and then you ask Rails to, say, create your input form, and it writes the Ruby and the HTML you need in order to create a web page that allows you to input data into your database. I have very little ability when it comes to programming, but I am learning Ruby on Rails and I see no reason why I can’t start creating my own web-based applications within the next few months.

Like 3D printing, this is just the beginning. Ning and Coghead are attempts to make web app development easier, but as they, and RoR, evolve we’re going to see people with no programming skills able to make their own web apps without ever having to learn a line of code.

The future is going to contain lots of small, agile development projects, and I’m not the only one who thinks this. Evan Williams recently wrote about what he calls the Obvious model for building and running web products:

The Obvious model goes something like this:
* Build things cheaply and rapidly by keeping teams small and self-organized.
* Leverage technology, know-how, and infrastructure across products (but brand them separately, so they’re focused and easy to understand)
* Use the aggregate attention and user base of the network to gain traction for new services faster than they could gain awareness independently

evhead: The Birth of Obvious Corp.

Hosting is affordable; Google’s AdSense makes raising revenue from ads simple to set up (which doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get much revenue, mind); and blogs make it easier to promote your app. Just like every other area of human creativity, the barriers are coming down.

I was at a ‘future of…’ session the other week, and one of the trends I suggested was important was ‘the ubiquity of everything’. My fellow brainstormers didn’t seem to agree with the word ‘everything’, but I think we are moving towards a world where the only things that are rare are certain physical resources, and attention.

We already have more movies available than any one person can watch; more videos on YouTube; more blogs; more podcasts; more internet radio; more books; more software; more web apps; more games; more everything. It’s not like we’re starting from a point of scarcity here. And the flood of stuff is going to turn into a rampaging torrent as more people get online and more people get excited by their ability to participate and create.

In the past, the media acted as gatekeepers. They were the ones that went to the movie previews and told us which ones were good or crap. They were the ones who went to all the gigs and told us which bands were cool or rubbish. They were the ones who got the advance copy of the game and told us whether it was playable or tedious. They were the arbiters of taste, the people in the know, the ones with the connections needed to get at culture before us plebs got at it.

But we don’t need gatekeepers anymore. We don’t need people who stand between us and our stuff, deciding what to tell us about and what to ignore. We don’t need arbiters of taste. There are so many blogs out there reviewing software and web apps and films and books and every other sort of creativity that we don’t need to rely on the media’s old gatekeepers telling us what we should like.

We do, however, still need help. There’s just too much stuff around for us to know what’s out there, to keep up with what’s good, what works for us, what is worth investigation. What we need are curators. And we need them badly.

We need people who can gather together the things that are of interest to us, things that fit with our tastes or challenge us in interesting ways, things that enrich our lives and help us enjoy our time rather than waste it on searching.

Curators already exist. Some are people: Bloggers who sift through tonnes of stuff in order to highlight what they like, and who, if you have the same taste as them, can be invaluable to discovering new things to like. Some are aggregators: Site that gather lots of little bits of stuff and present them in aggregation and help us find the bits that the majority find to be good. Some are algorithms: recommendation systems and search.

But curation of the web has barely started. Much of what you could call curation that exists today is flawed: too many noisy opinions and not enough capacity to understand what I as an individual want; recommendation algorithms that produce seemingly random results; and the problem of ‘popularity begetting popularity’.

The great challenge for us, and the web, going forward is no longer breaking down the barriers to creation, it’s finding our way through the huge amounts of creativity that’s resulted.

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