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July 30, 2007

Web 2.0: good for the arts, good for journalism

Joe Nickell

John Stoehr's post last week, in which he drew connections between quite a dizzying number of cultural forces over the past 30 years, rightly generated a good bit of discussion, with contributors from all over the country spicing the stew of ideas in ways that I'm sure John wouldn't have expected.

I don't have any real meat to add; but I have an inclination to stir the pot a bit.

Both John's post, and much of the discussion that followed, seemed to imply that our culture and our newspapers' coverage of culture is spiraling down the drain. Multiculturalism has dissipated standards to the wind, the Internet has dissipated authority to the wind, and this isn't good for us. Perhaps I'm taking some of the contributors to this discussion wrong; but I don't think one can read the whole lot of it in one sitting without coming away with a vague consensus that we're on a path that must be reversed before it's too late: "We need to reclaim the public sphere," says Gary Panetta, while Mike Boehm has suggestions "to reverse this trend" and John worries that "the big-tent version of culture is in serious danger of becoming meaningless."

I tend to view cultural change more in terms of transition than trajectory; as such, I guess I'm not so worried (in the big picture, anyway) about what's going on with the media landscape or popular knowledge of the arts, or about the larger cultural shift going on as relates to our so-called "Web 2.0." In fact, I see reasons for celebration.

First, this whole idea that further democratization of media is a bad thing - brought to the fore recently by Andrew Keen in his book, "The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture" - kinda cracks me up. Just because more people can publish their ideas online, doesn't necessarily mean that those people's ideas are any more influential than they were pre-Internet. The noise floor of our public discussions of culture has certainly risen as a result of this new use of the medium; but mistaking the hit-count at YouTube as some kind of roundhouse kick to the face of cultural standards strikes me as backwards thinking.

Let's remember, after all, that it was during the last great age of amateurism that some of western culture's finest art and deepest theoretical inquiry emerged. The ubiquitous piano of the 19th century - which pretty much everyone knew how to play, at least a little - is today's Internet-connected, multimedia computer. The 20th century, with its sudden and unprecedented explosion of world-wide mass media and mass art, was the truer anomaly. I would argue that the state of artistic and journalistic standards that we're grappling with today emerge more as a consequence of this century of mass media than from the relatively new changes brought on by the Internet.

Of course, what mass media eventually exposed, and what Web 2.0 has only further illuminated, is the fact that not everybody is interested in big ideas and cutting-edge art. Fart jokes, it turns out, have broader cultural impact than the Piss Christ.

And this was a surprise...why? As David Sokolec noted in a comment to John's post last week, "the thing to remember is that art never attracted an enormous crowd."

The only real difference between today's dialogue about culture, and yesterday's, is that the water cooler looks different. We still mostly talk about the same things: the weather, our friends and families, politics, maybe something interesting we saw at the theater. Because these common conversations have now been democratized and dispersed, we have higher expectations than ever from the media we're willing to pay for: It must inform us and enlighten us about things we don't understand or simply don't know. If it's just a regurgitation of Google News and Wikipedia, it's not worth paying for.

This is bad news for bad artists and second-rate journalists. It is good news, I tend to believe, for the truly skilled, the deeply passionate, the innovative, and the informed among us.

The bottleneck is broken; the floodgates are now fully open. Now that anybody can publish their thoughts or their art for the entire world, it seems to me that the higher ground is the only safe place left for professional journalists and the companies that employ them.

Posted by Joe Nickell at July 30, 2007 10:44 AM

COMMENTS

"Fart jokes, it turns out, have broader cultural impact than the Piss Christ."

This is a brilliant sentence and bears considerable reflection! Human things that happen to us all can be shared. "Concepts" that are mostly attacks on something ancient go over the heads of the many.

Also, I really like the idea that the piano was the computer of its time. After I've been typing all day, I often dream of playing the piano -- keyboards both.

But we have NOT heard from everyone yet!

Many people around here, some of them with fabulous stories and ideas, either can't afford a computer or figure out how to operate one. And what do you think will happen when those $100 green crank computers hit Africa? What will we hear THEN? Will it be like the little sample of music composed on it that Here-Now played today? Hiccups and giggles and toodling? Human as farts?

