Ed Driscoll

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Web 2.0

In the Weekly Standard, Andrew Keen looks at Web 2.0, a bloggish attempt to bring Web publishing to the masses.

Keen explores the downside of such a proposition:

So what, exactly, is the Web 2.0 movement? As an ideology, it is based upon a series of ethical assumptions about media, culture, and technology. It worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone–even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us–can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves. Web 2.0 “empowers” our creativity, it “democratizes” media, it “levels the playing field” between experts and amateurs. The enemy of Web 2.0 is “elitist” traditional media.

Empowered by Web 2.0 technology, we can all become citizen journalists, citizen videographers, citizen musicians. Empowered by this technology, we will be able to write in the morning, direct movies in the afternoon, and make music in the evening.

* * *

We know what happened first time around, in the dot.com boom of the ’90s. At first there was irrational exuberance. Then the dot.com bubble popped; some people lost a lot of money and a lot of people lost some money. But nothing really changed. Big media remained big media and almost everything else–with the exception of Amazon.com and eBay–withered away.

This time, however, the consequences of the digital media revolution are much more profound. Apple and Google and Craigslist really are revolutionizing our cultural habits, our ways of entertaining ourselves, our ways of defining who we are. Traditional “elitist” media is being destroyed by digital technologies. Newspapers are in freefall. Network television, the modern equivalent of the dinosaur, is being shaken by TiVo’s overnight annihilation of the 30-second commercial. The iPod is undermining the multibillion dollar music industry. Meanwhile, digital piracy, enabled by Silicon Valley hardware and justified by Silicon Valley intellectual property communists such as Larry Lessig, is draining revenue from established artists, movie studios, newspapers, record labels, and song writers.

Is this a bad thing? The purpose of our media and culture industries–beyond the obvious need to make money and entertain people–is to discover, nurture, and reward elite talent. Our traditional mainstream media has done this with great success over the last century. Consider Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo and a couple of other brilliantly talented works of the same name Vertigo: the 1999 book called Vertigo, by Anglo-German writer W.G. Sebald, and the 2004 song “Vertigo,” by Irish rock star Bono. Hitchcock could never have made his expensive, complex movies outside the Hollywood studio system. Bono would never have become Bono without the music industry’s super-heavyweight marketing muscle. And W.G. Sebald, the most obscure of this trinity of talent, would have remained an unknown university professor had a high-end publishing house not had the good taste to discover and distribute his work. Elite artists and an elite media industry are symbiotic. If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural “flattening.” No more Hitchcocks, Bonos, or Sebalds. Just the flat noise of opinion–Socrates’s nightmare.

The Vertigo reference is curious. Hitchcock himself thought the film was a bomb, because, 20 years before VCRs first appeared, the film failed to make money during its initial run at the box office. (Hitchcock attributed its failure to Jimmy Stewart’s aged appearance, but its themes may have been just too dark to connect with a 1950s-era mass audience.)

Vertigo became a cult hit only later, because critics eventually recognized how many of Hitch’s obsessive themes he brilliantly explored within the movie, and they managed to convince enough people to go back and give it a second look, via revival houses, late night TV movie airings, and eventually, videotape and now DVDs.

In other words, it wasn’t a hit because Paramount said This Is The Big Film To See In 1958! Quite the contrary: Paramount’s attempts to promote the film failed. But word of mouth ultimately prevailed.

The same thing is happening on the Web: the stars of the Blogosphere (insert your favorites here: InstaPundit, Hewitt, Lileks, LGF, Roger Simon, etc., etc.) have built-up large followings because they do consistently great work which strikes a chord with their audiences. Cream rises to the top. And it doesn’t necessarily take a mass media promoting it to succeed these days.

More from Keen:

One of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 movement may well be that we fall, collectively, into the amnesia that Kafka describes. Without an elite mainstream media, we will lose our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard. The cultural consequences of this are dire, requiring the authoritative voice of at least an Allan Bloom, if not an Oswald Spengler. But here in Silicon Valley, on the brink of the Web 2.0 epoch, there no longer are any Blooms or Spenglers. All we have is the great seduction of citizen media, democratized content and authentic online communities. And weblogs, course. Millions and millions of blogs.

But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle: the mass media began to splinter in the 1970s with the birth of cable TV and the first dial-up computer bulletin board systems. It’s only going to continue, and accelerate.

Sadly, that means less and less shared culture. But would you like to go back to the alternative? Three TV networks, one or two big city newspapers, a handful of music radio stations, no viable talk radio, no Internet, no blogs, no fun.

No thanks.