On one view, the Internet allows users to pursue their creative ambitions, to produce and distribute excellent work which would otherwise either never have been created or never have been made available to a wider audience. Or, on the frequently heard opposing view, the Internet is simply a gutter that accumulates a mass of worthless, uninteresting material, banal photographs, and inane pictures and videos.
Such complaints always remind me of Barnabe Rich’s lament that “One of the diseases of this age is the multiplicity of bookes, they doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought forth into the world.” One might wonder why he was complaining about the number of books, when so many more bland texts are to be found all over the Internet. But the reason is simple: Rich’s observation was made back in 1613, at a time when printing had suddenly become much more common. So, although I myself often complain about the quality of what can be found online, I do not want to align myself too closely with either side of the debate. I think it is worth considering the reasoning behind such extreme opinions and examining more closely what the Internet truly means for “grassroots” creative endeavor.
The most obvious factors to consider are the publishing possibilities, and the fact that, in theory at least, every Internet user can create his or her own content. In practice, most users are just a passive audience. According to the results of the “Social diagnosis 2013” survey, less than 35% of Polish users had posted their own texts (e.g. blogs), graphics, music, or other work online, with only 12% doing so regularly.
But thanks to the Internet, there has been an undoubted increase in the number of people creating their own work, and it has become significantly easier for them to do so. Distributing work has also become simpler nowadays, when it is possible to attract an online audience and crowdfunding is a great way to get expensive projects started. The Internet also provides other ways of profiting from one’s creative output, either by selling the work itself or by selling advertising space.
This greater ease of publication and distribution means that there is far more content available for “consumption” than there used to be, which of course implies increased availability of lesser-quality content.
I recently met a 60-year-old man who talked to me about his two great passions – the Internet and music. He observed that back when music was published on vinyl records, every track on an album was worth listening to; later, when audio cassettes appeared, the number of high quality tracks started to decline; in the CD era, it was only possible to find one or two good tracks per disk; and now, with music sold and made available in the form of files or streaming, things are even worse.
This seems to me to be a very pertinent observation – the virtual absence of production costs means that everyone can publish everything they author. Moreover, it often pays to do this, since on the Internet, less marketable material can also find a niche audience. It even turns out that large online retailers like Amazon or Netflix earn more from the enormous number of less popular works than from the much smaller number of those with mass appeal. The “long tail” principle dictates that most books sold through Amazon are those of minority interest only, and similarly, Netflix users spend more time watching less popular films than they do blockbusters.
Now, with so much freedom in publishing, the method of filtering material has also had to change. It used to be the case that selection took place before publication, the cost of which was so high that it was only profitable to publish those works thought to be the most marketable. Filtering now occurs after publication, with the best – or most interesting – works getting “pushed to the top” and benefiting from the attention. A crucial role in this process is played by social networking sites, which function as tools for attracting the interest of a potential audience.
An important aspect of making material available online is openness. Many authors of works published on the Internet permit other users to distribute them more widely, and sometimes to reinterpret and use them. Openness makes it possible to benefit from the efforts of others, for example by making remixes, and encourages collaboration; as a result, a large amount of high quality work has been created. Judicious use of the Internet is, then, the art of separating the wheat from the chaff.
Dr Dominik Batorski
Interdisciplinary Centre for Mathematical and Computational Modelling
University of Warsaw
© Academia nr 3 (39) 2013