Building platforms for creativity: Eight principles

During last year I wrote a journal article which was an attempt to draw upon the experience of working in collaboration with three different media organisations, and to extract some conclusions from that work.

The organisations were the BBC (the well-known public service media organization), S4C (the smaller Welsh-language public service broadcaster), and the LEGO Group (the international producer of construction toys and learning tools). Each collaboration was concerned, in some way, with the production of a digital platform which would enable people to contribute their own creative expressions within a structured environment.

Traditionally the flow of written-down knowledge is – or is supposed to be – from university research expertise (as captured in research publications) to the work that one might do, subsequently, with ‘industry’. (In higher education jargon, ‘industry’ can mean any kinds of companies, non-commercial organisations, and even governments, or charities).  I wanted to close that loop by taking what I had learned from those latter experiences back into the realm of the research publication.

Now, left to my own devices, my ‘research output’ would be in the form of books, where you have room to explore a set of ideas properly, and put them together in a pleasing unit; plus things online, such as blog posts and videos, which you can post immediately, and get feedback, and have a conversation. So me doing an article for an academic journal is, alas, evidence that the government’s research assessment exercise (previously called the Research Assessment Exercise, now meaninglessly renamed as the Research Excellence Framework (REF)) does indeed shape the behaviour of creatures in the environment which it is meant to measure. (Because the REF is thought to like journal articles, and to dislike things self-published onto the Web – even when those things have gathered subsequent attention which is more significant than having been approved by a couple of journal referees; but I digress…).

The article suggests a few conclusions about university-industry collaborations – most significantly, that the best ones involve relationships and conversations which go deeply into the organisation and its future plans, and enable the partners to generate ideas together, rather than being mere ‘evaluation’ of products or services that have already been designed. (In my own experience, the most positive ‘deep’ collaborative experience has been with LEGO, and the less positive – but still instructive – experience was with the BBC, who seemed to equate researchers with market research and product testing).

Then the article arrives at a list of eight principles for the design of online platforms for creativity, which follow from reflection upon the collaborative projects.

I’ve included these eight principles in a couple of talks recently, and mentioned – when people appear to be scribbling them down – that I should stick them in a blog post soon. That sounds straightforward enough, but in fact adds to the difficulties presented by the world of academic journal articles, because they take so long to come out that if I write an article in 2011, and then blog about it in early 2012, it’s still possible that later in 2012 the journal will say they can’t publish it in 2013 or 2014 because it’s no longer original, because I’ve put the stuff in a blog. That may be unduly paranoid, so I’m trying to ensure that that doesn’t happen by pre-emptively noting how silly that situation would be, in this paragraph, here, now.

The eight principles

In this short blog version I’m not going into the details of the collaborative projects with the BBC, S4C, and LEGO, but all three were intended, in different ways, to produce, or contribute to the development of, digital platforms which would enable users to express themselves creatively, and to connect with others.

Looking across the three collaborations, I identified eight basic principles concerning the design and development of digital platforms, where such platforms are intended to be of benefit to users in terms of the development of creativity and learning. The eight principles are:

  1. Embrace ‘because we want to’.
  2. Set no limits on participation.
  3. Celebrate participants, not the platform.
  4. Support storytelling.
  5. Some gifts, some theatre, some recognition.
  6. Online to offline is a continuum
  7. Reinvent learning.
  8. Foster genuine communities.

These eight principles will now be explained in a little more detail. (In the longer article version, the principles are linked to examples or illustrations from the three projects, but I’ve left that out here).

1. Embrace ‘because we want to’

In the research conducted for these projects and for the book Making is Connecting (Gauntlett, 2011), it became apparent that perhaps the number one driving force behind online and indeed offline creativity and participation is the opportunity afforded to people to do whatever they like, whatever interests them, just because they want to. YouTube has filled up with millions of non-professional videos in just a few years, and similarly Wikipedia has been populated by millions of articles about so many diverse topics, just because the opportunity is there for people to contribute material which can be seen by others.

Many people are already eager to make and share material, so a digital platform just has to support this and offer appealing tools to help this inclination to develop. The reasons why people want to do this are covered in some of the points below: the desires for storytelling, gifts, theatre, recognition, connection to the rest of life, learning, and communities.

2. Set no limits on participation

Online platforms should welcome all kinds of contribution and engagement. (There are typically a number of exceptions to this – such as pornography, bullying material and hate speech – but the prohibited list should be simple and unsurprising). The platform should not try to force particular forms of participation, but should support participants in following their preferences and interests. Platforms should undergird the self-efficacy beliefs of individuals: that is, their sense that they can make a difference in the world, and that this difference can be attributed to their own deliberate actions. These beliefs are likely to be fostered by platforms which enable users to make their mark, and which are designed to encourage constructive interventions from others.

Setting no limits on participation is not the same as not caring about what happens on a platform. These systems should be carefully designed in order to encourage creativity and community (some indications of how to do this appear in the following principles). Setting no limits merely means that the creativity of users should not be constrained by pointless or arbitrary limits on what can or can not be done on the platform.

3. Celebrate participants, not the platform

In the same way that an overenthusiastic film director can ruin a movie by adding attention-seeking flourishes which detract from the performances and comprehension of the plot, so the designers of online platforms can stifle the self-expression and enthusiasm of users by adding branding, furniture, or other unwanted layers, which get in the way of unconstrained imagination.

A platform is, by definition, a stage upon which diverse users can make their mark, and it should be designed to enable them to show their creativity in its best, most expansive light. A platform which seems overly pleased with itself, or with showing off its own material, or with trying to get you to do things which its designers think is a good idea rather than what users really want to do, is going to be disappointing and frustrating.

