All These Democratic Hoo-Hah Dreams of the Internet

by Scott McLemee on April 7, 2010

I first heard about David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace from Mark Athitakis when we were on a panel in New York a few weeks ago. The book consists of transcripts from a prolonged interview with Wallace conducted just after Infinite Jest appeared. I’ve published some comments on the book elsewhere, but wanted to pluck out and pass along a long passage—one that Mark read during the panel discussion.

It spins out from a reference to the Interlace system in IJ, but you can skip the background without losing the point. (Ellipses in brackets are mine; otherwise they are sic from the text, as with much else.)

Wallace is speaking, remember, in March 1996, and explicitly addressing a question about how things will shape up in about 15 years:

[T]he big thing, if you’re doin’ movies or packaging any sort of thing, is to get on the Interlace grid. That Interlace will be this enormous gatekeeper. It will be like sort of the one publishing house from hell. They decide what you get and what you don’t.

Because this idea that the Internet’s gonna become incredibly democratic? I mean, if you’ve spent any time on the Web, you know that it’s not gonna be, because that’s completely overwhelming. There are four trillion bits coming at you, 99 percent of them are shit, and it’s too much work to do triage to decide.

So it’s very clearly, very soon there’s gonna be an economic niche opening up for gatekeepers. You know? Or, what do you call them, wells, or various nexes. Not just of interest but of quality. And then things get real interesting. And we will beg for those things to be there. Because otherwise we’re gonna spend 95 percent of our time body-surfing through shit. […] It’s gonna be—you’re gonna get to watch all of human history played out again real quickly.

[….]If you go back to Hobbes, and why we end up begging, why people in a state of nature end up begging for a ruler who has the power of life and death over them? We absolutely have to give our power away. The Internet is going to be exactly the same way. Unless there are walls and sites and gatekeepers that say, “All right, you want fairly good fiction on the Web? Let us pick it for you.” Because it’s gonna take you four days to find something any good, through all the shit that’s gonna come, right?

We’re gonna beg for it. We are literally gonna pay for it. But once we do that, then all these democratic hoo-hah dreams of the Internet will of course have gone down the pipes. And we’re back again to three or four Hollywood studios, or four or five publishing houses, being the…right? And all of us who grouse, all the anarchists who grouse about power being localized in these media elites, are gonna realize that the actual system dictates that. The same way—I’m absolutely convinced—that the despot in Hobbes is a logical extension of what the State of Nature is.

Well now if that won’t stir up the hornet’s nest then I don’t know what will.

{ 57 comments }

1

dsquared 04.07.10 at 11:27 am

Not convincing. Hollywood studios didn’t dominate film-making because they provided a quality filter (just saying these words out loud ought to have tipped him off that there was something wrong with the argument), they tended toward oligopoly because of the massive capital investment which needed to be made (and still does) in making a film. If you look at the only area of the film industry where product can be made with a) cheap equipment and b) no upfront development and scriptwriting costs, ie the pornographic film industry, then an endless tide of metaphorical and all too often literal shit is exactly what it’s become.

Or in other words, cultural theory makes poor industrial economics. Does Time Out make more than a token effort to select and curate the best events of the week, or does it just list them all? I think that the trouble is that DFW (and the large number of similarly-placed people who have expressed similar views about the value of “best of the web” products, few of which are still in existence) has mistaken his own taste for a viable commercial product.

2

Jason Kuznicki 04.07.10 at 11:35 am

He didn’t consider the possibility of democratic rankings, which make the crowd into the gatekeeper.

3

Stuart 04.07.10 at 11:39 am

It sounds broadly correct that those sorts of institutions will arise on the net, and indeed some already have. The difference is that the boundaries will be much more slippery than in the past. To take a concrete example – novels/books. It is likely that some small group of sites will dominate (possibly coming from different directions – retail sites like Amazon, hosting/linking sites, or book critic sites) and the vast majority of people looking for something to read will go through them, but unlike outside the internet the ones that aren’t selected by the publishers/gatekeepers can still make their works accessible and it is much easier for their works to garner attention via word of mouth – which is useless when in printed format if the work isn’t available to purchase in shops.

This is likely to make it so that the gatekeepers are less able to abuse their position as much as publishers are able to, as they have less ability to shut out authors completely than they used to. Other industries will of course vary depending on their nature, but I would broadly expect something along these lines to happen in most cases.

4

bob mcmanus 04.07.10 at 11:57 am

Partly true, but I think vastly underestimates the Balkanization of culture and information. The mass market is dead, at least relative to thirty years ago, and to what extent there remains a mass market it now interacts with niche audiences in complicated ways (Star Trek, Miley Cyrus)

Wasn’t it ComCast that bought NBC Universal? They did not buy NBC to close everything down and make us all watch ESPN, but in order to get the synergies and profits from the various niches. So Comcast is a Gatekeeper, but instead of 1 or 10 gates, there are now hundreds.

