Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Blogging and the concept of the “amateur”

A comparison of “amateurization” in blogging and the culture of amateur science in ninteenth-century Britain. Any Victorian scientist could look at how the blog world works– how credit is distributed, how expertise built, how communication serves as the bedrock of reputation– and recognize the rules instantly.

A couple recent articles have described bloggers and blogging in terms of "amateurs" or "amateurization." The Columbia Journalism Review had a piece on blogging titled "The New Amateur Journalists Weigh In;" about the same time, Tom Coates wrote a piece on "(Weblogs and) The Mass Amateurisation of (Nearly) Everything…;" and last year, Clay Shirky wrote a piece on "Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing."

All these articles share a couple assumptions. The personal computer, Internet, and blogging programs and services have lowered the technical and economic barriers that previously had limited the reach of amateurs: your PC can be as good as Paul Krugman’s, and your site on Blogger can be as easy to get to as the New York Times. Indeed, there’s a tendency to assume that the key distinction between amateurs and professionals has been one of access: professionals have had access to information, to distribution channels, and to audiences, and they’ve kept that access restricted to themselves (the greedy bastards). Computers and the Internet end that monopoly, opening everything– music, journalism, photography, political analysis, pornography, even medical diagnosis, though definitely caveat emptor on the last one ("my aunt knew someone who cured her liver disease with a poultice of Noxema, crushed burlap, and kitty litter"). The last two, come to think of it.

Some people have taken umbrage with the term "amateurization," on the grounds that it’s pejorative: empowerment is what’s going on, they argue. But I think that the term "amateur" is exactly the right one– if we know who amateurs once were, and what being an amateur meant. Essentially, bloggers are operating a system that Victorian gentleman scientists would have recognized immediately.

The notion that being a "professional" is a good thing, and that professionals know more than amateurs, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the mid-1800s, being a "professional" meant that you were a shill, a hired gun: you dealt in skill or knowledge rather than coal, but you weren’t that much higher than the collier. The people who had real credibility were amateurs. Why was that?

Amateurs didn’t get paid, and had no direct financial interest in their objects of interest and expertise. They could be trusted because they were disinterested.

Because they were often men of leisure, they had the time to pursue their studies intensively.

They could be what historian of science Martin Rudwick called "gentlemanly specialists," deeply and publicly knowledgeable.

Those who weren’t independently wealthy could still be credible experts, just on narrower topics. A country parson or carpenter could become an expert on local butterflies, or collect fossils from the local cliffs, or know a frighteningly large amount about fancy pigeon breeds. They could be trusted because they had first-hand knowledge.

Amateurs could move faster than professionals. As one contemporary put it, amateurs had "the power of taking up any subject he pleases, pursuing it so long as he believes in the possibility of success." Professional scientists, in contrast, labored under gigantic teaching burdens, or numbing scientific routinesstandards and measurements work, testing, and the like.

Professionals didn’t have the opportunity to be entrepreneurial or ambitious; they had work to do.

Being a professional didn’t give you access to instruments or equipment that wealthy amateurs couldn’t also get. In England in 1860, the coolest laboratories and most powerful instruments weren’t necessarily at Cambridge or some government laboratory: they were in country houses, or the suburban homes of industrialists and merchants. Likewise, some good oceanographic research was conducted on the yachts of the wealthy, not government vessels. (Charles Darwin basically paid his own way aboard the Beagle, and spent most of that five-year journey off the ship.)

Finally, being an amateur didn’t mean being unknown. Amateur astronomers, botanists, archaeologists, etc. were connected together through tight personal correspondence networks, through scientific societies, and through publications. Indeed, the absence of the well-defined "professional" reward of career advancement made amateurs fight harder for credit.

There were various reasons this system came apart, but they don’t need to concern us at the moment (they come down to: Thomas Huxley destroyed it). But what strikes me is how much the moral economy of serious blogging seems to be rediscovering the rules of Victorian gentlemanly scientists. Being an "amateur" blogger doesn’t mean you’re a dilettante: it almost always means that you don’t get paid to do this, but you find other ways to define your credibility:

  • You talk about what you know best.
  • You work quickly, and stay relevant.
  • You experiment.
  • You link to other people’s blogs. If you’re smart, you recognize the critical role that communication– with your readers, with your fellow amateurs– plays in defining your status and visibility.
  • You have your turf but you also see yourself as part of a larger enterprise, and behave accordingly.

