On Jewish Aggregators

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June 1, 2012
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Marc Smolowitz

“Copyright is, in my view at least, critically important to a healthy culture. Properly balanced, it is essential to inspiring certain forms of creativity. Without it, we would have a much poorer culture. With it, at least properly balanced, we create the incentives to produce great new works that otherwise would not be produced.” —Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture

I recently taught a course on autobiographical filmmaking in which I focused on the rich history of personal cinema that informed much of American moviemaking in the second half of the 20th century. In the analog age, American households were often a treasure trove of personal objects, photos, and memories that became the basis for many emerging storytellers to catalog their family experience. For decades, creativity has been inspired by our ability to remix our own experience — even if that remix was culled from physical materials found in our garages, at neighborhood yard sales, or while stopping by an antique shop on a random road trip.

Not all of us have had access to powerful family archives that might be mined for evidence of our experiences. For example, as a child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I grew up in a family that was defined by a lack of images that told our family story. I remember feeling quietly jealous of children whose 1970s middle-class homes were peppered with pictures from past generations. As a storyteller born in the analog age, I was forced early on — whether I realized or not — to think digitally. By default, I became both an originator of my own story and an aggregator of the stories of others — that is, I created original material as well as showcased content and amplified the voices of third party sources. The latter became fodder for much of my interest in both documentary filmmaking and my present day use of social media as a storytelling tool.

In the Web 2.0 era, there are essentially four types of shareable content: text, photo, audio, and video. Social media support our ability to aggregate, showcase, and share the content of others alongside our efforts to originate, produce, and share our own content. Even the most prolific among us lack the capacity to originate with great frequency. In real time — in our daily updates and publishing — we’re forced to be effective aggregators; as such, we need to adhere to some basic rules of the road.

Creative Commons (creativecommons.org) is a website that provides a platform for sharing content that can then be remixed and reused with proper attribution. The site’s founder, Lawrence Lessig, reminds us that the concepts of attribution and copyright are central to sharing; they drive what Lessig believes to be a healthier economy of sharing across the Internet.

All of this musing on origination, aggregation, copyright, and attribution brings me to the epiphany that as Jews — with our history of immigration and diasporic wandering — we may be more inclined than others to remix from a vast array of stories. While others may be inclined to originate in their own voice, I believe  that Jewish stories are defined by the beauty, power, and frequency of retelling, and in this model, we must be vigilant about copyright and attribution.

I often refer to social media as a “sandbox.” By this, I mean that many of us play inside the spaces of social media as we used to play in the sandboxes of our childhood playgrounds. We’re still learning the rules of the road of this unfolding terrain, and if we do something “inappropriate,” we might be “removed” from the sandbox. To be clear, our childhood sandboxes were often brimming with the same diversity of voices, personalities, germs, and ideas that might be encountered on social media channels. And, since social media is still so new, we’re all still learning how to behave in order to be effective.

The concept of a Jewish-identified social-media sandbox highlights the need for a handbook — a repository of best practices — that will both recall and honor the simple fact that often our best ideas are inspired by the good works of others. Such a handbook would query: What are our unique rules of the road? Are they different from other communities? To what extent should our rules reflect our deep values?

As Jews who use social media, we need to set the highest standards of ethics and respect in every way, and these standards must be informed by a strict adherence to copyright and attribution. And, likely, our rules in social media should be no different from the rules we follow in the offline world: be nice, thorough, rigorous, and generous — especially with attribution. Politely and overtly, call out our sources; give recognition where recognition is due. And, more important, we should continue to share our own stories and the stories of others. We have a lot of responsible sharing to do if we’re to remain vibrant as a social community in the 21st century.

Now, go and join the sandbox — Jewish and otherwise.

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Marc Smolowitz is an Academy Award® nominated film producer and independent filmmaker who has 20-plus years of experience across the entertainment and media business. He also works as a consultant for media and technology companies, nonprofits, and philanthropies. He teaches in the Digital Filmmaking & Video Production program at the Art Institute of California-San Francisco and in the Film & Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow him on Twitter at @marcsmolowitz.

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