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

This is how danah boyd works

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For years danah boyd has been watching the internet through an academic lens, studying how society interacts with technology. Her recent book, It’s Complicated, looks at how teenagers, born into an online world, are navigating social media and whether they’re better off for it.

I’m danah boyd, Researcher at Microsoft, and This Is How I Work

Law professor Tim Wu had an epiphany at an Atlanta strip club that led to developing the principle of net neutrality

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He was working for Silicon Valley networking company Riverstone Networks, which cooperated with Chinese authorities on censorship technology. And that was only part of the problem at Riverstone, which came under SEC scrutiny for scheming to defraud investors. Wu’s immediate boss, Andrew Feldman, pled guilty to felony charges, and Feldman and four other Riverstone executives settled SEC complaints.

It all crystallized for [Wu] on Sept. 12, 2001 — the day after the 9/11 attacks. He was stranded in Atlanta at a trade show with other company employees. Their business engagements were canceled because of the attacks, and, with no other plans, his colleagues decided to go to a strip club. On such a solemn day, the tawdry revelry repelled him.

“I wondered how I’d gotten there,” he recalls. “I realized that what we’d been doing all those months was abhorrent.” He had been living in a world based on nothing but money, he said, and saw that “the idea that the private sector, the free market, on its own has all the solutions is just a myth.” He added: “When it’s just about money, there are no values.”

He looked for a way out and got a job teaching law at the University of Virginia. But the Internet preoccupied him. “I thought of it as a kind of perpetual frontier, the place where everyone gets a shot, where the underdogs have a chance. The Internet has been that. And I wanted some principles that would keep it that way.”

He got back in touch with [mentor Lawrence] Lessig, who encouraged him in May 2002 to put his thoughts down on paper. The result was a sparkling memo, “A Proposal for Network Neutrality,” that asked: “What principle can balance the legitimate interests of broadband carriers in administering their networks with the danger of harm to new application markets? And how can such a principle be translated into both clear legal guidelines and the practice of network design?” The answer was in the title: a new creation called network neutrality. Mr. Lessig began sending the paper to his contacts the next month.

Defending the Open Internet

“There is no such thing as network neutrality. You’re being played”

Imagine a chess game, but with four players. Each player has their own strategy, some have advantages….say, extra queens left over from prior games, and one has a disability…say, that player can only move their chess pieces like checkers.

In network neutrality, the four players are the government, the content providers, the network providers (carriers, service providers), and you, the consumer. You’re the one playing checkers.

Christian Renaud: There is no such thing as network neutrality

RSS just keeps humming along

What makes RSS truly powerful is that users still have the control. The beauty of the system is it that no one can force you to be tracked and no one can force you to watch ads. There are no security issues I am aware of and no one ever has to know what feeds you subscribe to. This may be the last area of the Internet that you can still say things like this.

The Old Reader: behind the scenes – What Not Dying Looks Like

I wrote a whitepaper evangelizing RSS for the publishing company I worked on in 2005. I proclaimed RSS would be as big as the Web or newsletters. That didn’t happen. On the other hand, Facebook and Twitter are very RSS-like. And I’m still using RSS as my primary channel for accessing many websites.