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The Amateur Ascendent -- The Compromise of Disruptive Innovation

Dennis Yang posted "If Amateur Photographers Are As Good As Professionals, Then We Can All Be Professional Photographers" over at Techdirt recently. It's a nice article and well worth a moment of your time to read.

When I Buzzed the article, I got a comment that's really worth addressing from a friend and (quite skilled) amateur photographer. He says:

While this is true in some senses, it really only affects the middle to lower tier of talent. Just like in any other medium where technological advances have lowered the bar to entry to fields that were once the preview of only "professionals", having access to professional tools and getting professional results are not the same thing. [...] Creative talent, in many cases, is still a "get what you pay for" field, whether the masses have access to the same tools or not.

He's correct, and this is the real crux of the Information Revolution, and how it impacts our culture and economy.


On one hand, you have the argument from the likes of Andrew Keen: The cult of the Amateur shouldn't be too highly praised. It will hurt quality in the aggregate. These critics are correct.

On the other, you have the somewhat techno-utopian viewpoint (myself sheepishly included), convinced that the amateurs will replace much of what was previously professionally produced. They too are correct.

These two points are not mutually exclusive.

Clay Shirky probably has the best take on this phenomenon, writing recently about The Collapse of Complex Business Models. When on a conference call in the 90's with AT&T, he's asked to help them research the web-hosting business. AT&T assumes they have an advantage with 99.999% uptime, but can't figure out how to make it pay when charging the going rate of $20/month. The point is, they can't. And it doesn't matter to most customers. 99.999% uptime is nifty, but not worth the cost.

Has the quality of web-hosting suffered at this price? Absolutely. Does it matter to the average consumer? Not to most.

In short, good enough tends to win, and we're seeing this scenario played out in many markets. News, commentary, video, music, photography. Amateurs are producing goods of a quality and a price that more appropriately meets expectations.

Author Clayton Christensen refers to these technologies that cut across traditional metrics of improvement as "disruptive innovation". The Internet itself is a single massively disruptive innovation, even though its effects manifest differently in different markets. But across all the areas where the Internet does disrupt, the symptoms are similar:

* the product or service is notably inferior to it's established counterpart. It is 'amateur', compared to 'professional'.

* the product or service is considerably less expensive to the consumer in terms of money, but may be more expensive in time or labor. Consumers are more likely to value lower cost and direct control over fit and finish.

Timothy B. Lee wrote about the rise of the amateur photographer recently as well, and summarizes nicely why the lower technical barrier to entry (both in terms of equipment and distribution) is likely to curtail the practice of photographer as career:
The amateur photographer stands in relation to the professional as the Apple ][ microcomputer stood in relationship to the PDP-11 minicomputer: the PDP-11 was superior in almost every respect, but the Apple ][ was a lot cheaper and was "good enough" to be useful to millions of people. The difference is that the PDP-11 doesn't have a family to feed, and you didn't have to worry about hurting the PDP-11's feelings. People are understandably reticent about stating too bluntly that for the vast majority of photography tasks a professional just isn't worth the money. We don't want to be seen as badmouthing the skills of some very talented people, nor do we want to contemplate the prospect of thousands of photographers becoming unable to earn a living. But on the other hand, it's important to be clear about what's at stake here: the growth of Internet-enabled digital photography may be bad news for professionals (although I think it's far from clear how it will affect the long-term demand for professionals' services) but it's unmitigated good news for almost everyone else.
The argument many would make, however, is that it's *not* unmitigated good news for almost everyone else. This disruptive innovation is a trade-off, albeit one that many of us (including myself) are willing to make. But we should make no mistake, we *are* sacrificing something when we, the former audience, take over the workload from the "professionals".

Quality will go down.

Price will go down.

We will simplify.

For most, it will be good enough. For some, it won't.


  1. Ahh, it finally has a name. Disruptive innovation has been around forever. Someone makes a living at a skill with talent not assumed by the masses, which elevates their 'profession'. Lo and behold, technology (ie. the paint roller and latex paint)brings the skill down to the level of the do-it-yourself market. Product is made cheaper and more available, packaged with a healthy dose of encouragement, and the masses assume control and the satisfaction of achievement. What they are unable or unwilling to see with an untrained eye, becomes the standard. Expectations are lowered.
    I believe there will still be a market for some professionals to make a living at their craft, but it certainly does eliminate a broad spectrum of talent. It seems to be a natural progression. At some point, a revival will occur, which places value of excellence and craftsmanship over the quick, cheap fix. There will always be a place for a few talented professionals, but the market for their wares will probably be changed forever.
    When was the last time you hired a professional painter who could base-paint your walls and paint your portrait or install stained glass all within one contract?

  2. I agree with Lynne


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