Úgy tetszik, az utópiák sokkal inkább megvalósíthatók, mint ahogyan azt hiszik. S voltaképpen egy sokkal nyugtalanítóbb kérdés előtt találjuk magunkat: hogyan kerüljük el határozott megvalósulásukat?... Az utópiák megvalósíthatók. Az élet az utópiák felé halad. És talán egy új évszázad kezdődik el, egy olyan század, amikor az értelmiségiek és a művelt osztály majd olyan módozatokról álmodozik, amelyekkel el lehet kerülni az utópiákat, és vissza lehet térni egy nem utópista társadalomhoz, amely kevésbé „tökéletes" és szabadabb.
And in our time!...
New York Times
December 10, 2006
Brought to You by You
By JON PARELES
IMAGINE paying $580 million for an ever-expanding heap of personal ads, random photos, private blathering, demo recordings and camcorder video clips. That’s what Rupert Murdoch did when his News Corporation bought MySpace in July. Then imagine paying $1.65 billion for a flood of grainy TV excerpts, snarkily edited film clips, homemade video diaries, amateur music videos and shots of people singing along with their stereos. That’s what Google got when it bought YouTube in October.
What these two highly strategic companies spent more than $2 billion on is a couple of empty vessels: brand-named, centralized repositories for whatever their members decide to contribute.
All that material is “user-generated content,” the paramount cultural buzz phrase of 2006. It’s a term that must appeal to the technocratic instincts of investors. I prefer something a little more old-fashioned: self-expression. Terminology aside, this will be remembered as the year that the old-line media mogul, the online media titan and millions of individual Web users agreed: It demands attention.
It’s on Web sites like YouTube, MySpace, Dailymotion, PureVolume, GarageBand and Metacafe. It’s homemade art independently distributed and inventively promoted. It’s borrowed art that has been warped, wrecked, mocked and sometimes improved. It’s blogs and open-source software and collaborative wikis and personal Web pages. It’s word of mouth that can reach the entire world.
It’s often inept, but every so often it’s inspired, or at least worth a mouse click. It has made stars, at least momentarily, of characters like the video diarist Lonelygirl (who turned out to be a fictional creation) and the power-pop band OK Go (whose treadmill choreography earned far more plays than its albums). And now that Web entrepreneurs have recognized the potential for profit, it’s also a sweet deal: amateurs, and some calculating professionals, supply the raw material free. Private individuals aren’t private anymore; everyone wants to preen.
All that free-flowing self-expression presents a grandly promising anarchy, an assault on established notions of professionalism, a legal morass and a technological remix of the processes of folk culture. And simply unleashing it could be the easy part. Now we have to figure out what to do with it: Ignore it? Sort it? Add more of our own? In utopian terms the great abundance of self-expression puts an end to the old, supposedly wrongheaded gatekeeping mechanisms: hit-driven recording companies, hidebound movie studios, timid broadcast radio stations, trend-seeking media coverage. But toss out those old obstacles to creativity and, lo and behold, people begin to crave a new set of filters.
TECH oracles predicted long ago that by making worldwide distribution instantaneous, the Web would democratize art as well as other discourse, at least for those who are connected. The virtual painting galleries, the free songs, the video blogs, the comedy clips, the online novels — all of them followed the rise of the Internet and the spread of broadband as inevitably as water spills through a crack in a dam. Why keep your creativity, or the lack of it, to yourself when you can invite the world to see?
Every so often the world notices. British rockers like the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen built huge followings at home and abroad by making their music available on MySpace, where bands can post full-length songs and video clips. When the Arctic Monkeys released their first album as 2006 began — full of songs that fans already had on their computers and iPods — it drew the highest initial sales of any debut in the history of the British charts. Both of them are exceptions, however; many musicians are still waiting for the first stranger to visit their MySpace page.
While some small percentage of the user-generated outpouring is a first glimpse of real talent, much of it is fledgling bands unveiling a song recorded last Thursday in a friend’s basement, or would-be directors showing the world their demo reels. There’s deadpan video vérité, raw club recordings, “gotcha” moments (like Michael Richards’s stand-up meltdown) and wiseguy edits, along with considerably more polished productions. And users generate all sorts of recombinant art: parodies, alternate video clips, mash-ups, juxtapositions, “Star Trek” scenes accompanied by U2 songs, George W. Bush rapping.
User-generated content — turning the audience into the auteur — isn’t exactly an online innovation. It’s as old as “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” or letters to the editor, or community sings, or Talmudic commentary, or graffiti. The difference is that in past eras most self-expression stayed close to home. Users generated traditional cultures and honed regional styles, concentrated by geographical isolation.
In the 20th century recording and broadcasting broke down that isolation. Yet those same technologies came to reinforce a different kind of separation: between professional artist and audience. A successful artist needed not only creativity and skill, but also access to the tools of production — studios, recorders, cameras — and outlets for mass distribution.
As the music and movie businesses grew, they flaunted their economic advantage. They could spend millions of dollars to make and market blockbuster hits, to place them in theaters or get them played on radio and MTV. They owned the factories that could press vinyl albums and make the first CDs, before the days of the home CD burner and MP3s. Independent types could, and did, release their own work, but they couldn’t match the scale of the established entertainment business.
They still are at a disadvantage. But they are gaining.
