I’ve been thinking a lot about the over-branding conversation that Stephen Downes started on Alan Levine’s blog post I Want You to Make Art (Dammit). Downes did not like the use of ‘DS106′ in propaganda, and called it “over-branded.” After Alan tried to defend the work as students celebrating the class, Downes continued that it was ‘some’ that are over-branding ds106 and ‘didn’t expect you (Alan) to get it.’

I think it was the later comment that lit a fire under a few in ds106, Martha Burtis took particular offense calling that type of commenting, trolling. I as well felt there was more to Downes point that he initially wasn’t willing to discuss. Whether or not it was trolling, and because he has a long standing relationship with Alan, true he shouldn’t have to explain himself but it did seem snide.

The reactions to the over-branding comment regarding ds106 didn’t stay focused in Alan’s blog, as a number of people went on to post new work about it. Giulia Forsythe’s Join the Brand, Martha Burtis’s The Cult of 4LIFE, Alan’s Got Infected, and I couldn’t help myself and made A purely unapologetic piece of ds106 branding. And many others continued along doing the ds106 propaganda assignment.

Downes reacted to the comments and I assume posts as well as ‘hostility.’ Ok being called a troll is a bit hostile, but I’m not so sure that others were at all hostile given the short and somewhat curt description of why ds106 is over-branded. But Downes did finally go into more detail and linked to a post he wrote about the group mentality gone wrong.

And I get it, groups can transform into mobs, can become cults, and people that are part of them behave irrationally. Downes does recognize that groups have a place and have value – they are where you make emotional connections to others, in a family or on a sports team. But they can go to far, and that is a rubicon apparently some in ds106 have crossed – was it just the propaganda posters? Something else?

Downes exhorts in his final comment on Alan’s blog that we must ‘be careful.’ I find this idea particularly alarming because the course is one about creating stories and art. If the community has to be mindful their creations should not cross a line that somehow represents ‘bad group’ activity, ds106 is going to fail.

At a different time, I made art that spoke to ideas of safety and religious iconography. Back then I wasn’t making the effort to narrate the how’s and why’s of my process. About a year before finding ds106, I was working on a project reflecting on old artwork to answer these questions. And one post, “Please Keep Art Safe” I find it appropriate to reference as it speaks to blasphemous art and speech, and how the Supreme Court of the US was asked to rule on a case of blasphemy.

The 1940 Supreme Court agreed unanimously and set a precedent that basically made any previous laws against blasphemy in the US a dead letter.  The 1940 decision explains, that “the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor.” And that in a democracy an individual’s right to resort to exaggeration and vilification are liberties “essential to enlightened opinion.” And under the “shield” of these liberties, “many types of life, character, opinion, and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed.”

So the line ds106 crossed toward ‘over-branding’ in my mind cannot occur within the creative work of it’s participants. And it would be a fruitless to try and define a line. But if there is group behavior trending toward a ‘mob-mentality’ in the community of ds106, and those actions can be separated from the creativity ethos of the course, I’d like to know what it is.