This essay was originally commissioned in 1995 by the Getty Art History Information Program for their website. The author was a graduate student at The MIT Media Lab when this essay was written.

Cyberspace is Not Disneyland:
The Role of the Artist in a Networked World

Amy Bruckman
College of Computing
Georgia Institute of Technology

Cyberspace is not Disneyland. It's not a polished, perfect place built by professional designers for the public to obediently wait on line to passively experience. It's more like a finger-painting party. Everyone is making things, there's paint everywhere, and most work only a parent would love. Here and there, works emerge that most people would agree are achievements of note. The rich variety of work reflects the diversity of participants. And everyone would agree, the creative process and the ability for self expression matter more than the product.

On the net, everyone is becoming an artist. On the World Wide Web, millions of people are constructing multimedia self-portraits on their home pages. Howard Rheingold's home page has a collection of his essays, a "pixel theatre" of his paintings (including one on his greenhouse door that he finished by only painting on his birthday each year for five years), a diary from his travels (with pictures and pointers to the home pages of interesting people he visits), and a complete copy of his most recent book. Judith Donath has a home page for her car, complete with its own diary ("New muffler today, plus tail pipe. All from Midas. It feels great to be back on the road.") People adorn their home pages with photos of themselves and their pets, lists of their favorite things (web sites, restaurants, places to rollerblade), and news about their lives. Each home page is an expression of self. The art of the self portrait has never been so popular.

Teenagers use the net to exchange "demos"--short animations requiring a high level of both artistic and technical skill. Dave Green writes that

"demos are the last bastion of passionate, crazed, enthusiast-only programming, crafted purely for the hell of it by inspired teenagers working entirely in their spare time. The teens create jaw-dropping audiovisual effects beyond the dreams of most multimedia designers. Constantly striving to better their rivals, devotees of the demo scene cram spectacular three- or four-minute presentations onto a single 800-Kbyte floppy disk, fitting them into tiny amounts of memory. Freely spread by disk-swapping over bulletin boards and other sites on the Internet, then replayed on home computers all over the planet, each demo becomes a piece of digital graffiti proclaiming the superiority of the gang that created it. Demos are made by the rock-and-roll groups of code." [Green, Dave. "Demo or Die". Wired, July 1995, p. 142]

The "demo scene" is a community of artists with its own rituals, rules for inclusion and exclusion from the community, and standards for what constitutes good work. Of course the traditional arts scene has always been made up of many overlapping artistic communities. The net is fertile ground for the proliferation of a myriad of such artistic communities and cultures. As the number of communities increases, more people are able to find a group that suits them.

People are flocking to computer networks not for a more convenient way to find stock quotes and movie reviews, but to send email to friends and relatives, to participate in discussions of issues, to express who they are on home pages. People come to the net to participate and create, not to receive information passively. "The Information Superhighway" is a misnomer. It's not about information; it's about community, participation, and creation.

Tools for individual artistic creation have long been widely available--in industrialized nations, paper and paints, paper and pencil, wood and chisels, are affordable to everyone, as is adequate free time to use them. The tools and the opportunity for artistic creation have long existed, but are not used as often as they could be. The missing ingredient that the net contributes is audience. Teenagers make demos not in isolation but to impress one another. People design home pages not to look at alone, but to present themselves to the world. Having an audience motivates creation.

Most home pages and demos don't get looked at by very many people--but a few friends and relatives is enough. It's the concept of having a potentially large audience that matters. And while having an audience is an essential element in motivating creation, it's the individual's creative process that matters more than the product. The main benefit is to the creator, not the viewer, but the viewer is still an essential element.

I gave a talk on this subject at the 1995 Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. During the questions period, an artist stood up and delivered a long, indignant speech. How can you call ordinary people "artists"? Artists, he said, hold a fundamentally different relationship to society. Their job is to be critical of the broader culture--to comment on it from a unique perspective. Besides, would you call someone who does science experiments in their basement on Saturdays a "scientist"? My answer was an unequivocal yes. "Science" is a way of seeing the world, and the world would be a better place if more people saw themselves as scientists.

This is not to say that all scientists or artists are "equal." Rather, I believe we need to rethink what words like "better" and "equal" mean. I do not advocate a completely subjective notion of quality. While I see the benefit of the creative process to the artist as primary, one can still speak of a secondary benefit of the product to other members of the community--and that is a rough metric for "quality." A work that entertains, inspires, enlightens, delights, or disgusts (provokes some significant reaction) in a broad audience can be seen as having a different "quality" than one appreciated only by its creator. A work exists only in relationship to an audience. It's not meaningful to call something "better" without saying better for who, when, and where, and according to whose judgment. For example, in casual conversation I would say that Howard Rheingold's home page is "better" than mine. This is shorthand for: "it is my personal, subjective belief that if a large number of typical net users were shown both of those pages and asked which one they found to be more significant to them, a large majority would choose Howard's over mine."

The Indignant Artist was right in one sense: defining oneself as an artist--highlighting being an artist as a central part of one's identity, and participating in the community of professional artists and art critics--is qualitatively different from being an amateur or hobbyist. However, that difference does not necessarily imply a corresponding difference in the significance of the work for either professional or lay viewers. Significance is relative to a particular artistic community, and each community has its own set of criteria for what constitutes good work. The word "artist" is broad enough to refer to both the professional and growing number of amateur artistic communities. To blur the distinction between them is also to blur the distinction between high and popular culture, a phenomenon which has progressed throughout this century. The network is accelerating this blurring, towards a greater pluralism of creative expression.

My research at the MIT Media Lab focuses on the design of virtual communities. I particularly aim to create spaces that encourage and support the creativity of their inhabitants. MediaMOO is a text-based virtual reality environment (or "MUD") designed to be a professional community for media researchers. MediaMOO opened in January 1993, and as of September 1995 has 1000 members from 32 countries. Teachers, librarians, anthropologists, and computer scientists come to make new professional contacts and exchange ideas about the future of media technology. As I write, people inhabit places in the virtual world called "The Distraction Factory," "Tari's Very Fashionable Hovel," "Curtis Common," "The Panopticon," and simply "basement." The world of MediaMOO is built by its inhabitants. The process of extending the virtual world, building new places and objects, gives the individual an opportunity for creative self-expression, promotes a sense of connectedness of the individual to the community, and helps the virtual world to reflect the rich diversity of its inhabitants.

Someone once called MediaMOO "a multicultural mess." I was never so flattered. The comment raises a number of important issues: when everyone is a creator, things don't always form a harmonious whole. One person's home on MediaMOO is called "Cottonwood Grove"; another is "The Letter 'U.'" These don't go particularly well together. If you have a sufficiently postmodern sensibility, the odd juxtapositions are delightful. But what if you prefer a bit more coherence? One way to balance freedom of expression of the individual with a desire for regularity or "quality control" by the broader community is the notion of private versus public space. In private space, anything goes; public space is regulated by community standards. A community must develop standards and procedures for controlling what is permitted in shared spaces. I remember the controversy over Richard Serra's sculpture "Tilted Arc." Workers in New York's (nonvirtual) City Hall Plaza said it was oppressive, casting a dark shadow over a previously cheerful square. The sculptor countered that it was a work "about oppression." After a bitter legal battle, it was torn down. Real communities have long needed mechanisms for regulating the form of public spaces. Virtual communities need such mechanisms even more. And they need mechanisms that cause less bitter in-fighting than the controversy over "Tilted Arc."

I did not create most of MediaMOO--I created a context for its members to create it. Which is not to say that I didn't strongly influence the form it took. Through initial design decisions and personal conduct, the founder of a community establishes a tone and mood, shaping but not controlling the community's evolution. For example, one key design decision I made was to encourage each member to extend the virtual world. Every member of MediaMOO automatically has the right to program new objects, and can build new (privately located) spaces without having to ask permission. In many MUDs, these privileges are reserved for an elite.