Chiller Channel …a lot of this content would have been on SyFy. Now SyFy (Comcast/NBC Universal), having provided for part of its audience, is more free to either “massify” its content, or tighten up control of a slightly more narrow niche.

“Meso-?”

5

Tim 04.07.10 at 12:38 pm

Wallace is half-right. If the internet ceases to be democratic (and it very well may) it will be accomplished through a combination of iPad-type devices (the “gatekeeping” trend Wallace is referencing) and regulatory limitations on who is able to produce content (in the name of “safety”).

The historical precedent to this is the development of radio in the US. Manufactures separated the transmitter and receiver (to make consuming content less complicated). Then the fear of espionage during WWI was used as an excuse to revoke all existing transmitting licenses. Radio was never the same after that. “Freedom” came to mean one’s ability to change the channel, rather than to produce content.

The whole story, of course, is more complicated, but the moral stands: never underestimate what a majority of people will put up with in the name of ease and safety.

6

Delicious Pundit 04.07.10 at 12:48 pm

No surprise that someone who wrote a two million page book finds editing to be a form of despotism.

7

Alison P 04.07.10 at 1:05 pm

The noise must be filtered, or there is no information flow. I was on a panel at Eastercon at the weekend, and we were talking about SF reviewing as an intelligent filtering system. I call it inhibiting the signal, John Clute called it ‘Enforcing Scarcity’ IIRC. In any case, it must be done. The lower the production costs (as in raw text) the more urgent the need to filter the product.

That’s why we cling to the system of film studios, record labels, publishers etc. Like those frogs that clung to their log-king, or as you say like Hobbes’ society clinging to its despots. I think the distributed filter is a viable alternative: it’s not really ‘democratic’ because all voices and votes are not equal, but it is more open.

8

Phil 04.07.10 at 1:27 pm

There are two problems with this ‘gatekeeper’ argument, one of which D^2 has nailed – tendencies to oligopoly and oligopsony are real, but they’re a property of the underlying economic system, not the Web (or the collective desires expressed through the Web, or human nature, or whatever agency he’s actually suggesting). The other is this weird and unproductive oscillation between macro and micro, with collective uniformity and individual freedom being cited by both sides as if one disproved the other. (Playing both sides of the street at once, like Clay Shirky or Chris Anderson, isn’t that much of an advance.) My ability to self-publish doesn’t contradict Amazon’s ability to dictate prices to publishers – they’re part of the same movement.

Ultimately I don’t think DFW was saying much more than that if you think Hobbes was right about human nature, then you think Hobbes was right about human nature.

9

Cian 04.07.10 at 1:38 pm

7: That’s why we cling to the system of film studios, record labels, publishers etc.

So Alison, you’re saying that consumers pay attention to the publisher/record company/studio before buying something? You might want to rethink that argument.

10

Cian 04.07.10 at 1:42 pm

Gatekeeper suggests the power to keep stuff out. Nobody has that power anymore. What you have are voluntary filters that some people choose to use. However those can range from professional reviewers, browsing reviewers on Amazon, casual comments on blogs or even word of mouth on a forum.

Sure if nobody’s heard of a product then nobody’s going to buy it, but that’s not really saying anything terribly interesting. The interesting thing is that no one person/group has a monopoly on promotion any more, and that promotion techniques that already existed (word of mouth/fanzines) have become far more powerful and trusted.

11

dsquared 04.07.10 at 1:43 pm

That’s why we cling to the system of film studios, record labels, publishers etc

No this isn’t right. We “cling” to that system because films, records and books need to be produced before they can be distributed, and this requires a large up-front investment[1].

[1] Yes it does. Blah blah Garageband blah. The capital investment involved is the time taken off work while you are writing, rehearsing and recording.

12

Alison P 04.07.10 at 1:55 pm

Cian: ‘you’re saying that consumers pay attention to the publisher/ record company/ studio before buying something?’ No, I am saying that these companies perform a vital filtering function in cutting down the flow of all that could be available to us into manageable proportions. They do it badly (I think) but they do it. An improvement would not be ‘let us have no filter’ but ‘let us have a better filter’.

Daniel: Obviously there is also an issue of how we invest in content production. The investment/risk for different types of content varies greatly, and I think text is at the lower end of risk, followed by music. To some extent the creative person will be driven to create, in any system, and where the threshold is low the quantity will zoom up and need cutting. Other content (like Star Wars) is super-high threshold and will remain scarce. My feeling is that there will be new ways of supporting this high-investment content: or perhaps I should say, there is a possibility of some system which we do not yet know, coming into being. I know that’s not very satisfactory as an answer.

