A close-up of a jar full of knitting needles

Does competitiveness have a place in creative communities?

I originally published this post on the Portsmouth and Southsea Consortium‘s Website in March 2017 as part of the PortsConsort Postcard series.

To us, a creative community means a naturally diverse group of inter-, multi- and transdisciplinary practitioners, participating actively in collaboration and co-operation for mutual benefit, prioritising the exchange of advice, knowledge and support over competition, influence and status. This type of community-based and driven thinking and doing has brought us this far, to a point where the creative industries contribute significantly to cultural, societal and political development – not to mention local and national economies – so why does it feel as if we’re gently moving away from this?

Competition is increasingly prioritised over collaboration or co-operation in creative communities: ‘being number one’ in one’s discipline and having beaten one’s rivals is taking priority. Success is measured in likes, follows or sales, rather than the achievement of the goals a creative practitioner sets for themselves, and these may be encouraged – or even obliged – to rank themselves against their contemporaries using these numbers. Competition has led to a subtle yet discernible shift in behaviours found in creative communities.

What were once communities of support have become communities of surveillance, enabled by social media technologies as well as the socio-cultural conditioning that compels us to share the minutiae of our creative practices – from process to product. For the most part, social media use is beneficial to the creative community, enabling connections to be made across the World as well as the participation of those from isolated or marginalised groups. It enables creative growth, as users take allow themselves to be influenced by, and take inspiration from, those behind the accounts they follow.

On the other hand, there are those who make use of content posted in a behaviour analogous with industrial espionage: To identify the work of others as a foundation on which they can build their own success, making alterations to another’s process or product, or the way(s) in which the latter is marketed. This happens at various levels, from independent entrepreneur all the way to corporate monolith; and, when it’s discovered that this has taken place, the effect on the wider creative community is detrimental – it weakens and scatters us.

Our communities have been places in which we can share our ideas and opinions; glimpses into our materials and methods, and places in which we can seek the input of others on our processes and products. They should be a place in which we shouldn’t feel compelled to waste our imaginations on worrying what someone may do with the information we’ve made available to them, but this is emerging as a protective behaviour:

An increasing number of creative practitioners and entrepreneurs are practically visibly reticent to discuss ideas, research and development in case this is (at least) appropriated or (at worst) stolen by others present. People’s copyright and intellectual property, once visible but protected, have become invisible – isolated and insulated from what is, in essence, only the potential for these to be taken and violated – not the certainty this will happen.

The shift to a focus on competition over collaboration and co-operation, and the constraints this places on our creative communities, runs the risk of cutting us off from one another and disabling the part of who we are and what we do that works with others to allow us to reach our full potential. A focus on ‘being number one’ runs the risk of preventing us from both being part of others’ success, and allowing others to contribute to our own.

We don’t say the above to discourage competition entirely – indeed, we recognise that, for many, some competition has a positive impact, and enables a significant number of those who work independently to make the required efforts for success in any form. It is said, however, said to encourage thought and debate about the nature and effect of competition between and amongst peers and colleagues within creative communities; what motivates competition in creative communities, and to arrest and reduce the negative impacts of this.

And so, as a result of the points discussed above, we see more and more creative practitioners working alone, and sharing less of what they do. This means that creative communities are smaller and less active, and it’s becoming decreasingly possible to take advantage of the almost immeasurable benefits of the expertise and experience of others.

We do have to ask whether or not this is the future of creative communities – their natural evolution. Are we content to work by ourselves and limit the contact that others have with that work? Are the passive and anonymous interactions on social media platforms enough to help sustain our creative development and activities? Are we satisfied we’re doing all we can do when we’re in our silos and echo chambers, without the benefit of others to act as sounding boards and sense-checkers?

Take from this post what you will – we open up its content to our creative community and beyond. Think about what these words mean to you, and to others; and reflect on your creative lives – professional and personal, public and private, and what these have become because of others, and what they would be without others. Think also of your potential to contribute to others’ creative lives. And, then, share these thoughts with others. Find those who will both agree and disagree with you; those who will challenge you to think in different ways. In doing so, you’ll have found a community.

And, once you’ve found it, ask yourself if that’s something to be lost or exploited.

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