On the net, there is a need for a new kind of artist: one who inspires and facilitates other people's creativity. An excellent example is Abbe Don. Don's work entitled "We Make Memories" is a multimedia history of four generations of Jewish women in her family, and their slow but inevitable assimilation into American culture. Click on a family snapshot, and Don tells the photo's story out loud. Regarding a photo of her great-grandmother baking bread Don says,

"One of my great-grandmother's claims to fame was that she never bought bread from a store. Once a week, she made challah, bagels, and onion bulkies. When she taught me to bake challah, I watched as her hands kneaded the dough so smoothly. When I tried, the dough would barely move, and my arms got tired right away. Her braid of challah was smooth and robust. Mine was all crooked, and looked like the clay ashtrays I used to bring home from kindergarten."

Photo copyright 1995 by Abbe Don

Don's next project, called "Share With Me a Story," is a toolkit to help others to make multimedia histories of their own families. It begins with some stories about storytelling, and then has examples of digitized snapshots from a variety of families, with associated audio stories. Finally, "Share With Me a Story" provides an easy-to-use interface for scanning your own photos, and recording stories about them.

Don sees two roles for the artist--one is "absolutely first-person,'authored,'" and the other is "artist as catalyst." Her moving and personal "We Make Memories" serves as inspiration and model for others to create family histories. "Share With Me a Story" gives people tools to make it easy to follow through on that impulse. These works predate the World Wide Web and were originally designed for stand-alone computers, but Don is a multimedia designer by profession, and the shift towards users becoming creators of content motivated her design of several of her pieces. At the time of this writing, she is currently moving these works to the web, creating a family history web site. In the past, "Share with Me a Story" has been used primarily in museum installations. Visitors scan in photos they happen to have in their wallets, and record stories about them. Now Don will be able to gather stories from around the world, mixing those contributed over the net with those contributed at museum kiosks. Don comments that the web will help her gather stories from a more diverse group of people, and also "helps people make connections, exchange email, and have an ongoing dialog."

To be an artistic instigator, you need to provide others with inspiration, adequate tools, and audience. My dissertation project, MOOSE Crossing, is a text-based virtual world for kids on the Internet. MOOSE Crossing is intended to give kids a meaningful context to learn reading, writing, and programming. To make it easier for kids to learn to program, I've developed a new programming language called MOOSE. There is also a client program called MacMOOSE designed to make the programming interface less awkward. The initial virtual world is filled with sample programs designed to be tantalizingly unfinished, leaving room for extensions and refinements. For example, there's a bear that laughs when you tickle it, an elephant that tells elephant jokes, and a place where you can change the season of the year.

My goal in the design of MOOSE Crossing is to encourage children to be creative. In creating a fertile environment, the community of people is as important as the software and the initial examples of objects and places. Children provide an audience for one another's creations, and motivation to refine their work. Barry Kort, founder of MicroMUSE, the first MUD for kids on the Internet, tells the story of a child who returned from a family trip to Yosemite to build a model of it in the virtual world, complete with a geyser and a wandering moose. In the initial version, the child's spelling was awful. Feedback from peers and adults was mixed, and the child was motivated to revise his work. His virtual Yosemite is now a grand success--something he can be proud of, and that gives him a degree of status within the community. Not only has his spelling improved, but he recently entered and won a spelling bee. His work on this project was authentically motivated--he started it because he wanted to, and worked hard to refine it because the opinion of his peers mattered to him. A networked context for creative work gives people an essential element in inspiring and motivating creation: audience.

The net is not a place for "professionals" to publish and the masses to merely download. Online, everyone is becoming an artist; everyone is a creator. The network is providing new opportunities for self expression, and demands a new kind of artist: the artistic instigator, someone who inspires other people to be creative by setting a positive example with their own work, and providing others with tools, context, and support. That support can be technical, aesthetic, or emotional--encouraging others to believe in their own capabilities and take the risk of trying to make something personally meaningful.

Cyberspace is not Disneyland. It's not a place to wait on line to see the virtual Pirates of the Caribbean. It's a place to build your own pirates, your own Caribbean, your own self portrait, your family history, your animation demo, your thoughtful essay, your silly poem. Online, it's true you can download paintings from the Louvre--but much more interesting is the fact that you can upload your own. Or better yet, inspire others to do so.


I'd like to thank Jack Cheng, Jennifer Gonzalez, Mitchel Resnick, and McKenzie Wark for reading drafts of this article.