Any Victorian scientist could figure out the rules in a heartbeat.

Update: See also this followup.

4 Comments

  1. I find the focus on _amateurs_ to be difficult. It creates a false dichotomy between amateurs and “professionals” in terms of the “creation” of culture. The better distinction is probably made between censored and uncensored or filtered and unfiltered. “Professionals” creating culture are people who have been networked into certain systems that have certain powers to produce certain types of media or ideas. Blogs end, as you say, our “silence” and also increase our personal power, wouldn’t you agree? But we’re never “unprofessional.” In fact, I find the concept of professionalism, in general, to be overused and empty.

  2. I was going to say “big difference, though – the 17th learned gentlemen were leisured because they were members of the aristocracy, and now anybody can have a blog” when I thought about the percentage of the world’s population that have 24/7 access to broadband. duh. But I will say that the dynamics you describe apply to “non-serious” blogging as well as “serious blogging”, and that the blogosphere is highly differentiated because of the social identities of those who participate in it. Great post, I enjoyed it.

  3. An even more literal modern analog to Victorian gentlemen scientists are the researchers profiled in this Wired:

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html?pg=3&topic=crowds&topic_set=

    Essentially, companies like Procter & Gamble or DuPont post their tough-nut research problems on a group site, and let dilettante researchers have a crack at them. Whoever solves the problem first is paid by the company.

    This has two clear differences from the Victorian model: 1) they are conceptualized as members of a crowd–perhaps even a community–of scientists, rather than as lone auteurs, 2) the researchers are paid.

    The relationship between the gentlemen scientist and the modern blogger/dilettante is a neat concept I am still working through–thanks!
    —–
    PING:
    TITLE: Amatörforskare använder nätet
    URL: http://www.gustavholmberg.com/tomrum/archives/002661.html
    IP: 209.68.1.93
    BLOG NAME: Det perfekta tomrummet
    DATE: 01/20/2005 12:47:32 AM
    Amatörer kastade sig över de obehandlade bildfilerna från Huygens och släppte processade bilder snabbare än proffsen. Här är ett bildgalleri…
    —–
    PING:
    TITLE: Amateurs and professionals
    URL: http://Blogger.iftf.org/Future/000636.html
    IP: 64.157.92.82
    BLOG NAME: IFTF’s Future Now
    DATE: 12/21/2004 12:30:42 PM
    The distinction between professionals and amateurs is one that’s so familiar today as to seem perfectly natural. Professionals are serious, amateurs are dilettantes; professionals know what they’re doing, and have credentials and training, amateurs do…
    —–
    PING:
    TITLE: Amateurs and professionals
    URL: http://Blogger.iftf.org/Future/000636.html
    IP: 64.157.92.92
    BLOG NAME: Future Now
    DATE: 11/29/2004 02:46:17 PM
    The distinction between professionals and amateurs is one that’s so familiar today as to seem perfectly natural. Professionals are serious, amateurs are dilettantes; professionals know what they’re doing, and have credentials and training, amateurs do…
    —–
    PING:
    TITLE: Amateurs…
    URL: http://blog.epistemographer.com/archives/000064.html
    IP: 207.44.136.114
    BLOG NAME: Epistemographer
    DATE: 09/24/2003 10:35:06 PM
    Been meaning to write something about this for a few days, but I’ve had my hands full… A few days ago, Alex at Relevant History wrote about the rise of the “amateur” vs. the “professional” with regard to blogs: Some…
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    PING:
    TITLE: The Amateur in History
    URL: http://members.optusnet.com.au/creativitymachine/2003_09_21_creativitymachine_archive.html#106421909637550318
    IP: 64.239.11.193
    BLOG NAME: Creativity Machine
    DATE: 09/22/2003 01:40:13 AM
    Alex from Relevant History provides a nice counterweight to all the mass amateurisation hoopla, reminding us of what Wimbledon tennis commentators never forgot.
    —–
    PING:
    TITLE: Amatrer i media och vetenskap
    URL: http://www.gustavholmberg.com/tomrum/archives/001724.html
    IP: 209.68.1.93
    BLOG NAME: Det perfekta tomrummet
    DATE: 09/22/2003 12:13:33 AM
    “But what strikes me is how much the moral economy of serious blogging seems to be rediscovering the rules of

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