Alex Steer

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Content-sharing, medieval and modern

717 words

There's wisdom in two recent short pieces from the Ogilvy PR blog. The first is in Claire Lekwa's You Are What You Share: Why Pitchfork Gets It:

Today, sharing content is easy. But sharing goes beyond what happens online. Everything we choose to share about ourselves, in social media or face-to-face, defines who we are to others.

The second is in Maury Postal's The Medium Is Now More Than Ever The Message:

[McLuhan's] concept [that the medium is the message] has been refined and reborn in many forms and has underwritten the success of platforms like tumblr—by far the best self-expression mechanism in the known-universe—by allowing people to discover content they truly care about and claim ownership of in an active, vibrant community—one that fosters their personal growth and validates their actions or feelings.

[My emphasis.]

The implication is bigger than the individual points. It's that there's a growing emphasis on sharing and curation as a form of creative act. This is the sort of thing that divides people, obviously. I've heard it said that the emphasis on clipping and copying, made possible by platforms like Tumblr, is becoming a poor substitute for creativity. We're not writing, we're just pinching.

On the offchance that you read a lot of 18th/19th-century cultural history, you might recognize this argument as the sort of privileging of individual creativity and the originating genius that's cited as one of the defining traits of Western European romanticism. There's a tendency to think of the obsession with original creation as a Renaissance thing. It's not - it's much more strongly linked to romanticism. Anyway...

I'm in the opposite camp. I think it's hard to look at something like Dads Are The Original Hipsters, a very self-consciously curated thing, and not see some creativity in the selection and arrangement. If the 'original creativity rules' camp can be called the Romantic Mindset, I'm going to be just as cheeky and call this 'cut-and-paste creativity' model the Bonaventure Theory.

During the explosion of manuscript production in Europe in the central Middle Ages, the clerics who were churning out material didn't have Tumblr, but they did have a pretty elegant theory of the different ways in which you could contribute to the creative process. Bonaventure, the thirteenth-century bishop of Albano, pointed out four different modus faciendi librum (ways of making books):

Sometimes a man writes others' words, adding nothing and changing nothing; and he is simply called a scribe [scriptor]. Sometimes a man writes others' words, putting together passages which are not his own; and he is called a compiler [compilator]. Sometimes a man writes both others' words and his own, but with the others' words in prime place and his own added only for purposes of clarification; and he is called not an author but a commentator [commentator]. Sometimes a man writes both his own words and others', but with his own in prime place and others' added only for purposes of confirmation; and he should be called an author [auctor].

[Translated by J.A. Burrow in Medieval Writers and their Work.]

I like this model of the creative process. You'll notice it doesn't say anything about which kind of creation is best. It certainly doesn't privilege individual creativity- there's no option for writing something completely original in the bishop's scheme. The implication is that writing is to some extent always sharing - and that sometimes just sharing is enough. Bonaventure's thinking was hugely influential for several hundred years. You can see later medieval writers - including John Gower and Christina de Pizan - using it to humbly suggest that their very original creations were just cut-and-paste jobs - I'm just a humble compiler, not a real author at all, they'd say.

The simple, powerful idea is that individual creativity is beautiful, but sharing creates culture. It's good to see that idea coming to life again.

# Alex Steer (17/07/2011)