The Knot of Amateurs & Professionals: Untangling Social Roles in Creative Practice


How do we make sense of creative practice “in the wild?” What theories are appropriate and useful, and what limits do they have? This paper will present the use of Stebbins’ professional-amateur-public system as a way to address how variable social roles are likely to influence creative practice and engagement in creative community engagement. Next, illustrative examples from a case study of the Reaktor online community will be provided. The practical and theoretical challenges to this framework will also be explored.


What – and where – is creativity? The Socio-cultural/ Systems model (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996) places it in the interactions between individual, domain and field. This perspective is supported and expanded by the sociology of art worlds (Becker, 1984), which emphasizes the rich “support structures” of social, technical and institutional infrastructures that both encourage and constrain artistic work. Similarly, an application of the community of practice literature (Wenger, 1998) suggests that what constitutes meaningful creative practice will be highly contextualized both by the community and the individual, driven by the domain of activity, but also by social construction of meaning and identity. These three perspectives suggest a need then to study creativity “in the wild.” A negotiated perspective of creative practice also highlights a potential source of tension: enacted and social definitions of practice are potentially problematic in the case of groups containing a high degree of diversity, overlapping community multi-membership or variable social roles for individuals.

There are many possible forms of heterogeneity in groups, which are likely to impact the creative activities occurring in those groups. For example, Lave discusses different roles for newcomers and old-timers (1991). Similarly, Zagal and Bruckman’s (2005) description of Samba schools emphasizes the diversity of membership that exists in these cultural institutions, a pluralism that spans ages, sexes and socio-economic status. Tensions over creative practice will likely be intensified in the case of online groups, given what is known about the additional challenges to communication, collaboration and creation of common ground by the fewer social, physical and sensory cues present in computer-mediated-communications (e.g. Clark & Brennan, 1991; Olson & Olson, 2000; Kiesler & Cummings, 2002).

I have been examining the tensions of heterogeneous social roles through a case study of an online creative community of practice, the Native Instruments Reaktor1 user community. Reaktor, like similar software such as MAX/MSP and PD, draws on visual and functional metaphors taken from circuit diagrams, programming flowcharts and physical modular analog audio synthesis. Users in these environments can create virtual musical instruments, performance interfaces and audio composition tools by drawing connections between small functional units (such as oscillators, filters, audio samplers, etc). These systems allow a high degree of creative tool customization, expandability and flexibility. They also support tool-sharing and reuse, as completed instruments may be distributed to other artists using the same program. In the case of the Reaktor community, much of this tool sharing, practice learning and community engagement takes place in the Reaktor User Library (an online collection of over user-contributed 2300 instruments) and an accompanying User Forum, accessed via the “Community” section of the Native Instruments website.

My intention in this paper to introduce an analytical framework taken from sociological studies of leisure, which may prove useful for researchers and tools designers in analyses of creative communities. I then briefly discuss the strengths and challenges of this approach in the context of the ongoing Reaktor study, setting the stage for a broader discussion of the applicability and development of this framework in the context of creativity studies.


One potentially valuable analytical framework in the analysis of creative communities may be derived from sociologist R. Stebbins’ studies of “serious leisure.” This work tacitly suggests that in many domains of creative 1 activity, a key form of heterogeneity may occur in the division being between social roles: “serious amateurs” and professionals. In this model, Stebbins asserts that amateurs exist only in fields that have professionals. Amateurs are in fact defined primarily in relation or reference to their professional counterparts, and both of those roles are in turn shaped by their relationship to a perceived audience or public.2 This generates what Stebbins calls a “professionalamateur- public (PAP) system of relations and relationships” (1992, p. 10).

Stebbins’ work suggests that the difference between amateur and professional social roles finds expression along five attitudinal dimensions: confidence, perseverance, continuance commitment, preparedness and self-conception. These dimensions vary both quantitatively and qualitatively between these two roles. For example, professionals and amateurs differ both in the amount and character of their continuance commitment. Both of these roles constitute a different form of identity and corresponding set of motivations. Each role has a different notion of what constitutes authentic practice and legitimate contribution to a community. Each also has a different relationship to (and expectations of) the “public,” their perceived audience for their work.