13

Vance Maverick 04.07.10 at 2:24 pm

So what does it mean that on the cleverest para-academic blog, an excellent professional book reviewer points me to a book from a commercial publisher, consisting of the table-talk of one of the most famous recent authors in my country — so that I can read a standard comment in the pessimistic vein on the Internet democracy of culture? The same hierarchy of filters seems to be in place, indeed if anything to be more widely ramified, but I’m not sure how well it’s working.

Wallace does have a point about the difficulty of finding good fiction. But I had the same problem in 1996, and then as now my solution is to pick up the next recommended dead author.

14

Henri Vieuxtemps 04.07.10 at 2:43 pm

I used to go Mininova and only to Mininova to download what I needed or what they recommended. Now it’s gone and I am all confused and frustrated. Please bring it back, internet gods, I beg you.

15

Cian O'Connor 04.07.10 at 2:48 pm

No, I am saying that these companies perform a vital filtering function in cutting down the flow of all that could be available to us into manageable proportions. They do it badly (I think) but they do it.

Well they do it, but they’re not vital. There are plenty of records, films and books that are essentially self-published, but which find an appreciative audience. People find out about them from small magazines, fanzines, word of mouth, blogs, etc. For years half the decent comics were self-published, but interested people pretty quickly discovered the minority of interesting works. Look at the micro-indie record industry. Most of its crap, but its not particularly hard to find the stuff that you’ll like. Hell look at electronic music where loads of stuff is essentially self-published. Look at the growing underground of film (documentaries in particular) that are self-financed/promoted, yet which find an audience. The internet has made it easier to find like minded souls. Its improved the filters available.

These companies are probably essential for producers wishing to make money, assuming they are commercially exploitable, but they’re hardly necessary for consumers anymore.

16

Substance McGravitas 04.07.10 at 2:53 pm

[1] Yes it does. Blah blah Garageband blah. The capital investment involved is the time taken off work while you are writing, rehearsing and recording.

No, even before the advent of computer gimmicks. Enrico Caruso gets credit for one of the first million-sellers and got a flat fee for that session IIRC: a guy set up a mic and pressed record and that was that. Fine recordings to this day. That there is bloat to the recording industry is generally because costs are recouped from artist royalties: record companies are pretty cool with spending all sorts of money if their artists never get paid. Movies are way way harder to make and organize.

17

Aulus Gellius 04.07.10 at 3:16 pm

Alison P: to go completely off-topic, the “frogs that clung to their log-king” are completely the wrong reference here. First of all, the point of the story is that the log didn’t act as a gatekeeper, or as anything else: it just sat there. Which is why, second of all, the frogs DIDN’T cling to it: they SHOULD have, because instead they got the stork-king, who was much more active, but not in a good way.

18

Alison P 04.07.10 at 3:58 pm

Oh yeah, well ignore the frogs then

19

roger 04.07.10 at 3:59 pm

I think dsquared’s comment about investment must be right, although I think it requires a bit of an amendment. Hollywood existed at first as a breakaway location, out from under the legal guns of the Edison monopoly. Why did it succeed and the East coast filmmaking companies fail? Investment has two purposes, it seems to me. One is obviously to make a product that sells, and the other is to set a standard so that your competitors will have to invest as least as much to keep up with you. The product itself should raise the bar to entry. Marketing is as much about that as it is about selling a particular product. This is something that Hollywood pioneered. From what little I have read about it, the East Coast film makers thought about the product simply as something like cotton candy orr a lightbulb, a half hour to be enjoyed in a carnival tent. Hollywood producers realized that it should be enjoyed as the whole carnival, and once they were able to make this the standard in moviemaking, they won.

20

Es-tonea-pesta 04.07.10 at 4:02 pm

He didn’t consider the possibility of democratic rankings, which make the crowd into the gatekeeper.

How many things get ranked, good or bad, by more than ten people? Gate-keepers determine path-dependence.

21

Ted Lemon 04.07.10 at 4:50 pm

Estonea, have you ever actually shopped on Amazon? It’s quite typical for products that are well-liked to have many more than a dozen reviews. Even obscure products often have a dozen reviews. Same with iTunes.

I’m assuming that Scott is pointing out just how absurd Mr. Wallace’s prognostication turned out to be, not proposing that he was right. I find it interesting that there are people who still take Mr. Wallace’s prediction seriously, fifteen years later, when not only has the market Mr. Wallace claimed would exist in fifteen years not materialized, but it’s actually in the process of being completely destroyed by the democratic Hoo-Hah dream he disparaged.

