What creative work is about

A major pain in the posterior for any startup (and I am talking mostly about web services here) is the question of money. Startup after startup has bashed its head against the monetisation wall and come away with varying levels of success. Sometimes they crack the wall and succeed in a relative manner. Sometimes they smash the wall to bits and become wildly rich. But more often than not, they just come away with bleeding heads, and if they persist, slow and painful deaths.

When it comes to creative work, the primary pain is not money (well money is always a point of concern, but you know what I mean), but the question of topic. What is your creation — story, poem, artwork, webcomic… about? In my early blogging days, I tried Google’s adwords program like everyone else. Google ads, as you might know, display contextual ads after scanning the contents of a web page and determining what the page is about. It didn’t work of course. I was blogging fiction. No algortithm (invented so far) can scan a story and come to any kind of a conclusion regarding what it is about.

Fact is, this “about” is a vital driver behind content systems on the web. Topics are the index to the vast and chaotic library of knowledge that is the internet. Right from the days of the first human-curated directories (remember the early Yahoo?) topics are what have made the internet’s mass of content decipherable. So we have topics assigned to units of information by ways of categories, tags, hashtags, interests, locations, and various other units of metadata. Through these, we broadcast the nature of our content to browsers (both human and machine).

But there are very obvious limits to what the topic infrastructure can do when it comes to classifying creative work. Think about it.

I go to Amazon.com and find a list of topics on the sidebar devoted to fiction. Under the topic ‘detective stories’, I find the works of G K Chesterton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie. Fair enough. But things get tricky fast when that same category contains the Nancy Drew books and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. Add Satyajit Ray’s Feluda novels to the mix and the problem starts to become more evident.

Any two works of fiction will have more topical diversity between them than, for example, two units of information on marketing or management. Two management books will have more in common than two poems. Two articles on hardware will deal with more or less the same matters while two fantasy novels will be wildly different from each other. As a differentiating factor, the genre just doesn’t cut it enough.

This goes for various other art forms also. Think about the futility of classifying great paintings into categories like “night sky” or “blue sea”. What makes a work of art art is not the visual elements it contains. It is something else altogether — something algorithms can’t break down into topics. It will not do to treat art as clipart — something that lends itself excellently to a Google image search.

Twitter started out as an SMS-based social network, then floundered around for years on the topic front before it finally started describing itself as an information network. Through the years, the monetisation matter has been a constant companion to the web service. A less lucky company might have let it drive them mad. Twitter let time make it into what it is now.

Any creative project on the web, in a similar fashion, faces the topic question. What is your webcomic about? What is the focus of this story? What makes your poetry blog what it is? The problem with wanting to (or in case you have clueless clients) having to reduce your creative work into categories more suited to information is that it has a price. Creativity, when forced to function inside brackets decided upon by commercial concerns, suffers and dies.

This is not to say that creative work can’t translate into financial success. The web is full of success stories where creators have built great works of art and have made good money off them as well. But in order for that to happen, more often than not, the focus has to be on the work itself — on creativity, and not on the commercial possibilities that might arise now or at a future point of time.

#context, #creativity, #ideas