Can an online mob create art?

Inside the Internet.
July 21 2004 11:07 AM

Art Mobs

Can an online crowd create a poem, a novel, or a painting?

(Continued from Page 1)

Mind you, online collaborators are finding that freedoms are important too. The journalist JD Lasica recently put his unpublished book, Darknet, on a wiki—a type of collaboration Web site where anyone can edit a page or write a new one—and encouraged his readership to edit it. But readers mostly offered only tiny edits, such as grammatical fixes or fact-checks. Nobody plunged in and rewrote an entire section. Lasica suspects his book was toofully formed: People didn't want to mess with something that seemed finished. He thinks a better idea would be to post a much rougher draft of the book to make it seem more like clay that can be molded.

One day, it's likely that an artist will discover the right mix, or some Web designer will invent an online engine that elegantly channels a million contributions into a single compelling artwork. So far, the closest we've yet come is with music, which, thanks to the influence of hip-hop, techno, and applications like GarageBand, is increasingly a cut-and-paste art form. One new collaboration site is MacJams, where people share songs they're writing. The site recently gave birth to a jazz song called "Please Eat." An artist dumped a few tracks onto MacJams, and soon three other musicians—half of the four were complete strangers—contributed a total of 36 tracks to the song. The songwriters worked well together in part because jazz is inherently collaborative and structured, so they knew in advance how to cooperate.

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The song emerged from a completely unplanned collaboration. I clicked on the link, and the trippy, witty piece came floating out my speaker: The music of the hive.

Clive Thompson is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. He is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

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