Mixel, Flickr, and playful creation: Why amateurs have all the fun

In 2004, I was posting about four pictures every day on Flickr. Signs, shoes, people on the street, and buildings were all fair game; I spent hours riding around the city at night taking pictures of bridges and trees to post early the next morning. Before 2004, I hadn’t considered myself a photographer at all—I only took snapshots of friends and family, and the most I expected of any picture I took was that it might get printed out and hung on the wall. Post-Flickr, I thought myself as much a photographer (albeit a bad one) as a programmer. What happened to change the way I took pictures and how I thought about them (and myself)? I certainly wasn’t a much better photographer in 2004 than 2003, and the tools I used to produce my photos hadn’t yet changed. One important clue: In 2004, I was being a photographer in public.

Flickr didn’t invent photo sharing, nor online community. Certainly, there was an element of being in the right place at the right time with respect to the cost and variety of digital cameras that helped drive their success, but I’d argue the brilliance of the service wasn’t their (extremely impressive) technology, but their (absolutely wonderful) sense of community. Any given photo from my newfound Flickr friends was pretty good, but the conversation around that photo—its “likes” and comments, and the photos inspired by and responding to it—made it a component of something much, much more interesting: an enthusiastic collection of creative acts by amateurs.

Fast-forward six years. Khoi Vinh leaves his position at the New York Times to take a good solid whack at an idea of his own. Over time, it emerges that the idea will be some sort of iPad app. A couple weeks ago, he released that app—Mixel, which claims to “let you make, share, and remix collages in a whole new way.” I’ve been playing with the app in nearly all my free moments since its release, and realized the other day that I hadn’t felt this sense of playful creation online since the early days of Flickr.

By this, I do not mean “creative play”. Games like Katamari Damacy, Glitch, and Little Big Planet all nurture that urge quite well, and it bears noting that Flickr itself emerged from Ludicorp’s Game Neverending, a beautiful and creative game that now bears some similarity to Glitch—no surprise, given that its creator, Stewart Butterfield, was one of Ludicorp’s founders. All these are great games, and far more fulfilling to me than first-person shooters with big sound effects; but they are still games. “Creative play” is well-defined and good for the soul, but what I mean by “playful creation” is:

The act of making art, possibly badly, in public, because it is fun.

Creating an environment conducive to this sort of creation isn’t easy; we are full of inhibitions about the art we make, and our society’s apprehension about amateurs is heavy stuff. The Flickr community took its share of flack from trained photographers, and “photoblogger” was a derisive term for a long while (much as “blogger” itself was—turns out the web is full of amateurs. Who knew?) Difficult as it is, though, the craft of celebrating amateurism is one of the most fruitful community acts there is—in no small part because there are so many of us.

Case in point: how many professional collage artists do you know? I went to college with one, but I’m pretty sure she’s no longer in the business. I know nobody whose knowledge of the collage canon intimidates me enough to keep me from making one myself. I hadn’t realized that until Khoi released Mixel. Everybody I meet on Mixel—whether a Facebook friend or a stranger whose collage remixes my own—is an emerging amateur collage artist. This means that we are all learning how to do this at the same time. Somebody posts a paper cutout of a cat’s head with the letters “Cc” above it—a kindergarten alphabet poster whose ingredients are a big black blob and a few white lines overlaid on it. Pretty neat! Somebody else comes along and makes a beetle: “B”, and soon people are filling the thread with black animal “cutouts” to complete the alphabet. This thread went from one to fourteen remixes in under five hours. The result is impressive to see, but it’s orders of magnitude more fun to participate in.

There’s a pretty broad spectrum of talent on Mixel so far, with some rough looking collages in the same streams as more polished work. Notably, the presence of the sketchy collages neither detracts from nor inhibits the refined ones—the quick collages feel just as “right” in the stream. Quick Is Not Necessarily Bad, and in fact, Bad Is Not Necessarily Bad; collage (and by proxy, Mixel) is the great art leveler. Mixel has almost no tools to use, so aiming for precision is futile. You can’t trace, you can’t magic-wand a path, you can’t blur or lighten or skew. You can crop an image, and you can scale it. As a result, Mixels all feel loose and natural; you get a lot of chunky, suggestive blocks of color and rough borders—and it’s okay, because that’s sort of everybody’s deal.

Even professional artists get the virtue of chunky-block amateurism, by the way. Jorge Colombo, who has become fairly well-known for the paintings and New Yorker covers he creates on his iPhone, once told a group of us at 20×200 how much he wished he could go back to a time when he didn’t really know how to paint on a touchscreen—that the broad swaths of color and jagged overlapping edges that characterized his first drawings were somehow more evocative of what he actually saw than the more precise work he’s able to execute now. He’s one of the most fervent proponents of amateurism I’ve ever met, because work you do when you don’t know how to do it is more fun, he says, and “if you are not having fun, why bother?”

Playful creation is exactly that, and while professionals can certainly have fun making art, it is by definition something amateurs can, and should, do—I eat my own dog food at the Fastest Possible Drawings of Everything project. A community of like-minded beginners is just the right incentive for anybody to start doing this. Mixel hasn’t tried to invent a new kind of community (the application uses Facebook to help find friends using the app and—somewhat controversially—as an authentication system), but the community that forms around an application whose sole purpose is to share collages turns out to be pretty wonderful.

When Flickr launched, it created a similar community for photography. In an interview in 2006, Caterina Fake, one of Flickr’s founders, pointed out how foreign the notion of sharing photos with strangers was in 2004:

When we started the company, there were dozens of other photosharing companies such as Shutterfly, but on those sites there was no such thing as a public photograph – it didn’t even exist as a concept – so the idea of something ‘public’ changed the whole idea of Flickr.

So maybe that’s it, then. One reason I grew as a photographer so suddenly in 2004 was because Flickr (and the smaller community at Fotolog, which launched two years earlier) quickly made sharing lots of photos with lots of strangers very easy in a way that—before 2002—was sort of impossible. There were a few photoblogs out there, but the software was tricky to set up and had none of the network effect that Flickr did; most didn’t incentivize interaction, and none were able to facilitate the kinds of play with other photographers and observers than Flickr really excelled at.

I can’t say that Mixel will stick the way Flickr did, mostly because Flickr serves a much broader variety of purposes and photographers (its day job is baby pictures), but the essential act is the same. (In fact, by putting “remixing” at the heart of the application, it is in a significant way more playful in its mission than Flickr was at its birth.) So how is Mixel circa 2011 so much like Flickr in 2004?

Swap in “photographer” for “collage artist” and “photos” for “collages” and “Flickr” for “Mixel” and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a lot still to improve about Mixel, but as a launch, it’s super inspiring. Khoi and team have put together something that we had forgotten how to build—a meaningfully happy community of amateur creators. In the pantheon of tools that facilitate playful creation, they’re in good company, and I’m glad to have rediscovered that space as a result. While Flickr helped make me a better photographer, it also indirectly led me to my work at 20×200 and introduced me to a great group of people online and in NYC who were becoming good photographers and better friends. You can’t ask more from an application, and you’d better pay attention when one comes around.

tangentialism is David Yee!