Low-budget recording and the Internet have handed production and distribution back to artists, and one-stop collections of user-generated content give audiences a chance to find their works. With gatekeepers out of the way, it’s possible to realize the do-it-yourself dreams of punk and hip-hop, to circle back to the kind of homemade art that existed long before media conglomerates and mass distribution. But that art doesn’t stay close to home. Online it moves breathtakingly fast and far.
Folk cultures often work incrementally, adding bits of individuality to a well-established tradition, with time and memory determining what will last. In the user-generated realm, tradition is anything prerecorded, and all existing works seem to be there for the taking, copyrights aside.
In the process, another thing users generate is back talk. Surfing YouTube can be a survey of individual reactions to pop culture: movie and television characters transplanted out of their original plots or synched to improbable songs, pop hits revamped as comedy or attached to new, unauthorized imagery. (Try searching for Justin Timberlake on YouTube to see all the variations, loving and snide, on his single “Sexyback.”)
Copyright holders might be incensed; since buying YouTube, Google is paying some of them and fielding lawsuits from others. But a truly shrewd marketer might find some larger value. Those parodies, collages, remakes and mismakes are unvarnished market research: a way to see what people really think of their product. They’re also advertising: a reminder of how enjoyable the official versions were.
The amateurs may seem irreverent, disrespectful and even parasitical as they help themselves to someone else’s hooks. But they’re confirming that the pros came up with something durable enough to demand a reply. Without icons, what would iconoclasts mock?
Some pros understand that they don’t need to have the last word on their work. Rappers like Jay-Z customarily release a cappella versions of their rhymes, a clear invitation for disc jockeys and producers to work up their own new tracks. Rockers like Nine Inch Nails have placed their raw multitrack recordings online, along with the software to remix them. Filmmakers have not been so forthcoming, but that hasn’t stopped viewers from, for instance, editing “The Big Lebowski” down to all the moments when its characters use a certain four-letter word. It’s a popular clip on YouTube.
Of course the notion of culture as something bestowed by creators and swallowed whole by audiences never had much to do with reality. Now fans can not only tell others about their responses to art — in the user-generated content of fan sites and discussion forums — but they can also demonstrate them directly.
IN the tsunami of self-expression, audiences have been forced to take on a much bigger job: sifting through the new stuff. For musicians, the Internet has become an incessant public audition. What once was winnowed down by A&R departments, and then culled again by radio stations and other media, is now online in all its hopeful profusion. A listener could spend the rest of her life listening to unreleased songs. Some people do just that to claim bragging rights, or blogging rights, for discovering the next indie sensation.
Individually the hopefuls can’t compete with a heavily promoted major-label star. Face it: Song for song, most of them just aren’t as good. But collectively they are stiff competition indeed: for time, for attention and, eventually, for cultural impact. The multiplying choices promise ever more diversity, ever more possibility for innovation and unexpected delight. But they also point toward an increasingly atomized audience, a popular culture composed of a zillion nonintersecting mini-cults. So much available self-expression can only accelerate what narrowing radio and cable formats had already begun: the separation of culture into ever-smaller niches.
That fragmentation is a problem for businesses, like recording companies and film studios, that are built on selling a few blockbusters to make up for a lot of flops. The music business in particular is going to have to remake itself with lower and more sustainable expectations, along the lines of how independent labels already work.
But let the business take care of itself; it’s the culture that matters. Fragmentation is difficult too for artists with populist intentions, who want to be heard beyond the confines of their core following. That kind of ambition isn’t only a mercenary one. It’s a challenge to preach to the unconverted, and an achievement to unite disparate audiences. Every so often it’s good to break through demographic categories and share some cultural reference. Popular culture has never been entirely monolithic — someone, somewhere, has no opinion on Michael Jackson or “Titanic” — but 21st-century stardom has less clout, less scope. It’s shrinking down to mere celebrity.
Yet there is a limit to how splintered a culture can become, one that’s as much psychological as aesthetic. Humans like to congregate and join a crowd, at least up to a point. One thing the Internet does superbly is to tabulate, and it’s no accident that sites featuring user-generated content prominently display their own most-viewed and most-played lists. Even if they take pride in ignoring the mass-market Top 10, users still want a little company, and perhaps they hope that the collective choices add up to some guidance.
Humans also like to share what they enjoy; hence all the user-generated playlists at sites like Amazon or eMusic, the inevitable lists of favorite bands and films on social networking sites and the proliferation of music blogs, like fluxblog.org or obscuresound.com, that gather hard-to-find songs for listeners to download directly. The songs on music blogs are chosen not by companies desperate for profit, but by individuals with time to spare, and if the choices often seem a little, well, geeky — indie rock, with a side of underground hip-hop, seems to be the overwhelming choice of music bloggers — who but a geek would be spending all that time at a computer?
Those geeks make life easier for the media moguls who bought into user-generated content this year. Selection, a time-consuming job, has been outsourced. What’s growing is the plentitude not just of user-generated content, but also of user-filtered content. (There are even sites like elbo.ws that tabulate songs found on music blogs, finding yet another Top 10.)
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.
Unlike the old media roadblocks, however, their filtering can easily be ignored. 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.
The entertainment business is already nostalgic for the days when it made and relied on big stars; parts of the public miss a sense of cultural unity that may never return. Instead both have to face the irrevocable fact of the Internet: There’s always another choice.