Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Symbolic Amateurs: On the Discourse of Amateurism in Contemporary Media Culture

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Symbolic Amateurs: On the Discourse of Amateurism in Contemporary Media Culture

Article excerpt

It feels a little bit like were amateurs, it is because we are. Everyone is an amateur in this business.1 These were the words Julian Assange used to describe the operations of Wikileaks to the New Yorker in 2010, just weeks after the whistleblowing website published secret video footage of a 2007 US army air strike in Iraq that killed a dozen people. The content of the video-known as Collateral Murder-and the means by which it was obtained quickly became a source of global controversy. At the time the Pentagon classified Wikileaks as a threat to US national security and sought (unsuccessfully) to prevent more material surfacing by arguing for what they called criminal sanctions. Since then both Assange and Wikileaks have been the subject of continuing questions about the ethics of their actions: the Wikileaks philosophy of radical transparency and freedom of information contrasts starkly with the established protocols for professional journalists, but their actions, in bringing to light footage that traditional media outlets would never have found, have also been praised.

This tension between the legitimacy associated with professionalism and the discourses of freedom associated with amateur enterprise has long characterised how the public value the work of these two groups. Since the 1990s, however, thanks largely to the rise of the internet, new dynamics between amateurs, professionals and their publics are emerging. In the case of Wikileaks, although the debate is often presented in stark terms as a choice between professional standards and amateur energies it is clear from Assanges language that the situation is altogether more complex. Just what does he mean, for example, when he states, everyone is an amateur in this business? Amateurs are usually understood to be uninterested in the business aspect of their activity. In the case of Wikileaks is it even possible to know to which business Assange is referring? Publishing? Journalism? Whistle blowing? Hacking? Tasks such as hacking or whistle blowing have no paid, professional equivalent-does this mean that anyone who participates in them must necessarily be regarded as an amateur? This essay takes Assanges comments above as a starting point for investigating these questions and the largely positive rhetoric associated with amateur labours.

We are now very familiar with the discourses of digital do-it-yourselfism that suggest anyone can write the next Fifty Shades of Grey or be the next Justin Bieber. Although amateur new media producers are sometimes criticised for their lack of quality or failure to adhere to particular standards, their efforts have also been interpreted as advancing the cause of democratising media.2 As such, amateur participation in professional industries is today routinely positioned as, if not unequivocally good, then at least an essentially positive development. When Time magazine devoted a 2006 cover story to the millions of everyday people working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game amateur activities were given high profile endorsement. For their special Person of the Year issue Time flatteringly announced You as the winner.3 The articles highly positive language presented amateurs as empowered, independent entrepreneurs (beating the pros at their own game), but failed to address why working at the level of professional might also involve some inequalities (such as working for nothing). The issue of amateur labour and inequality in the media industries, while significant, is well covered elsewhere.4 Here, I want instead to draw attention to the degree to which the amateur, once positioned on the fringes of our culture, now occupies a role much closer to the centre.

-WHO IS AN AMATEUR?

Before continuing, the very variable parameters of the term amateur need to be explored. Coming from French via Latin, amateur (meaning a lover of') was first used in English toward the end of the eighteenth century to describe an individual with a passionate interest in a subject or an activity. …

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