The Amanda Palmer Effect

A talk for the Wesley College staff planning day, marking the the sesquicentenary of the school. 27 January 2016.

I was a shy kid. My primary years were spent at an alternative school, where we did yoga and meditation every day. Introspection was encouraged.

When I was in Grade 6 my parents suddenly pulled my sister and me out of that school, and we were sent mid-term to a small private school called Cato College in Elsternwick. I don’t remember a lot about Cato, but I do remember that it was practically a girls school. We did typing classes on actual typewriters, like we were being trained up for the typing pool. (Not because PCs weren’t invented yet – my older brother was meanwhile building circuit boards and writing command lines on his MicroBee at home. He now works for IBM).

Sometime during my Cato years I was made to sit a personality test by the careers councillor. The test was supposed to inform a student’s future direction in life. My test result? A mime. M-I-M-E. As in street theatre. I was a Straight A student and I was being told that my best option was to put on face paint, stay silent, and beg strangers for money.

(As it turns out this was not entirely bad advice, but I’ll come back to that.)

mime-istolethetv

When I was in Year 8, Cato suddenly became part of Wesley. It felt like a corporate take-over. The boys arrived, lots of them, and there were new subjects and this thing called Sport. We were taught Economics without the word ‘Home’ in front of it. My sister joined the downhill ski squad and she was fast. I became aware that my introspection, while not bad, was not going to cut it in this new world.

I resent the question ‘what did I get out of Wesley’ because it’s usually code for ‘was I privileged and am I aware of it’. For the record, I wasn’t* – my parents were freelance filmmakers in what we now call the creative industries. They took whatever work was available: My Dad’s company T-Shirt read ‘if it moves we shoot it’.

But when I am asked that question – ‘what did I get out of Wesley’ – my gut response is ‘social networking’. And I mean that in the Zuckerberg sense, not as in the ‘old boys network’.

Wesley taught me that when you walk into a room, it’s ok to go up to someone, talk to them, and find a connection. Sometimes that will result in a new collaboration, sometimes a new friend. When you go to a school like Wesley, you realise it’s not what you know, or who you know, it’s what you might know if you make that approach.

I’m not saying that I am a great networker – I am an academic researcher and any level of interpersonal skills is a bonus in my industry (and generally just results in more committee roles). But because of Wesley I am no longer that shy kid from the hippy school.

Why does this matter more generally – for the students you guys teach and the world you are building out of their precious souls?

At risk of turning this into a lecture, I want to talk a little about what I do.

I research what policy makers call the Digital Divide. That means I study the social aspects of internet adoption and use, mostly in remote regions including Australia’s central desert and the jungles of Borneo.

When academics first started researching the digital divide, a core research question was: ‘Can access to the internet help people overcome their situation of disadvantage?’ What are the tangible outcomes of internet use?

The answer, as it turns out, is disappointing. Even with access to all the information, all the networking tools, and free online education (MOOCS), people mostly don’t take up those opportunities. Those with existing resources (money, education, health) are the ones most likely to benefit even more from being online.

Some researchers call this the Matthew Effect:

“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath” – Matthew 25:29

The rich get richer etc.

However, research also shows that some groups defy prediction. For instance, the Afro-Caribbean community in the UK despite being poor and disadvantaged, do tend to take up online opportunities. What this tells us is that our social world – our networks, our social norms – are incredibly important. They inform our choices and can result in positive action.

So for me it’s not the Matthew Effect. It’s what I call the Amanda Fucking Palmer Effect**.

Amanda Palmer is a musician with a middle name that could get you detention. Aside from her Radiohead Ukelele Covers album and being married to Niel Gaiman, one thing that she’s famous for is being the musician to make the most money out of a crowdfunding campaign.

And this is where I should have listened to my careers councillor. Before she was a successful musician, Amanda Palmer was self-employed as a Living Statue called the Eight Foot Bride. In her TED talk, Amanda Palmer explains that it was her career as a Living Statue – a mime – that taught her how to earn money out of songs that anyone can download for free. She calls it ‘the art of asking’.

To quote: ‘I had the most profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks, and we would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact being allowed in a city street, and we would sort of fall in love a little bit’.

She continues:

‘My music career has been spent trying to encounter people on the Internet the way I could on the box’.

So to bring this back to where I started. Wesley taught me that it’s not who you know that matters, and it’s not what you know. It’s what you might know if you are brave and willing to connect with others.

We all know the Wesley motto, Sapere Aude, or Dare to be Wise. I think I was wise beyond my years before I got to Wesley – making 6 year olds sit through daily meditation must be good for something. But Wesley taught me to Dare.

And in this world of social networking media and transformative technology the Dare bit counts for an awful lot.

Photo: istolethetv/Flickr/Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

 * I realise that I am more privileged than many/most, having been born into a middle-class Australian family. I was only referring to the public versus private school (elite-class versus everyone else) assumptions in this statement.
** I don’t think she calls herself Amanda Fucking Palmer these days. But I saw the opportunity to use a swear word in the auditorium of my old school and took it.
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The Amanda Palmer Effect