As with creative practice, so too are social roles constituted both internally and externally. That is, individuals will self-select toward the role that best fits their particular motivations, but at the same time, the external social contingencies bundled with the role also have influence and ramifications on behavior, attitudes and priorities. Professional status typically requires some sort of verification or licensing from one’s peers, either officially and explicitly as in the case of science or tacitly as in the case of artists or journalists. Put simply, you do not get to be a professional until you are recognized as such by other professionals in that domain. These dynamics may have a self-reinforcing aspect to them as well. One example referenced by Stebbins is that amateurs tend toward marginality. That is, amateurs tend toward more ‘marginal’ (specialized, personalized, niche, etc.) interests or expression of those interests in reference to mainstream markets and culture. This may either be in terms of the area of their focus (e.g. a musician performing free jazz or a writer focusing on histories of Great Lakes lighthouses), or in their presentation of that focus (e.g. science fiction 2 Another category, Hobbyists, is also present in Stebbins’ scheme. Members of this category are more likely to be “activity participants,” engaging in systematic activities with a high intrinsic appeal but little extrinsic value, such as fishing, jogging or stamp collecting. Stebbins defined hobbyists as those that exist in domains that do not have professional counterparts nor a strongly defined public. While interesting and relevant to a broader examination of these issues, the category of hobbyist is beyond the current scope of this paper. “fan fic,” unofficial fan-authored stories set in an preexisting fictional universe; as a genre, science fiction is a large and mainstream market, but even in that market, fan fic is viewed by many consumers as a marginal activity).

A second example of this the PAP dynamic is provided by the different orientations that amateurs and professionals have to time and project management. Since amateurs need to balance their “serious leisure” with additional commitments of work, family, and so they have less dedicated and uninterrupted time to spend on their projects, causing them to structure their project work very differently. Amateurs also have fewer external deadlines than professionals, and are more likely to break deadlines, because in doing so, amateurs incur lower social and monetary costs. They are less answerable to clients (either literally, or diffused into a notion of “the market”) than are professionals. Professional work tends to be “work-forhire” in a way that amateur work is not, presenting a very different set of responsibility, accountability, rewards and time constraints.

This is not simply to say that amateurs have more “freedom”; while true to a certain degree, they also receive fewer incentives to engage in their activities and often receive less validation that their time is well spent. They incur more pressure from family and friends to not engage in their area of interest, particularly (as Stebbins notes) when that area of interest drifts towards marginality. They may need to structure their amateur social world to accommodate a greater amount of flexibility in scheduling and commitment, and may go out of their way to generate situations that provide exogenous commitments and pressures.

It is important to note that amateur and professional social roles are not categorical as much as they are clusters of concurrent traits. Representing a single continuum between these two roles is a convenient fiction, collapsing a multidimensional description for the sake of clarity. Any single individual may vary in one or more of these dimensions in unique and sometimes complex ways; additionally, these individual variations may change over time or from context to context. Nevertheless, amateur and professional remain useful prototypes.

The application of Stebbins’ model to the context of online creative communities is supported by findings generated in the user innovation literature, such as Jeppesen and Frederiksen’s (2004) survey research of an online “mod” (user modification) community for the Rebirth synthesizer program. These authors found that users who selfidentified as professionals were less likely to contribute innovations back to this community. This was attributed to there being “no competition among users or no lost rents from free revealing” for amateurs, whereas for professionals, “secrecy would often be a pre-condition for reaping the benefits of a given innovation.” (Jeppesen & Frederiksen, p. 17) These finding suggest amateurs and professionals will likely interpret different forms and levels of community contribution as more or less appropriate and valuable.

Jeppesen and Frederiksen’s survey results also suggested that in firm-established user communities “innovative users are motivated by the desire to be recognized for innovative behavior by the firm” (p. 17); amateurs in the Rebirth mod community were more likely than professionals to perceive the parent firm as a motivating audience for their work. By gaining recognition from the parent company, it may be that amateur users are effectively validated by professionals; they are told that their contribution is worth of attention from those that do “real work.” Amateurs and professionals will likely perceive and target different audiences for their creative work, and these differing notions will motivate and authenticate their actions in distinct ways.


This application of Stebbins’ PAP model first allows us to emphasize that “amateur” should not be conflated with “novice.” By disentangling social roles, motivations, and attitudinal stances, we can instead visualize continuums of skill level and social role as being plotted along two distinct axes (see figure 1 below). In doing so, we can begin to better conceptualize the “trajectories” (Strauss, 1993) of individuals engaged in given creative communities, and the change of that nature of engagement over time.

As noted above, amateur and professional social roles are fluid in nature. That is, they are not categories, but rather clusters of traits, individually and socially constructed. These traits are also likely to change over time. These changes may occur in the long term, such as in the case of students who become full-fledged professionals over the course of many years, and in the short term, as a corporate programmer by day switches his energy to participating in an open source project at night, symbolically trading his professional suit and tie for an amateur’s t-shirt at 5 p.m.

