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Lost in the shitstream

December 10, 2006

Jon Pareles, the New York Times rock critic, has a wide-ranging, nicely balanced piece surveying the various crosscurrents roiling today's media markets. Most interesting, to me, are the questions he raises about the ultimate cultural consequences of removing the economic barriers to producing, distributing, and packaging creative work. We're certainly seeing an explosion in self-expression, and that's all well and good, but in the end a culture has to be judged not on the quantity of its artifacts but on their quality. Will the new media marketplace make it easier or harder for the good stuff to find an audience? Will it strengthen or weaken the incentives for producing quality work?

When it comes to producing and, equally important, filtering and packaging creative work, the masses seem every bit as crass and conservative as the corporate overlords they're said to be replacing. Maybe more so, in fact. As Pareles writes:

The open question is whether those new, quirky, homemade filters will find better art than the old, crassly commercial ones. The most-played songs from unsigned bands on MySpace — some played two million or three million times — tend to be as sappy as anything on the radio; the most-viewed videos on YouTube are novelty bits, and proudly dorky. Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.

It's often assumed that once you loosen big companies' chokehold over popular media, you'll make it easier for good work to find an audience. But, as Pareles notes, it's not so simple. The good stuff may get more lost than ever in the widening shitstream:

The promise of all the self-expression online is that genius will reach the public with fewer obstacles, bypassing the entrenched media. The reality is that genius has a bigger junk pile to climb out of than ever, one that requires just as much hustle and ingenuity as the old distribution system.

That's the supply side. An even bigger open question lies on culture's demand side: As the flood of free, immediately and universally accessible user-generated and -filtered content grows, will the audience for well-crafted work shrink? Will we all readjust our tastes and expectations to the easy pleasures of the shitstream? I don't mean to sound an overly baleful note here. It would be a mistake (thank goodness) to think the motivations of the artist and the craftsman can be reduced to a set of signals from the marketplace. But it would also be a mistake to think those motivations exist outside the influence of those signals. Even in the sphere of culture, demand drives supply.

Comments

I have been thinking more about this the older I get. I find that my scarcest resource (by far) is time. Brands (whether they be for creative works - books, music, etc.) or household goods (Tide, Swiffer, SubZero) or other decisions (Westin Hotel, Amazon.com) provide a valuable cognitive shortcut in separating the crap from the (probably) good. I am absolutely willing to pay a premium for that service because it saves me time now and (likely) trouble later.



To your point, I agree that in a democratized egalitarian marketplace for creative works or other things the role of the critic and the brand becomes more, not less, important.


What is interesting is that I believe this starts to matter the older you are. When I was a teenager I had what seemed to be endless amounts of time to discuss stereos, music, cars and other such pursuits. Not so now, and so brand-as-crutch is the order of the day.


Posted by: John Baschab [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2006 12:00 PM

This is such an important area, and one that we ignore at our peril. Suw Charman over at Strange Attractor addressed the issue last month in her post

'The democratisation of everything and the curators who will save our collective ass
.


She says "In the past, the media acted as gatekeepers. They were the ones that went to the movie previews and told us which ones were good or crap. They were the ones who went to all the gigs and told us which bands were cool or rubbish. They were the ones who got the advance copy of the game and told us whether it was playable or tedious.


"They were the arbiters of taste, the people in the know, the ones with the connections needed to get at culture before us plebs got at it.


"But we don't need gatekeepers anymore. We don't need people who stand between us and our stuff, deciding what to tell us about and what to ignore.


"We don't need arbiters of taste. There are so many blogs out there reviewing software and web apps and films and books and every other sort of creativity that we don't need to rely on the media's old gatekeepers telling us what we should like.


"We do, however, still need help. There's just too much stuff around for us to know what's out there, to keep up with what's good, what works for us, what is worth investigation. What we need are curators. And we need them badly."


And I agree.

Posted by: Bill Thompson [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2006 02:14 PM

Time for me to again shout to the wind:

THERE IS RE-INTERMEDIATION

There are The New Gatekeepers

Who work just like Old Gatekeepers. Where one has to ask nicely

I really wish the punditocracy would get past the trivial recitation of elementary mathematics. In way, the fact that the same very basic material keeps getting recited is the most disappointing at all.

1) There's a dropping cost of production! - yeah, is this news now?
2) 90% of everything is crap! - Sturgeon's Law, not a revelation
3) But we aren't in Utopia! Oh-me-oh-my whatever will become of Our Culture??? - New gatekeepers will arise to replace the old, that's a given.

NOW WHAT?


Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2006 03:45 PM

What will happen is the rise of criticism, people who will trade their time for your money, and they'll wade through the shitstream to find quality and deliver it to you. Eventually, someone will figure out a way to monetize this and suddenly it won't seem to be a problem anymore.

Well, actually, in a way, it has has happened, but not loudly enough for people to notice.

Posted by: Michael Chui [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2006 03:47 PM

I think this misses the point. It's not about the aggregate. Who cares if the aggregate recommendations of a big group of MySpace users is just as bad as the recommendations of some music executive when there's a whole world of personalized recommendation services agailable?

The best thing about the current generation of web services lies in the personaliztion. Take the music service iLike. I listen to music on my computer, and i am automatically matched to people who like similar music. With a click of the mouse, I am able to find obscure bands in my listening sweet spot that I never would have been exposed to by the radio, or by the aggregate.

It's all about the filters, and for me, at least in music, the filters are already delivering the goods to a level that I've never experienced.

Posted by: lorenzinho [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2006 04:25 PM

The real problem with all of this is that "good" and "genious" are subjective terms. What might be crap to you could very well be what the majority of MySpace users wouldn't want to miss, and what you wouldn't want to miss might be crap to them. The only answer for this is a variety of filters to choose from, whether they be from professional editor-types or customized for each individual.

Posted by: Jason Kolb [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2006 05:32 PM

Your posts always seem to slant quixotically toward a nostalgic view of culture and its artifacts. You wonder if maybe egalitarian access will result in a decline in culture, but you don't suggest the most obvious remedy: use your platform to increase support for better public education. Educate the viewing, reading, listening public and next generation of outsider artists and writers. It seems like a more productive act than tilting at the internet.

Posted by: :) [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2006 07:18 PM

A couple of thoughts inspired by your post and comments ...

The usage habits of consumers online seems to be the path of least resistance. What is easy to get to with the least hassle is a big factor in popularity. Quality does not necessarily enter the equation, and people are not going to any of the numerous review blogs to find the best independent music on the net. They just follow the flow on MySpace or YouTube.

It's sort of the same behavior that made record labels so rich in the era of AM/FM radio. They could go with the formula, which conformed to the path of least resistance. Fads and revolutions might force them to change the formula, but the formula always ruled.

Now maybe the answer for record labels -- for brands -- is to rise above the noise of the crowd and concentrate on quality.

Posted by: Howard Owens [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 10, 2006 09:58 PM

""We're certainly seeing an explosion in self-expression, and that's all well and good, but in the end a culture has to be judged not on the quantity of its artifacts but on their quality""

Nick, you need to be careful not to sound like a medieval monk. Those guys were gatekeepers and experts at writing and interpreting the bible.
And they were horrified first by the introduction of the Guthenberg press and then by Luthers translation of the Bible into German.
Both these inventions made the Bible widely accessible and open for interpretation by anyone.

Sure, not all those reprints had the same physical quality as a fine handcrafetd volume by one of these monks.
And certainly not all the bible interpretation popping up in private were receiving the churchs consent.

But today we call the latter age "renaissance" and the former "the dark age".

""The good stuff may get more lost than ever in the widening shitstream""


Ouch. 90% of everything is shit, before and after the Guthenberg bible, before and after the Internet.
But it is important to remember that historically, we have have every reason to believe that wider access to information and lowered barriers to entry for publication have been a total benefit for mankind.

And that the guys screaming "shitstream" when faced with content diversity, access explosion and a shift to new qualities more often than not turn out to be medieval monks.

Posted by: captnswing [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 11, 2006 04:54 AM

But today we call the latter age "renaissance" and the former "the dark age".

Yes, and everything we see today certainly points to the dawn of a new Internet-inspired renaissance.

Sometimes you learn from history, and sometimes you're led astray.

And that the guys screaming "shitstream" when faced with content diversity, access explosion and a shift to new qualities more often than not turn out to be medieval monks.

Oh, come on. No medieval monk ever screamed the word "shitstream." "Dungstream," maybe, but not "shitstream."

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 11, 2006 08:53 AM

The question is not if the art is getting better (who knows that) but if the art evolves.
See my small cartoon.

Bye,
Oliver

Posted by: Oliver Widder [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 11, 2006 06:20 PM

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