The Internet’s Impact on Creativity: Your Thoughts

Women work together at an internet cafe in Kabul, Afghanistan, on March 8, 2012. (Mohammad Ismail / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Is the internet helpful or hurtful to human creativity? I posed that question to the reader discussion group known as TAD, and the consensus seems to be: It’s both. It’s complicated. And naturally, it depends a lot on what form of creativity you’re talking about. Here’s how one reader sums it up:

Because of the Internet I write more and receive feedback from people I know (on Facebook) and online strangers (on TAD and other platforms that use Disqus). I use it as a jumping-off place and resource for planning lessons for my high-school students in science.

However, I don’t practice music as often as I used to.

On a similar note, another reader confesses, “I draw less because I’m always on TAD”:

As a sketch artist, I appreciate my ability to Google things I want to draw for a reference point, but that doesn’t make me more creative. I already had the image in my head and the ability to draw. I honed my skills drawing people the old fashioned way, looking at pictures in books or live subjects and practicing till my fingers were going to fall off.

In my opinion, the internet also encourages people to copy the work of others that goes “viral” rather than creating something truly original. The fact that you can monetize that viral quality also makes it more likely that people will try to copy rather than create.

That’s the same reason a third reader worries that “the internet has become stifling for creativity”:

Maybe I am not looking in the right place, but most platforms seem to be more about reblogging/retweeting/reposting other people’s creations. Then there is the issue of having work stolen and credits removed.

As another reader notes, “This is the central conflict of fan fiction”:

It’s obviously creative. On the other hand, it is all based on blatant copying of another writer’s work. How much is this a huge expansion of a creative outlet, and how much is this actually people choosing to limit their own creativity by colonizing somebody else’s world rather than creating a new one?

The fanfic debate is fascinating, and more readers expand on it here.

For my part, I tend to think the internet has encouraged and elevated some amazing new forms of creativity based on reaction and re-creation, collaboration and synthesis. Take this delightful example:

Those creative forms are a big part of my job too: When I go to work, I’m either distilling my colleagues’ articles for our Daily newsletter or piecing together reader emails for Notes, and those curatorial tasks have been exciting and challenging in ways that I never expected. But I’ve also missed writing fiction and poetry and literary criticism, and I worry sometimes that I’m letting those creative muscles atrophy. If you’re a fanfic reader or writer (or videographer, or meme-creator, or content-aggregator) and would like to share your experience, please let us know:

This next reader speaks up for creativity as “the product of synthesis”:

It’s not so much a quest for pure “originality,” as it is a quest for original perspectives or original articulations. I’d say that my creativity has been fueled by letting myself fall into occasional rabbit holes. Whether that’s plodding through artists I don’t know well on Spotify or following hyperlinks in a Wiki piece until I have forgotten about what it was that I initially wondered, that access to knowledge in a semi-random form triggers the old noggin like little else.

On the other hand: So much knowledge! So many rabbit holes! Jim is paralyzed:

I find many more ideas and inspirations, but the flow of information and ideas is so vast that I never find time to develop them. I need to get off the internet.

Diane is also exasperated:

The promise of digital technology was: spinning piles of straw into useful pieces of gold.

My reality is: looking for golden needles in a giant haystack of unusable straw.

I spend so much time looking for the few things actually useful to my project, my writing, my daily info needs, and by the end of the day I feel like I’ve wasted so much time and effort sorting through useless crap. And the pile of useless keeps getting bigger and bigger, like a bad dream.

This next reader provides some tips for productive discovery:

I am old enough to vaguely recall a time before I began to use the internet on a daily basis. What I would do, back then, when I got stuck and could not find a creative angle on a problem, was to go to some arbitrary corner of the library, take down the first book that caught my interest even though it had nothing to do with the problem at hand, and read a few pages—sometimes, the whole book. More often than not, it would trigger all sorts of analogies, and at least a few of them usually turned out to be fruitful. (Even if nothing turned out to be relevant, I usually still learned something interesting, so it was a win-win strategy.) It was a great way (to borrow Horace Walpole’s definition of serendipity) to make discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things one were not in quest of.

I try to use the internet in a somewhat similar fashion: When I’m stuck, I often spend a morning strolling around arbitrary corners of the internet, trying to discover stuff I did not know I was in quest of. Typically, I start in some academic resource like JSTOR. (I almost always start by limiting my search to articles at least 50 years old; it ensures that one does not end up reading fashionable stuff and thus thinking the same thoughts as all the other hamsters in the academic wheel. Also, older articles are usually far more well-written than the crap that results from the publish-or-perish system.) I am not above using e.g. Wikipedia, though, at least as a point of departure.

I also like reading old stuff in online newspaper/magazine archives. Sometimes, a stray remark in one of those wonderful 19th-century magazines written by and for men of letters is all you need to get a fresh angle on a familiar problem.

Gotta love those 19th-century magazines. In some ways, their mission wasn’t so different from that of the Facebook groups and Reddit threads and Disqus forums of today: creating a space for discourse and exchange and reflection, where exciting new ideas could bump up against each other. As James Russell Lowell, The Atlantic’s founding editor, wrote to a friend in 1857, “The magazine is to be free without being fanatical, and we hope to unite in it all available talent of all modes of opinion.” And as Terri, one of the founding members of TAD, reflects today:

TAD itself has been a creative endeavor for me and the other mods. Envisioning the community we wanted. Coming up with ideas to bring it to life. We developed ideas around the mix of politics, open and fun threads that the community has taken on and grown. It really has been a creative experience in collaboration on the internet.

Check out TAD’s whole discussion on creativity here, as well as many more. As for the offline benefits of online collaboration, take it from this reader—a “furniture maker and Weimaraner enthusiast”:

I would like to share a story about a project I am working on in which the internet has certainly aided my creativity. Zeus, our 8-month-old Weimaraner, is a couch hog. When my girlfriend and I sit down on the couch to watch TV, he will sit directly in front of us and bark until we make room for him. There are three large dog beds in the house, but Zeus steadfastly refuses to lie on the dog beds.

I am a member of a Weimaraner-owner Facebook group called Weim Crime. Several people in the group have had similar problems. We came up with a solution I tested out last week: build a dog bunk bed with one bed on the bottom and one bed about the same height as our couch.

It has worked out very well. Zeus quietly relaxes on the top dog bunk while we sit on the couch. I am now collecting feedback from that same group before building the more attractive final version. I have received very useful feedback—for example, lowering the top bunk deck to 18 inches or lower to prevent joint injuries. My end goal is to design and build a simple, low-cost dog bunk bed that is more attractive than the prototype and post a YouTube video showing other owners how to build a similar one.

This is just one silly project, but the feedback and interest I have receiving regarding the project has been really inspiring.

What questions about your day-to-day experience of the world have you been pondering? We welcome your feedback and inspirations. Check back Monday for the next discussion question in this series—and in the meantime, enjoy some Weimaraner art: