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Thursday, Dec 7, 2006

Responding to a Wired article about Google’s potentially unprofitable purchase of YouTube, Matt Yglesias forecasts the post-profit future of the culture industry.


Peer-production of digital media probably will produce a fair quantity of awesome popular stuff lurking amidst the vast pool of dreck. And well-designed services will let the awesome stuff rise to the top and the dreck fade to the background, rendering those services awesome and popular. But—and here’s the rub—having something awesome and popular just may not prove to be especially lucrative. In the past, a popular television show or a popular album or a popular film or a popular distribution channel guaranteed you vast sums of money. In the future, that just may not be the case. The very most popular things will generate some income, enough to live off of and continue financing new projects, but not the sort of gigantic windfalls associated with 20th century media hits. And lots of other things—including reasonably popular ones—will only generate trivial levels of income. And they’ll continue to be made. Made by people who think its fun, or who derive some benefit from their work other than direct monetary income.


In other words, making stuff will come to be its own reward, which is what aesthetic purists who deplore artists’ “selling out” have long yearned for. And the money once made in performing the onerous editing/filtering function will be all but eliminated by distributing it throughout social networks, with the collective shouting the best material to the top.


I find this argument appealing because it gets at how the ease of Internet distribution undermines old, safe assumptions about the profit motive. When distributing goods was difficult, one could safely assume that only those with big money at stake would bother. Thus you could assume that the main point of doing anything at a larger-than-hobby scale, even cultural production, was to make money—if you were reaching out to a larger audience than your immediate circle, it was because you sought profits. The Internet, however, lets you seek an audience without your having to make much of a financial investment at all, which pushes the pursuit of social recognition much higher on the scale of recognized and accepted motives for making stuff. Consequently it’s much easier to assume, as Yglesias does, that the reason why someone made, say, a mashup of Mary Poppins to make it into a horror-film trailer, is because they want people to notice the cool thing they did, not because they expected to get paid. This seems to me a good thing: better to strive for adulation directly through creative intellectual work rather than through the imperfect proxy of money. And better to assume of people that they just wanted to make and/or share something they appreciated rather than simply trying to come up with a “creative” way of getting cash. (This shift in motive attribution could almost be enough to redeem the calculated pursuit of hipsterdom. But it can’t redeem “cool hunters” who are essentially poaching the creative spirit and seeking to assimiilate it to moneymaking entirely.) This aligns our incentives more toward meaningful work rather than well-paying drudgery. (Of course, that drudgery still needs to be done, but it could perhaps be better balanced with the stuff we do that we and others recognize as meaningful, expressive, etc.) The Internet thus extends the strategy of having a day job to pay the bills while working the rest of the time on one’s real passion to a vaster audience then those in major cities, to which the underground economy of social recognition was once largely relegated.


One of Yglesias’s commenters puts this all more succinctly: “It becomes a social good to make the economy less important to the individual, in that additional hours of leisure not only please the individual but also make the individual more likely to produce uncompensated value for society.”


But this doesn’t make superstars go away or make potential superstars of us all, Warhol notwithstanding. The ease of distribution sharpens the need to manufacture distinction between commercial and non-commercial art. Commercial art now must make a much bigger show of the capital invested in it (whether through technical proficiency and effects or advertising or massive scale distribution) to justify our paying for it or reporting on it if we are not genuinely enthusiastic. Such investment makes that stuff the universal culture (what we must know to be part of our zeitgeist), and the people involved in it become the superstars who can demand the millions, and they soak up the all the money that once trickled out to the middlebrow makers of moderately popular stuff in the past, the stuff that’s been subsumed by well-made amateur material.


Update: At the Economist blog, some skepticism about the future of user-generated content, based on a recent report from http://www.trendwatching.com/briefing/. “Trendwatching lists, in its beguilingly breathless pamphlet, a bunch of other ways in which the production of user-generated content is starting to look less like a community service and more like a talent contest in which the winners expect to get prizes, preferably in cash. ” If that’s so, that’s pretty depressing, because it totally undermines my fantasy delineated above about people’s motives shifting from money to social recognition, or to put that another way, the possibility of decoupling social recognition from cash rewards. The conspiracy theorist in me wants to argue that media corporations, et al, will put ideological pressure on us all to prefer cash to community because it sustains their power and control (they select winners, they dole out the cash, they maintain the cultural filters, they reap the profits) in the face of Internet-driven amateur production and distribution (I’m tempted to call it democratic.) And the Economist blogger, for one, is delighted: “As a salaried content-provider I start to feel a tiny bit better about my prospects for the first time since I heard the words “Web 2.0.”

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