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Professional Amateurs

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In previous post, I talked about Clay Shirkey’s views on how the internet has enabled consumers to become collaborators – something that has had profound implications on how we develop products and market them. A very interesting notion coined by Shirkey in another work of his (Everyone Is a Media Outlet) is that of ‘professional amateurization’ which he defines as “a result of the radical spread of expressive capabilities.” He makes the point that this has resulted in the loss of professional control which can impact negatively on many of society’s core institutions such as journalism.

Charles Leadbeater in "We Think" calls such amateurs ‘Pro-Ams’:” He goes on to argue that the 20th century was shaped by the rise of professionals in most walks of life. From education, science and medicine, to banking, business and sports, formerly amateur activities became more organised, knowledge and procedures were codified and regulated. As professionalism grew, often with hierarchical organisations and formal systems for accrediting knowledge, so the term “such an amateur” came be to a form of derision. Pro-Ams are turning that on its head. They are knowledgeable, educated, committed and networked by new technology. They scramble up the categories that divide and rule our lives. They work at their leisure. They learn by playing. They relax by undertaking challenging tasks. They are unpaid and yet they set themselves very high standards for what they do. Pro Ams are motivated by values that we thought were near exhausted. They do what they do for the love of it: for the pleasure of taking part, to make a contribution, to win a reputation from their peers, for the thrill of the challenge. They are not in it for the money.” Of course, we think of this phenomenon primarily in the context of journalism and broadcast media. However, it is interesting to speculate what the impact of this trend is on fields such as medicine. With so much information on the internet patients are becoming increasingly prone to checking out information, even venturing prognoses of their condition. A BBC article (Don’t Dismiss Cyberchondriacs, February 24, 2010) had this to say:

“As the internet becomes more and more easily accessible it is perhaps inevitable that patients should try to self-diagnose…medical law expert Dr Anthea Martin warns doctors against dismissing all web-wise patients as ‘cyberchondriac.’”

Indeed, as patients become more engaged in the management of their diseases, from diagnosis to potential treatments, doctors are confronted with new challenges. Options, benefits and potential risks may no longer be assessed without the active involvement of the patient who tends to be vastly more knowledgeable than before – thanks to widely available resources on the internet.

One can think of other instances, apart from media and medicine, where professional boundaries are being eroded – law for instance. Individuals involved in legal cases have every possibility to investigate legal arguments, precedent etc, often challenging professional lawyers. Even in research, DIY is perhaps a manifestation of consumer empowerment resulting from increasingly available information and analytical tools.

What is your view on this topic? Is the growing power of the amateur a positive development, or is it undermining professional standards in a detrimental way? Any examples you can add that support one of these viewpoints?

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