The Remixing Dilemma: The Trade-Off Between Generativity and Originality

Proponents of remix culture often frame remixing in terms of rich ecosystems where creative works are novel and highly generative. However, examples like this can be difficult to find. Although there is a steady stream of media being shared freely on the web, only a tiny fraction of these projects are remixed even once. On top of this, many remixes are not very different from the works they are built upon. Why is some content more attractive to remixers? Why are some projects remixed in deeper and more transformative ways?

Remix Diagram

We investigate these questions using data from Scratch — a large online remixing community where young people build, share, and collaborate on interactive animations and video games. The community was built to support users of the Scratch programming environment, a desktop application similar to Flash created by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab.

In our analysis, we found support for several popular theories about what makes projects remixable or generative: (1) Remixed projects are neither overly complex (i.e., too intimidating) nor too simplistic (i.e., vague and undefined); (2) Projects by prominent creators are more generative; (3) Remixes are more likely to attract remixers than de novo projects.

We also studied the originality of remixes and ask when remixing is more or less transformative. For example, a highly generative projects producing near-identical copies of previous projects may be viewed as less transformative or original. For a series of reasons — including the fact that increased generativity might come by attracting less interested, skilled, or motivated individuals — we suggest that each of the factors associated with generativity will also be associated with less original forms of remixing. We call this trade-off the remixing dilemma.

We find strong evidence of a trade-off:

  1. Projects of moderate complexity are remixed more lightly than more complicated projects. [Qualified, as we do not find evidence of increased originality for the simplest projects, as our theory predicted]
  2. Projects by more prominent creators tend to be remixed in less transformative ways.
  3. Cumulative remixing tends to be associated with shallower and less transformative derivatives.

Two plots of estimated values for prototypical projects. Panel 1 (left) display predicted probabilities of being remixed. Panel 2 (right) display predicted edit distances. Both panels show predicted values for both remixes and de novo projects from 0 to 1,204 blocks (99th percentile).

These results raise difficult, but important challenges, especially for designers of social media systems. For example, many social media sites track and display user prominence with leaderboards or lists of aggregate views. This technique may increase generativity by emphasizing and highlighting creator prominence while possibly decreasing the originality of the remixes elicited. Our results suggest that supporting increased complexity, at least for most projects, may have fewer drawbacks.

For more, see our full paper, “The remixing dilemma: The trade-off between generativity and originality.” Published in American Behavioral Scientist. 57-5, Pp. 643—663. (Official Link, Pay-Walled ).

Benjamin Mako Hill, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Andrés Monroy-Hernández, Microsoft Research

2 thoughts on “The Remixing Dilemma: The Trade-Off Between Generativity and Originality

  1. This makes me wonder if Scratch should have a “remixability” indicator as you’re authoring a project. “Make it simpler, nobody’s gonna want to dig through that spaghetti code!”

    • I’m skeptical and I think some of this stuff really runs up against some of the limitations of design in social media spaces.

      I have another (working) paper which uses a design change to the Scratch website to look a the introduction of a new incentive for remixing. The result was sort of perverse. People try to game the system in ways that lead to unseen genres or types of work that check the box, get the number, etc., but that result in projects which reflect left effort and value to the community over all. There’s a judgement call there, but it’s one I’ve made. Part of the results in these party are insight into the multidimensionality of remixing. Designing for remixing is far from hopeless but its fiddly. :)

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