Are you famous yet? Have you pledged your support to Britney Spears like YouTube celebrity, Chris Crocker, who was recently on Jimmy Kimmel Live? Are you taking pictures for Nissan, like Flickr's Rebekka Guöleifsdóttir? Or is your band the hottest thing on MySpace since Arctic Monkeys?
The prospect of instant fame is Web 2.0's strongest selling point. User generated content--created by everyday people--is driving the Web, and experts say that by 2010, 70 percent of onlline content will be generated by unpaid amateurs. Is this the revolution that some claim? Or is it the death knell of creativity as we know it?
Thanks to the Web, creators can get content directly to potential consumers: everyone can share his or her creations with everybody else. But creating and maintaining a Website can be expensive and time consuming. That's where Web 2.0 comes in. Internet entrepreneurs and conglomerates alike have created collaborative spaces where anybody can upload and share user-generated content. It's the premise behind Blogspot, YouTube and Flickr, as well as a key component of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. But here's the tradeoff: these sites sell advertising or charge for extended features thus generating revenues for themselves and in exchange, they offer users exposure; be it for personal or professional purposes. This model subverts the democratic many-to-many model that is claimed as the main advantage of the Web, rendering it a perverted and highly exploitative variation of the one-to-many model that is the hallmark of traditional media.
Here's a simplified version of the traditional one-to-many media
model. A single source, such as a television station or network, a
magazine, newspaper or movie studio produces content that it
distributes to many consumers. Creators feed these single entities.
Writers, filmmakers, photographers, etc. are paid for the rights to
their works, which are then distributed by these entities, who generate
revenues by selling advertising or the works themselves.
In the direct many-to-many model, producers sell directly to consumers, bypassing distribution and broadcast mechanisms entirely. Artists like Radiohead and Robert Fripp can do this because they are already established. Emerging artists can't because nobody knows who they are: they have little or no reputation. And sites like Flickr and MySpace are cashing in on this, creating a new and highly profitable business model by providing exposure without compensation.
In the past, creators needed the support of movie studios, record companies and publishers to finance their creations. The money required to produce a finished work was substantial. But digital technology has changed that in many fields. Inexpensive DV cameras and editing software have streamlined the filmmaking process. In music, ten thousand dollars of digital studio equipment can equal a million dollar set-up from a couple of decades ago. Digital still cameras have all but eliminated the need to develop photographs. Word processors and layout software make error-free press-ready manuscripts an everyday reality. As a result Web 2.0 entrepreneurs find themselves with access to a surfeit of material--good, bad and mediocre--that is being produced affordably by others and at no cost to them. By adopting the advertising-based revenue model of traditional media and largely (but not wholly) rejecting editorial and curatorial responsibility (i.e. assigning, evaluating and selecting work) they are creating a new type of publishing entity which distributes material but does not guarantee the quality of content, leaving this responsibility to consumers.
In doing this, they have created a form of economic exchange in which one currency (money) is traded for another (fame). The hope of content creators who engage in this exchange is that they will obtain enough of the latter to concretely convert it into the former, by eventually attracting enough attention and garnering enough of a reputation to get paid for their creations. In this instance, beauty and exploitation are both in the eye of the beholder.
Some, including author Andrew Keen, suggest that this is creating a cultural and artistic wasteland. In The Cult of the Amateur, her suggests that Web 2.0 is not as much creating a culture of democracy as it is encouraging a mob mentality. In reference to the idea that a million monkeys with a million typewriters will eventually produce a play by Shakespeare, Keen writes:
In the pre-Internet age, T. H. Huxley’s scenario of infinite monkeys empowered with infinite technology seemed more like a mathematical jest than a dystopian vision. But what had once appeared as a joke now seems to foretell the consequences of a flattening of culture that is blurring the lines between traditional audience and author, creator and consumer, expert and amateur. This is no laughing matter."
Others, see Web 2.0 as a harbinger of a new golden age, in which reputation will eventually replace money as currency due to the unenforceability of copyright laws or the creation of a post-scarcity economy resulting from the large-scale implementation of nanotechnology and other future technologies.
In his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow proposes such a scheme, called Whuffie, which is explained as follows in Wikipedia:
"The usual economic incentives have disappeared from the book's world. Whuffie has replaced money, providing a motivation for people to do useful and creative things. A person's Whuffie is a general measurement of his or her overall reputation, and Whuffie is lost and gained according to a person's favorable or unfavorable actions. The question is, who determines which actions are favorable or unfavorable? In Down and Out, the answer is public opinion."
Depending on one's point of view, such a reputation-based economy can fit the golden age scenario, the million monkey scenario, or both at once. What is clear is that, in the present day, we are witnessing a seismic shift in the ways that content is created and distributed. Whether this is the start of the revolution or a bump on the road that leads back to the status quo remains to be seen. In the meantime, Web 2.0 entrepreneurs will continue to enrich themselves at the expense of those desiring exposure and fame and the Internet will continue to be a souped-up version of the back pages of Rolling Stone magazine. Where fortune and celebrity were once a self-addressed-stamped-envelope away, they are now available at the click of a mouse.
Posted by Christos Tsirbas
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