May 08, 2007
Mediocrity or Masterpieces on the Web?
In the most controversial and interesting panel at OnHollywood last week, we heard a discussion between technology fans and innovators Bill Cleary of CKS and Justin Kan from Justin TV and Andrew Keen, author of the upcoming book, “Cult of the Amateur.” He argues that we are no longer building masterpieces, but that the growth of Web 2.0 and user generated content is creating an endless force of mediocrity.
The panel, which was moderated by Dan Farber brought up a lot of heartfelt issues for a lot of people in the room, hardly a surprise given the number of Web 2.0 start-ups and social sharing site participants at the event.
Andrew Keen argues that even though everyone can now become a movie director or a creator, that does not mean everyone has talent to do so. In other words, despite the fact that there are lots of new tools out there, “most people simply don’t have the talent.”
Argues Justin, “in any medium, the real talent will rise to the top. There are platforms for self broadcasting, so more people will have opportunities.” In a foreseeable future, he envisions that anyone will be able to come JustinTV and create their own site. Many people who want to broadcast will be able to do so with the best content rising to the top, i.e., in this case, the front page.
Dan Farber throws out a 1995 analogy when people were complaining about the countless numbers of fonts, many of which were not used. Dan turns to Andrew and says, “It seems that your argument is about giving people tools and seeing them output all that garbage. The opposite side of that is to only allow a few people to produce.”
Good point. What is the alternative? Restrict people from an amazing set of easy-to-use tools that promote creativity and knowledge?
Says Andrew, “people like Justin are self broadcasting. The consequences of all of this self broadcasting, is the crisis of the music business. Big media has become this big punching bag.” Dan pipes in, “they’re not defenseless, its just free markets at play.”
But Andrew thinks it is more extreme and continues to reference examples, “Jimmy Wales trusts a 12 year old high school kid equally to a Harvard professor. That is extreme.”
What’s the alternative? Says Bill, “the law of intended consequences will kick in. Technology is an amazing tool that is an extension of our legs and arms. It makes us more mobile and more intelligent. It makes us more readily available to communicate with each other. So what if 90% out there is junk? If only 10% is great, it is relevant to us. The Superbowl reaches about 100 million people; now we have thousands of choices of where we can advertise.”
“But,” Andrew argues, “what I see at all of these conferences, is a host of people coming out with yet another tired user generated content model which is undermining the traditional content business. User generated content costs nothing. It’s not an economic model and culturally, it is disastrous.”
Justin says, “by lowering the cost, we’ll see uses of live video we never have seen before.” But that is precisely Andrew’s point. Most of this live video isn’t worth seeing, people are not producing masterpieces, and the increased mediocrity is negatively impacting our culture.
In a way, it is the cult of digital narcissism at play with people becoming so infatuated with their own voices and their own ideas, that it becomes an echochamber of the same people talking to each other.
The panel argues that communities and micro-communities will decide what talent and content will rise to the top. But to Andrew, who sees this digital revolution as the demise of traditional media, these micro-communities are nothing more than echo-chambers. Within those chambers, citizen media equates to less serious conversations.
Bill says, “I have faith in humanity and creativity, I see the glass half full, not empty. The world is opening up and unleashing creativity. People like Justin are having fun, a major source of creativity and they’re the start of a major unleashing that will turn into something bigger.”
Andrew remains cynical as he turns to Justin and asks, “If you keep the camera on your head for 10-15 years, where do you want to be in a decade?”
Justin responds, “What I’m happiest about is providing a tool to let people self publish on the Internet. By doing Justin TV, I’m saying this is what the technology is capable of. We want to be a platform that allows people to self broadcast. A few people will be watched by a lot of people but most people will be watched by their friends and family, and that’s okay.”
Dan suggests that Andrew’s point of view does not allow for people to just be creative, put their content out there and let people actively participate and choose with their clicks.”
Andrew says, “If you have a perfect market, you have an Internet which is dominated by pornography. I had to research pornography for my book and there’s an explosion out there – addictions, digital addictions – you need to have some controls. When I’m talking about the cult of the amateur, it’s the cult of the innocent. Children become wiser the older they get, and what they produce after years or experience is bound to be better than what is being produced today on MySpace.”
He continues, nearly to the close of the panel, “If we do away with editors, we’re all amateurs. We need to re-evaluate the way we collectively value media and completely re-think newspapers. Craig gives away ads.
