The People’s Platform: How “free culture” stifles the creative middle

It's_not_free

The culture of listicles and Instagram makes it harder for the creative middle — people who are neither superstars like Beyonce, or amateurs working for free — to make a living, while enriching the Googles, Facebooks, and Amazons of the world. Tim Wu reviews The People’s Platform” by Astra Taylor for _The New York Times:

Astra Taylor is a documentary filmmaker who has described her work as the “steamed broccoli” in our cultural diet. Her last film, “Examined Life,” depicted philosophers walking around and talking about their ideas. She’s the kind of creative person who was supposed to benefit when the Internet revolution collapsed old media hierarchies. But two decades since that revolution began, she’s not impressed: “We are at risk of starving in the midst of plenty,” Taylor writes. “Free culture, like cheap food, incurs hidden costs.” Instead of serving as the great equalizer, the web has created an abhorrent cultural feudalism. The creative masses connect, create and labor, while Google, Facebook and Amazon collect the cash.

Taylor’s thesis is simply stated. The pre-Internet cultural industry, populated mainly by exploitative conglomerates, was far from perfect, but at least the ancien régime felt some need to cultivate cultural institutions, and to pay for talent at all levels. Along came the web, which swept away hierarchies — as well as paychecks, leaving behind creators of all kinds only the chance to be fleetingly “Internet famous.” And anyhow, she says, the web never really threatened to overthrow the old media’s upper echelons, whether defined as superstars, like Beyoncé, big broadcast television shows or Hollywood studios. Instead, it was the cultural industry’s middle ­classes that have been wiped out and replaced by new cultural plantations ruled over by the West Coast aggregators.

If you win the Internet lottery and your video goes viral, and you get an interview on The Today show, then what?

It’s just back to serfdom (with exceptions, like E. L. James, author of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which began as “Twilight” fan fiction). In any event, the odds of going viral are comparable to winning the lottery, but the lottery, to its credit, actually pays out in cash. You might say virality is the promise that keeps the proletariat toiling in the cultural factories, instead of revolting and asking for something better.

Wu says Taylor overlooks hobbyists and amateurs — people posting selfies on Instagram aren’t in it for the money. And Wu also says the Internet permits creation of whole new genres, like Awkward Family Photos (which I’m not so sure is a new thing — a site like Awkward Family Photos reminds me of those little novelty books you could buy at the cash registers of shopping mall bookstores in the 70s and 80s.)

And the Internet is great for consumers — it’s never been easier to get great content from sites like Netflix and Amazon.

Taylor’s solution: “sustainable culture” along with more public support for the arts.

My $0.02: I make a better living on the Internet than I did before. And steamed broccoli is one of our favorite foods.

Content and Its Discontents

Image: NesuKurosu

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