A couple of weeks ago UK think tank Demos published The Pro-Am Revolution: How enthusiasts are changing our economy and society, a report available for free as a 70 page PDF. As the blurb says:
The 20th century witnessed the rise of professionals in medicine, science, education, and politics. In one field after another, amateurs and their ramshackle organisations were driven out by people who knew what they were doing and had certificates to prove it.
The Pro-Am Revolution argues this historic shift is reversing. We're witnessing the flowering of Pro-Am, bottom-up self-organisation and the crude, all or nothing, categories of professional or amateur will need to be rethought.
A Pro-Am pursues an activity as an amateur, mainly for the love of it, but sets a professional standard. Pro-Ams are unlikely to earn more than a small portion of their income from their pastime but they pursue it with the dedication and commitment associated with a professional.
While some of the newspaper coverage has painted Pro-Ams largely as geeks or anoraks the report pulls in everything from competent gardeners, rock climbers, rappers and the Grameen Bank as well as computer programmers and astronomers. Which is all well and good but I wonder if this isn't casting the net a little too wide. If, as Demos suggests, "perhaps 58 per cent of the British population engage in some kind of activity that could be described as Pro-Am", is it not a uselessly flexible descriptor? It feels to me more like a re-branding exercise: what were once thought of as deeply unfashionable "hobbies" can now be seen as worthwhile pastimes that make society a better place.
I'm also not entirely convinced that we've seen as large an increase in Pro-Am activity as Demos proposes. I need more persuading, but it's a slippery thing to get figures for and some of the report's examples probably don't help: The UK's volunteer Territorial Army, the subject of a page and a half description, has seen its size reduced post Cold War. But either way, it's certainly worth acknowledging the existence of "Pro-Ams" and realising the breadth of activities they take part in because, as the report suggests, they can be vital sources of innovation that the more rigidly trained and hierarchy-bound professionals may lack.
Worth a read and it's certainly worth keeping the world of amateurs/hobbyists/Pro-Ams in mind when thinking about how a particular field is changing.
Incidentally, Tom Coates' (Weblogs and) The Mass Amateurisation of (Nearly) Everything... and its predecessor, Clay Shirky's Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing are worth bearing in mind too. The former is like a more narrowly focused (and perhaps Pro-Am!) version of the Demos report, looking at how the internet and computer technology have opened the doors to amateur writers, animators, musicians, film-makers, etc. The latter suggests that now everyone can be a publisher the publishing industry has been drained of financial value, reducing scarcity; it's so simple to publish there's no way to make money from it and so everyone is an amateur.
And Wired's 2003 article on amateur air traffic controllers is always worth another look.