The striking differences of pro-amateurs and professionals marketplaces

I heard this absolutely amazing talk today via IT Conversations. Paul Graham last year upset a lot of people with his comments about Microsoft and Java in his hilarious Great Hackers at OScon 2004 which can still be found here on IT Conversations. But this time he turns his targets at the tradition workplace, professionalism and big business in the OScon 2005 keynote.

I wont go into details because I couldn't express the way Paul puts over the points in his own unique way. Here's the Blurb from IT Conversations.

Paul Graham, popular author and Lisp programmer, discusses what business can learn from open source. According to him, it's not about Linux or Firefox, but the forces that produced them. He delves into the reasons why open source is able to produce better software, why traditional workplaces are actually harmful to productivity and the reason why professionalism is overrated.

Paul takes blogging as an analogy and explains how the phenomenon is actually very similar to the open source movement. Both show that amateurs often surpass professionals in what they choose to do, because they love what they are doing. He also points out that in the age of the Internet, which has made collaboration extremely easy, large corporations find it difficult to compete with software produced by a bunch of inspired hackers. Paul also takes a dig at workplaces as we know them and illustrates how the most productive phase of any company is when it is still a startup.

I've always thought about blogs and opensource being quite similar in terms of there backgrounds, attitudes and coverage but nowhere at the level of Paul. I mean think about for one moment. Mainstream business has been talking about open source for a long time but and sees it as a treat to some of there propitery ways but tend to poke at it with a stick and not really adopt the open source methology. This statement can almost be put directly on the mainstream medias view of blogs. They poke around with it but not really adopt the methologies behind it.

Paul makes such good references to the false ceiling of professionalism and amateurism. He made a comment about the fact that the word amateur has been changed from its original meaning. So I had a little look around and he's right. From wikipedia's entry on amateur

The word amateur has at least two connotations. In the first, more widely used manner, it means someone performing some task without pay, in contrast to a “professional” who would be paid for the same task. In this sense, labeling someone an “amateur” can have a negative connotation. For example, amateur athletes in sports such as basketball or football would not be regarded as having ability on par with professional athletes in those sports.

Where this can be interesting is in the case of the Olympic Games. Most Olympic events required that the athletes be amateurs, or non-professionals. To receive pay to perform the sport could have disqualified an athlete from an event, as in the case of Jim Thorpe. Such regulations are now nonexistent for all Olympic sports with the exception of boxing.

Also in the areas of computer programming and open source, as well as astronomy and ornithology, many amateurs make very meaningful contributions equivalent to or exceeding those of the professionals. To many, description as an amateur is losing its negative meaning, and actually carries a badge of honor.

The other, perhaps somewhat obsolescent usage, stems from the French form of the Latin root of the word meaning a “lover of”. (See amateurism.) In this sense, retaining its French inflexion (“am-a-tEUR”), an amateur may be as competent as a paid professional, yet is motivated by a love or passion for the activity, like a connoisseur. In the 17th and 18th centuries virtuoso had similar connotations of passionate involvement.

Indeed, another thriving example of such work is Amateur Dramatics – whether plays or musical theater. Often performed to high standards (but lacking the budgets of the professional West End theatre/Broadway theatreversions) and with an intense passion for the scene.

It has been suggested that the crude, all or nothing categories of professional or amateur should be reconsidered. A historical shift is occurring with the rise of Pro-Ams, a new category of people that are pursuing amateur activities to professional standards.

This is a sticking point for a lot of the opposition to many things, and thinking about it more. Its got to me too. For example, recently I was pulled into a heated battle about the quality of content in blogs. The other parties were saying the writing was not professional enough. Now instead of outlining examples of brilliant writing like Paul Ford's Ftrain. I should have said no, on a whole its amateur writing but thats no reflection on the quality. I was drawn into a debate about professionalism without me realizing. Miles said something profound about my blog the other day, which relates so well to this and I only just saw the link. Obviously this is me power phrasing – I read your blog because its your thoughts and ideas not some wannabe wank wanting to play by the mainstream rules. And he's right, I dont want my blog to be in the Technorati top 100. I dont care that my blog is worth nothing to the mainstream media, its not the rules I'm playing by sorry.

Cluetrain #81 : Have you noticed that, in itself, money is kind of one-dimensional and boring? What else can we talk about?

Cluetrain #88 : We have better things to do than worry about whether you'll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?

Amateursation (is there such a word?) once removed from its below professional setting, its really easy to reclaim back the word as its what drives the long tail of Internet content. But more interestingly is the Pro-amateur word which I would categories some of the podcasts I hear and watch as. For example, IT conversations is a pro-am of podcasting. Its content is not broad like mainstream media, it sticks to a niche audience and adopts all the values and spirit of the amateur marketplace. Likewise the Rev3 guys are certainly the Pro-am of the videoblogging. I cant quite put my finger on it but Digital Life TV feels closer to mainstream media than Systm.Maybe thats why I end up skipping some parts?

I'm not quite done with Paul Graham yet….

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Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.