So to get to the heart of the matter that I’ve been discussing in the previous two posts: I doubt that Clay Shirky writes lolcat captions. It would be a waste of his time, wouldn't it? He has better things to do, doesn't he? After all, as his Wikipedia bio shows, this is a guy who has spent his whole adult life in culturally elite institutions — where, let me add, is just where he ought to be, given his sheer smarts, his lively imagination, and his intellectual ambition.
But when a guy like that says to millions of other people, “You folks just go ahead and make your lolcats and add stuff to your MySpace pages; we all have our own contributions to make, however small they might be, to the collective knowledge” — isn't there something deeply condescending about that? Isn't the implication quite strong that people should content themselves with their jokes and status updates because they really aren't capable of anything more demanding?
Which, I think, accounts for my excessive annoyance at Shirky’s line of thought: I come from the lolcats-and-MySpace classes. But because lolcats and MySpace didn't exist when I was growing up, and because my parents happened to be readers, I was able to assemble — largely by myself, because my education up through high school was poor at best — a framework of intellectual possibility that I was ultimately able to pursue and inherit. Though not without a great deal of work and many blind stumbles and detours along the way. (And, I might add, I acquired this vision largely through reading the kinds of books that many, perhaps most, people in my profession dismiss as trash. But that’s a topic for another post, or essay, or book.)
So I suppose I’m a little touchy about Shirky’s arguments because they diminish, or perhaps dismiss altogether, the value of my own early aspirations, and the labor I put in to achieve them. But there’s another, less personal and perhaps less subjective, way to resist Shirky’s model, and that’s the one that Jaron Lanier offers in You Are Not a Gadget: for Lanier, the celebration of the crowd or the hive comes at an unacceptably high price when it leads to the diminishment of the person — indeed, of the very idea of personhood. I’ll return to these ideas at some point, but for now I just want to note and endorse something Lanier says at the outset of his book, in a sentence that incisively undermines Shirky’s blithe confidence that every form of online participation is both generous and creative: “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.” And the process of becoming somebody takes time, effort, discipline, and study. It doesn't happen through posting lolcats.