Posted by: Mary Scriver at July 30, 2007 2:10 PM

An intelligent counter-balancing argument!

One difficulty I see is that institutional change is lagging way behind technological change. For example, there doesn't seem to be any reliable economic model for supporting quality journalism. We writers don't like to look at the business side of things, but it is in the economic sphere that a real revolution has to take place -- unless we all want to work at this as a hobby.

Another example of institutional lag has to do with the law. A judge in Peoria recently refused a blogger (and former writer for my newspaper)admittance to a juvenile court hearing on the grounds that bloggers aren't "real journalists." Clearly, this is backwards thinking. But just as clearly, the whole concept of who is a journalist needs to be redefined (and is being redefined).

Which brings me to your point, Joe, about quality and professionalism. The old controversy about whether journalism is a profession has returned and with good reason: Only quality and professionalism are going to distinguish themselves in an era when anyone can publish anything.

On a final note, when trying to grasp the big picture, my feelings see-saw. On the one hand, I think we may be on the verge of a new Renaissance, since so many diverse cultures are mixing in ways they haven't before. Also, mastering this new world requires interdisciplinary, creative thinking. Walking in lockstep with others isn't going to cut it.

On the other hand, the decline of reading documented by the NEA and the low quality of public education is disquieting. I suppose our brave new future is still going to require many people who flip burgers.

Posted by: gary panetta at July 31, 2007 8:48 AM

"We have higher expectations than ever from the media we're willing to pay for: It must inform us and enlighten us about things we don't understand or simply don't know."

But "we" expect to get it for free; that's the crux of the crisis in journalism brought on by the gravitation of eyeballs and advertisers to the Internet. I'm amused by our millennial era's propensity to throw out cold, hard economic and political reality on wisps of evidence.

The early 1990s brought us "The End of History" thanks to the U.S. winning the cold war; seems to me we still have all the history-in-the-making we can handle.

The late 1990s brought us "The End of the Business Cycle," thanks to the fact that the tech sector was booming. That tune changed after mid-2000.

The Internet as cultural savior? Perhaps. But just because you build a highway doesn't mean it will be full of cultural traffic if the horses aren't fed and the internal combustion engines can't combust.

And who are those horses, and what are those engines? Some natural human drive to expression-no-matter-what that's now been freed to soar in the anti-gravity of cyberspace? Sorry, but on an ongoing, sustainable basis, nobody produces culture or becomes culture's journalistic handmaiden without cash support and cash incentives (a trust fund might be a passable substitute).

I think it takes a leap of faith, given current conditions, to see the Internet magically becoming a vacuum cleaner sucking in cash for culture that's high, middle-brow or avant-garde.

Lighter amusements? Different story. As far as journalism is concerned, the Internet's impact so far has been an economic disaster, with arts journalism bearing a disproportionate share of raging cutbacks. Lacking a new economic model that pays those who report, write and edit, you'll see a dwindling of good information.

Yes, the Internet is a godsend for spreading the word about cultural developments, but first you need a word to spread. For culture to bubble along briskly requires an infrastructure of arts and journalistic institutions that will house the art and generate the word about it.

Remember, each Victorian piano in a parlor meant a nickel in the pocket of the content provider: Stephen Foster, Gilbert & Sullivan, et. al., who had a reliable way to convert the medium into a paycheck, via the sale of sheet music.

So, barring considerable evidence to the contrary, I'll continue to believe, and, as long as they'll let me, literally live by the words of that grandaddy of all bloggers, Samuel Johnson: "Only a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

Posted by: Mike Boehm at July 31, 2007 1:16 PM

Many good points here, but I'm more with Joe than Mike on blogs and the Internet. True, economic and reputation models are still being worked out; that will probably always be in flux. But don't underestimate the power of the gift economy, as Bridgette recently alluded to. I believe that if you provide compelling content, and you will be found. My prime example is Ed Winkleman's arts blog (sorry, it's from New York, but Ed's sidebar points to quite a few blogs that aren't, including the modest group blog I'm associated with.) People work for their passions, as well as for money. We're not all blockheads.

Posted by: Steve Durbin at July 31, 2007 1:55 PM