Thursday, July 05, 2007

How can you tell if a multinational media conglomerate has been using your computer?

So, Andrew Keen's book The Cult of the Amateur has stirred up quite a bit of cyberspace dust recently, dividing the (fairly small) world of people who care about the cultural future of the web into the reactionaries (Keen et al), the evangelists (Tim O'Reilly et al), and everyone in the middle (me et al) who just want to watch the Pride of Arizona Marching Band perform "Fitter Happier" and remind Alex Trebek that he's sitting on a goldmine.

I can't decide what I'm more sick of: the webvangelists who can't stop telling us how Web 2.0 will revolutionize every aspect of human thought and culture, or the weblitists who've deluded themselves into thinking that Youtube is to blame for the collapsing standards of Western cultural discourse.

Keen has a disturbing tendency to red-bait, and a fundamentally skewed concept of the purpose of culture and its attendant industries. But I have to admit to sharing some of his panic at the explosion of Web 2.0, albeit for different reasons. Keen views the combination of narcissism, amateurism, and an infinite multiplicity of messages as a culturally corrosive force, quite akin to communism, in his framing. Those things don't bother me so much, since people were amateur narcissists long before Google, and using market strategies to discourage a culture of self-obsession seems bizarre and way off the mark.

What scares me is not a cultural collapse, or a cultural revolution, but a cultural grey-out. (check out Bruno Nettl's The Study of Ethnomusicology for the origin of the term)

Why? Because, as a recent Bear Stearns report confirms, the long tail is growing and user-generated content (UGC) is here to stay. Which means there's money in it. Which means it will aggregate and consolidate. Which means it will blend, desaturate, and flatten out. Don't believe me? Turn on the radio, or watch ABC for a day, or strike up a conversation about politics with someone at a bar. Or, for that matter, get on MySpace. Grey-out, be it rhetorical, aesthetic, ethical, or whatever, has become the norm in mainstream media and discourse, for all the reasons we're familiar with. It tends to follow market activity and, where a desire to consume can be monetized, it bleaches out all but the most palatable and deliverable hues.

There's no doubt that UGC exposes us to fresh and wonderful ways of looking at the world -- made fresh and wonderful primarily by their lack of resemblance to the stifling similarity of mainstream culture. It marks an incredible (if somewhat narcissistic and/or voyeuristic) sea change in our culture. But Bear Stearns knows what they're talking about, and when they anticipate the emergence of new "aggregation vehicles" to deliver this new form of content, they're also anticipating a structuralization and consolidation of UGC into consumable product for wider and wider swaths of the buying population. We might see Youtube as a friendly "aggregation vehicle" right now, with a vast library and a friendly tagging system to sort it, but how's eBay treating us these days? What about Starbucks? That's where the world of UGC is headed, facilitated in large part by the technology and the applied ideology of Web 2.0. Here I'm making a distinction between the anti-corporate, democratic, localized, user-focused ideals professed by Web 2.0 proponents and the reality of Web 2.0's existence in the marketplace -- MySpace (aka Murdoch), Youtube (aka Google), Flickr (aka Yahoo!), and Second Life (aka...well, Second Life. It corporatized itself).

Plus, though corporations play their crucial rule in grey-out, they are not the only actors, nor the most important. The bulk of the responsibility falls on us. I'm afraid that, to some degree, I support Andrew Keen's assessment of human beings as cultural agents. We're great at it, but also we totally suck. When our agency as consumers intersects with our agency as cultural practitioners on a massive scale, the former tends to win out. This, incidentally, explains why for me the struggle is to activate people as economic agents, where their consumption, labor, and values can clash together to a productive end. Ukelele videos and second-life avatars may teach us about ourselves by opening new paradigms of human culture and interaction, but ultimately Web 2.0 is permeated and controlled by consumption. The cost of the product happens to be (more or less) free at the moment, but the basic transaction remains the same. Folks who like to make money are attracted to transactions. They especially love short, repetitive, autonomic, pleasant and convenient transactions, because they get the most bang per buck. UGC fits that mold perfectly.

Is the greyout of Web 2.0 any more worrisome or destructive than the grey-out of FM radio? Not really. But the infuriating paradox in this case is that Web 2.0 is designed to connect you with your special niche in the long tail, giving you respite from the blandness of the rest of the curve. In the old days of Web 1.0 and bulletin boards, the simple effort of finding one's special spot on the tail transformed the action from one of consumption to one of identity formation. The people who made their way to the pre-net equivalent of weren't just melodica consumers, they were melodica people. They occupied their niche, protected it, strengthened it, grew it. The rich culture of thought and activity that surrounded each of these niches contributed to an overall cultural diversity that could give America both the Muppets and 2 Live Crew. When finding your niche becomes an easy, repetitive, temporarily-satisfying task, you become a consumer and markets get interested.

And your niche starts going grey.

(oh, and some help with the title.)

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