Through this consideration of professional and amateur social roles, we are also able to frame more realistic picture of the complex mix of motivations and behaviors that will shape creative communities. Two examples taken from the Reaktor community case study illustrate that complex mix.

Motivation and Marginality

Professionals will more likely motivate themselves through interaction with commercial audiences of their work-forhire. In contrast amateurs, particularly those engaged in socalled marginal pursuits, will be more likely motivated to continue their idiosyncratic pursuits without a strong concern about commercial viability. O ne example of marginality in personal interest and motivation arose a thread (start date 04/26/2005) requesting “new and different sounds”:

Amateur6: I’m sooooooooo hurt that no one mentioned my ensembles, since making new and different sounds is like what /i/ do. But then I saw [that the request specified]: “the goal for everything should be fairly short, rhythmfriendly sounds – that is, not a 10 minute long ambient blur/whir/chipper/blurp.” And I saw the light! ;-)

Here, Amateur6 playful response demonstrates a personal interest in an approach that is marginal relative to the more conventional “rhythm-friendly” (and market-friendly) sounds requested by the thread initiator.

Audience and Commercialization

Professionals and amateurs live in overlapping but distinct “art worlds” (Becker 1984), constructed again through their different relationships with distinct audiences, and the different form and quantity of remuneration they expect for those contributions. These tensions between social roles, specifically in reference to the notion of commercial audiences for their work, are demonstrated in a thread initiated on 2-19-2006:

Pro2: I don’t see why having the option to export your work as a…plug-in would harm the community in any way… I know that there are others lke me that wish Reaktor would develop into a development environment for effect and instrument plug-ins… It’s very obvious to me that [the parent company] is missing the chance to establish themselves in this market. With a business model like I suggested they [would have] the chance to earn money that other people generated.

Amateur1: 1. the probability of your earning decent money [selling ensembles] (rather than a few hundred $ per year) is low… 2. the best thing about reaktor is its community….doing what you’re talking about could undermine this community, which would be a real shame…. 1 and 2 are strong arguments for leaving things the way they are. Even better: take your building energy and use it to give gifts to the community.

The originator of this thread promoted the idea of a free run-time library (that is, a limited host program for running but not editing customized Reaktor instruments) for the purpose of allowing users to demo their Reaktor creations for non-Reaktor owners. Though initially presented as a way to showcase individual builders’ work to a wider audience, the thread quickly evolved in a debate about the merits of commercialization, the trade-offs of different technical models that would facilitate or hinder commercialization, and potential effects on the company and community


Highlighting the divisions between amateur and professional social roles is interesting and in many cases useful for untangling the relationships of skill, motivation, and community engagement. Yet the application of Stebbins’ PAP system to the analysis of creative communities presents challenges and limitations. In particular, accurate and consistent operationalization of social role has proven vexing in the context of the Reaktor case steady. As noted above, a blurry continuum exists between these two prototypical social roles; each role is not a clear categorical position, but instead involves a cluster of related traits. Similarly, trajectories across skill and role are able to represent a more nuanced picture of creative engagement over various time scales, but their variability also contributes to problems of operationalization.

These concerns present both theoretical and pragmatic challenges. Is it more accurate to interpret (and perhaps code) social role persistently per individual, or relative to the characteristics presented in a given conversation thread? Similarly, there are questions of how to accurately assess and represent role-straddling individuals in this model, such as users granted moderator status in the forums by the company. Many of the moderators in the Reaktor community are particularly engaged in the community in a pro-social ‘amateur’ sense, but their position relative to the company also positions them somewhat as local representatives of a commercial enterprise, a clearly professional role.

Creative practice and community engagement are also likely to vary along other important dimensions not captured in this framework. These additional dimensions of creative practice, driven perhaps by peculiarities of genre, medium or social network, will create additional layers of priority and identity that need to be reconciled with amateur and professional roles for each individual, much in the way that Wenger describes negotiation of multi-membership in communities (1998). The communities of practice literature also suggests that the newcomers and old-timers may construe authentic creative practice (particularly contribution) in very different ways (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Finally, both amateurs and professionals also share some sympathetic goals. Though professionals may be less motivated to contribute freely themselves, they do benefit from the sharing of amateurs. While contributing their custom ensembles to the community may not be in their economic self-interest, having access to a large and active library of freely shared custom ensembles built by others is. Thus they may tend to encourage amateurs to contribute their creations (through praise and public validation), even when they do not directly reciprocate.


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