If we want a society without newspapers and we want to only rely on Digg, we won’t get international news about wars; we’ll only see what’s going on in Justin’s bedroom. If we leave media to the pure forces of the market, we’re going to turn around in 100 years, and lose what was so valuable in the 20th century.”
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What are your own thoughts on the panel's argument?
For example, as a pianist, what do you think of midi software and samples with which I can "play" a tune as well as someone who has trained and practiced?
I don't buy arguments that everyone deserves an audience.
But I am all for new tools that better enable creativity.
I do think that the big change is that "gate keepers" of old are loosing their power: you can get attention as a writer without going through the engrained editorial classes in NYC; you can get attention as a video maker without bowing to Hollywood.
This is all no guarantee that the content most of us engage with will improve in overall quality, but it does make that a more distinct possibility.
Posted by: Paul Worthington | May 9, 2007 2:31:44 PM
Perhaps I'm missing a key part of Andrew's thesis, but I can't see any defensible answer to the question "Who gets to decide
what is to be seen?" than "S/He who chooses to see."
Andrew's case, as presented here, is a variation of the same argument that's been used throughout history by elites to attempt to keep power, money, access and information in the hands of the few. I love high culture and as a proud former newsroom staffer of The New York Times, I have concerns about the consequences of the demise of traditional journalism. But there really is no stopping this trend toward "amateurism." And if you look at what is being peddled as a newspaper in most American cities these days, the most distressing example of which is in the place we both call home, do you really rely on them to tell us what's going on in the world?
Hopefully the dialogue moves from the boring tension of "which way is better" to one in which we figure out how to ensure the best we can get no matter who it's from.
As for the argument about who is going to cover the wars, there is the problem of an individual getting access to battlegrounds (physical or otherwise) without the leverage of major media's coverage footprint. But we remember Tiananmen Square because of that one guy. He was a blogger, in spirit and incarnate. He showed us and he elevated us and he's always going to be our best hope. Who often gets the best raw data from the front lines for the traditional media? Stringers, locals. Amateurs. There are people who care about what happens to us and who will report news from all over the globe in ways that trad media couldn't hope for.
What about a network that brings them together - IBNN, the International Bloggers News Network? Informal peer review over time will determine who is most effectively getting us the information from the fight, without being as beholden to the needs of market forces. The scale of a network like that could provide the same kind of leverage that trad media can acheive now.
As a classical pianist who would go to five or six concerts a week when I lived in Manhattan, in which I often felt like I was the only person under 50 in the audience, I used to wring my hands about the future of the music. But then at a wedding I met this 23-year-old violinist who had a 6,000-year-old soul and he said to me "There will always be people who will play this music." I still get goosebumps.
To think that everyone is going to want to produce and consume Justin TV as their primary way of viewing the world is just silly. Look at your peer group. How many of them are going to watch that?
The glass is more than half full, if we keep filling it.
Personally, to extend from Paul's question -- as a blogger, what do you think? You're an amateur. A really good one, who may even make the cut when someone like Andrew decides who gets to disseminate information. But without the internet, which is what burst the dam, you would have no audience at all. How sympathetic can you really be to his argument?
By the way, Gutenberg burst the dam for the first time 550-plus years ago. His background was in cloth, or gold, so he was an amateur in the printing business. Too bad nobody stopped him.
Hey, maybe we can call the blogger network "MovableType."
Keep up the awesome work, kiddo.
Posted by: Ray Lewis | May 9, 2007 8:45:47 PM
In a world without a maximum number of column inches of text or time slotted daily broadcast schedule or minimum vinyl press run of 50,000; where distribution is basically free, being distributed or not is no longer binary. I think it just means people with potential niche audiences will find them whether by video, blog, or whatever. I still think Tolstoy and Orson Welles would find an audience if they were around today; but maybe Woody Allen and Fellini would have found bigger audiences (and that guy down the street from you toiling as an accountant would have found some audience).
Since we are basically just putting the distribution-curtailed missing tail back on the power curve, it seems to me like it wouldn't be that hard to predict the ultimate impact on part of the curve that used to be above the binary distribution decision point.
Posted by: Jim S | May 10, 2007 5:07:21 AM
I had an opportunity to read an early copy of the book, so for my own opinions and arguments on the book and Andrew's take, I plan to write up a review soon. Yes, it has some flaws and doesn't leave enough room for open creative expression, but since I live in the land of technology cool-aid, it was refreshing to hear someone speak up about the dangers of mediocrity and negative impact on our culture that simply just haven't been said.
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