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Creativity in the 21st Century (Part 2): Is the Web a Hindrance or an Aid?

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In the first part of our dialog about creativity in the 21st century, I discussed why each of us needs to flex our creative brains to survive and thrive in the rapid-change climate of this new century. Because the rules of the game for everything from business success to parenting to interpersonal relationships seem to be changing (and are indeed diverging from the this-is-the-way-it's-done models of only 10 or 12 years ago), we need to come up with creative strategies, ideas, and products if we want to survive -- and, more importantly, if we want to help shape the world around us.

Okay, what do I mean by creative? Although there are many definitions of the word, the one that I personally prefer is this: creativity is the act of taking bits of information -- from your internal store of memories, knowledge, and skills or from the external environment -- and combining and recombining them in novel and original ways to come up with a new idea or product that serves a purpose.

This definition incorporates the two factors from renowned creativity researcher Frank Barron's definition that most researchers agree are important: in order to be considered creative, an idea, product, or action must

1) be novel or original, and
2) be useful or in some way adaptive.1

That means it's not enough just to have original thoughts; you also have to implement those thoughts into real-world form so that they can benefit either yourself or your audience. (Note that your audience can be anyone who would see, hear, use, or be affected by you work.) Follow me here. This also means that in order for you to be creative, you have to get your idea, work, product, or action out there in some useful or adaptive way for others to notice it and benefit from it.

And that's something of a problem in the 21st century. The good news is that it's easier to get your work out there than at any other time in history. For instance, writers no longer have to wait for a contract with one of the established publishing houses to get their books on the shelves. Self-publishing is becoming more accepted in the field and presents a legitimate outlet for authors. Also, e-books are becoming more popular -- and anyone with access to a computer can put one out. Musicians no longer need a recording contract with Sony to get their music into the marketplace.

Thanks to music editing software, a basement can become a recording studio, and most every garage band I know has put out a CD of their tunes or a website from which you can download an mp3 version. Likewise with films: My movie producer friends tell me that all you need is a high-end digital still camera with video capabilities to create work that can be projected onto a full-size movie theater screen (to say nothing of the video exposure of YouTube). And again, anyone with a computer can create an online art gallery to showcase their artwork.

The bad news, however, is that with every artist, author, videographer, and musician now having a world-wide platform on the web, it is more difficult to get quality work noticed. The internet bypasses the vetting system in which experts in a particular domain of creative activity used to evaluate new work to see if it was worthy of being out there. These experts (whom psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as "the field"2) include drama, movie, and art critics; gallery owners; recording producers; magazine and journal editors; publishers; and museum curators. Previously, work needed to gain their approval in order to be presented to the public. That meant a smaller amount of generally higher quality work was available.

Now, however, a potential audience must make their way through volumes of products of variable quality in order to find accomplished creative work. In short, with all the offerings that pass for art, literature, and music these days, it's harder to get high-quality work noticed (although I do note some ways you can get your work noticed in my new book, "Your Creative Brain").

Some say that the greater availability of creative output will lead to even more creative ideas cross-fertilizing each other in a new Golden Age. Others say the enormous volume of creative work of questionable quality, which is evaluated by the mass of internet users rather than a small field of qualified experts, will dilute the overall value of creative endeavor.

Is the lack of a vetting system detrimental to creativity? Or will the availability of creative work in the 21st century lead to a Golden Age?

I'd love to hear your opinion.

References:
1 Barron, F. (1969). Creative person and creative process. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
2 Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Implications of a systems perspective for the study of creativity. In R. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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