Imagine paying US$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 Corp bought MySpace in July. Then imagine paying US$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 US$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," this year's paramount cultural buzz phrase. It's a term that must appeal to the technocratic instincts of investors. Some could 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?
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 TV characters transplanted out of their original plots or synched to improbable songs, pop hits revamped as comedy or attached to new, unauthorized imagery.
Change of habits
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.
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.
Yet there is a limit to how splintered a culture can become, one that's as much psychological as esthetic. 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.
Lists and filters
Humans also like to share what they enjoy; hence all the 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.
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 has been outsourced.
The open question is whether those new filters will find better art than the old, crassly commercial ones. The most-played songs from unsigned bands on MySpace tend to be as sappy as anything on the radio. Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.
The promise of online self expression 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 relied on big stars; the public miss a sense of cultural unity that may never return. Instead both have to face the fact of the Internet: There's always another choice.
SCHEDULE: The delegation is due to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen this morning and witness the signing of an MOU on bilateral health cooperation in the afternoon US Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar yesterday arrived in Taipei aboard a US government plane at the head of a delegation that is the highest-level visit by a US official since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to China in 1979. Azar’s flight landed at Taipei International Airport (Songshan airport) at 4:48pm, nearly one hour earlier than scheduled, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. The apron where it landed is reserved for military aircraft, the Songshan Air Force Base Command said. The members of Azar’s delegation included HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec, HHS Chief of Staff Brian
CHINESE FIGHTERS: Beijing marked the US Cabinet member’s visit by briefly sending two warplanes across the median line of the Taiwan Strait yesterday morning President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) yesterday met with US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar in the highest-level official meeting between the two nations since 1979. “It is a true honor to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from [US] President [Donald] Trump to Taiwan,” Azar said during the open portion of his courtesy call to the Presidential Office, which was streamed live online before Tsai and Azar held a closed-door meeting. “Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 has been among the most successful in the world, and that is a tribute to the open, transparent,
PARTNERSHIP AND LEARNING: A Princeton University health policy researcher said that the nation would be a ‘treasure trove’ of information for the US health chief US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar on Friday said he wants to learn about Taiwan’s “incredibly effective” response to COVID-19, even though the nation did things that the US has fumbled, such as having a unified strategy and citizens willing to wear masks. Azar leads a US delegation arriving today for a three-day visit to Taiwan. They are to meet with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and health system leaders, and Azar is to give a speech to public health graduates. “The message of this trip is about Taiwan,” Azar said in an interview, deflecting a question about China.
Taiwanese-independence advocates yesterday accused former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of breaking national security laws and called on the judiciary to investigate after his statement that “China will wage a battle, which will be quick and will be the last battle for Taiwan.” Ma showed his true colors “as a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party” in his speech on Monday when he said the “first battle will be the last,” Taiwan Republic Office (台灣國辦公室) director Chilly Chen (陳峻涵) said. “Ma is threatening Taiwanese by claiming that Beijing will launch a quick invasion of Taiwan, but that the US military will have no