4. Support storytelling

Storytelling is a powerful way in which people come to understand the world, understand themselves, and connect with each other (Ricoeur, 1984, 1985, 1988, 1992; see discussion in Gauntlett, 2007: 166–172). This is not necessarily through the telling of lengthy tales to each other, but through snatches of biography, and drops of narrative linking together information to make it meaningful. Blogs, YouTube videos, and even Twitter messages (especially when accumulated over time) can be different forms of storytelling enabled by online platforms. Stories can be deeply expressive, as long as they are told in the characterful voice of a reflective individual, or the shared experience of a group.

5. Some gifts, some theatre, some recognition

Creative participation in online spaces is motivated by a range of factors. In previous work I have pulled together research on such motivations (Gauntlett, 2011), and here highlight three: the sense of giving a kind of gift to others; the notion of the platform as a performative space; and the desire for some kind of recognition.

Since digital items such as videos and written texts can be replicated indefinitely, lacking any exclusivity, they can seem an usual kind of gift. But part of online sharing is, nevertheless, the giving of a gift, which is both the digital object and the careful creative intention which went into that object. Digital platforms should enable participation in this gift economy, where exchange of creative materials, and the prestige which can accompany such sharing, are central (Jenkins, 2009; Hyde, 2007).

There is also the sense of a theatre of creativity – users are given a public stage upon which to present their creative selves, or at least an intended impression of such – and usually welcome the opportunity to interact with their audience. In this theatre, material is presented in order to show off  a particular set of interests and concerns, often using a carefully calibrated mix of the professional or formal, and the personal or informal (similar to the patterns of self-presentation on Twitter identified by Marwick & Boyd, 2011).

Motivations for sharing online also frequently include a gentle but significant desire for some kind of recognition (Gauntlett, 2011: 100–1). People like to show their existence and ideas in the theatre, but they often also want this to be noticed. This is a legitimate and rational wish to be recognised and accepted as a worthwhile contributor to a community of like-minded people. This can vary between users, of course, and between services: most platforms make contributing users quite visible, and typically organise content around their creator (as in the YouTube ‘Channels’ which bring together all the content uploaded by a user), but Wikipedia has become massive despite offering almost none of the rewards of recognition. Wikipedia contributions are merely listed by username in the ‘History’ tab, which is a faceless kind of listing, and which most readers will never look at.

6. Online to offline is a continuum

The digital realm is still often seen as a distinct online space, which people occupy in a different way, and separately, from the rest of their lives. However, the rise of Web 2.0 is also associated with a greater integration of the online and the offline: social tools such as Twitter and Meetup foster connections between people who may then meet up in real life, and sites like Landshare, Ecomodo and Streetbank encourage people to meet and exchange things with their physical neighbours.

Online platforms can be most effective when they lay tracks from everyday interests and enthusiasms through to a set of value-adding tools and an engaging community. The desires and concerns we have offline are part of who we are online, of course, and the reasons why people like to make and share things in the physical sphere of hands-on craft are strikingly similar to the reasons why people make and share online (Gauntlett, 2011: 64–108).

7. Reinvent learning

Learning has, of course, always occurred across all ages and in varied places, but today there are greater opportunities for informal, self-initiated learning, for people of all ages and across a diverse array of interests, supported in particular by online communities of enthusiasts who are willing to discuss, share ideas, and inspire each other. Innovation in learning is often associated with new technologies, whether at school (Selwyn, 2011; Facer, 2011) or university level (Christensen & Eyring, 2011; DeMillo, 2011), but the particular opportunity here is to engage people’s interest in learning away from established learning institutions. The internet gives people access to networks of other people who share their interests, dispersed geographically, and so individuals can support, inspire and learn from others, where previously this was difficult. The ubiquity of online social networks, regularly accessed via mobile devices as well as other computers, means that informal learning can be embedded in everyday life.

Well before the internet became accessible and popular, radical writers on education and learning, such as John Holt (1964, 1967) and Ivan Illich (1971, 1973), argued that learning is a natural process which flourishes when learners can follow their own interests, and explore whatever engages their curiosity. They suggested that a planned system of teaching destroys the natural joy of learning, and therefore that we should prefer informal learning that is lightweight, flexible, and spontaneous, and which involves processes where learners can make their own meanings and express themselves through action. Today, online platforms make these ideals much more possible (although the supportive quality of online communities cannot be guaranteed).

In line with the other principles, people should be enabled to follow their own interests and enthusiasms, not have their learning tasks determined for them; should be able to engage on a straightforward, unfussy platform with other learners; be able to exchange knowledge in a space where they can make visible, authored contributions and be recognised for them; and be supported to connect this learning with everyday offline life.

8. Foster genuine communities

The term ‘community’ is used quite freely to describe online gatherings of users, but a collection of people with an interest in common do not necessarily have the bonds of mutual respect, trust and support which are central to the more careful use of that term. Online platforms should be designed so that users are encouraged to give feedback to others, and to form bonds with identifiable users over time. This is not a process which happens at random – platforms can be designed to make supportive conversations more likely.

Clay Shirky has observed that the comments posted in response to YouTube videos are often awful (although it varies by type of video, and therefore typical motivation of viewer), but that other sites are able to host civil, productive conversations amongst people with common interests (he cites programmers on StackOverflow, crafters on Etsy and Ravelry, and mathematicians on Polymath, amongst others). The difference between the constructive and the negative conversations can be designed for if we have an awareness of a number of variables, which include ‘the scale of the audience, the commitment of the participants to each other and to shared enterprise, and the willingness and ability of the participants police violations’ (Shirky, 2011). This does not mean, of course, that fostering an encouraging and supportive online community is easy.


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Photo deposited in the Wikimedia Commons by user Nomadtales. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 licence.

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