And by the way, when you think of the iPad as some kind of gatekeeper in the vein of what Mr. Wallace was describing, you are fundamentally misunderstanding the product. It’s true that Apple has an uncomfortable amount of power over the platform, in the sense that it can accept or reject applications. However, in fact they have not undertaken to use this power to control what content is published.

They have in fact allowed applications that compete with their own, such as the venerable Stanza book reader, the new Netflix application, and so on. They’ve done this because they correctly understand the market: if you want market growth, you must not act against the interests of the buyers in that market. If you do, you will have killed the market, and any further funds you obtain from that market will come from drinking its remaining lifeblood as it slowly fades and dies.

There are large corporations doing this right now, but Apple is not among them.

22

bianca steele 04.07.10 at 4:54 pm

(I don’t have time to do this topic justice and I’d give odds that Scott sees this differently than I do but)

Phil@8: I, too, would have thought, before I’d read David Foster Wallace (and some of his fans), that surely he is not saying what he seems to be saying: using the very rhetoric of those who say tyranny erupts when people are too cowardly to accept their freedom, in favor of tyranny. More likely he is saying: it is necessary, and thus we should not call it tyranny.

Obviously, there were a large number of things DFW did not consider. For one, that “the Interlace system” could be manipulated by a writers’ fans (or enemies). For another, that people would actually like videophones as long as they didn’t have to pay extra for them. (If he had been right, Bloggingheads would look much different.) But his work remains a fascinating example of the interplay between modern philosophy and traditional literary technique.

23

Delicious Pundit 04.07.10 at 5:03 pm

Two other notes, and then I have to go do television:

1. per Roger above, I would amplify dsquared’s comment this way: I think marketing is a huge part of what studios do. You can indeed make your own movie now, but only a studio has the money for the billboards (studios of course don’t really make movies anymore anyway, they finance them). I find this is truer than ever in TV as well. Whenever I pitch a show, I am always asked a version of “what’s the poster?” — i.e. how do we market this?

2. The other thing I need studios for is talent aggregation. I love working in TV, but I don’t want to figure out where to put the camera or how to light something or edit it after. I don’t mind meddling in that work, but I know I’m only good at writing. So I need somebody to find directors, casting people, post, etc. Some people might be good at DIY; it makes me feel like one of those crappy all-in-one TV/VCR/toaster gizmos.

24

J. Fisher 04.07.10 at 5:27 pm

Henry Jenkins covers quite a bit of this in Convergence Culture, which is a really great read. I think one of the more intriguing arguments that he references (in addition to the claim that Internet culture can be self-selecting) is that Web 2.0, for all of its democratization, really just supplants one form of corporate oversight with another: Facebook gives everyone room to generate all of the content without reaping any of the profit, or without having any real power. It’s not akin to the claims that Wallace makes, but it’s one that has stuck with me.

As far as Wallace goes, some of his sentiments are bound by time, I’d argue. I remember portions of The Internet in the late 1990s–lots of fragmented junk floating around, most of which I couldn’t read because my computer couldn’t withstand the pressure of downloading pictures. Also, I recall the wonderful PINE email system. Today, he might be wrong, but back then, he might have been right.

25

bianca steele 04.07.10 at 5:46 pm

Tho as for modern philosophy: It’s now apparently a commonplace that there’s a connection between Infinite Jest and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, but I seem to remember when it was mooted on wallace-l some time back, the idea of this fell with a distinct thud, and lay there, not moving, for rather a long time. Not that it’s relevant to Scott’s post here.

26

chris 04.07.10 at 5:55 pm

If you go back to Hobbes, and why we end up begging, why people in a state of nature end up begging for a ruler who has the power of life and death over them?

Uh… people in a state of nature are defenseless against a ruler who IMPOSES the power of life and death over them. Then, with the ruler looking over their shoulder, they claim to like it. I don’t think they should be taken at their word.

In addition, of course, the problem with *genuine* anarchy is that you have no protection against being murdered by your neighbor. The problem with anarchy in a creative domain is that you have no protection against wasting your time on the next Eye of Argon. Some people would consider these threats a little different.

Just think, if it weren’t for the benevolent gatekeeping of publishers, we might all have to read crap like Twilight, and nuts like Glenn Beck could have their own TV shows, to say nothing of tedious tripe like American Idol…

27

Jim Harrison 04.07.10 at 5:57 pm

The invention of printing provides a useful precedent. The flood of printed matter created problems not only for political and religious authorities–the Reformation!–but also for learning and literature. The powers that be developed new forms of censorship in response, but the natural philosophers and other members of the Republic of Letters also developed ways to insulate themselves from the rising ocean of dreck, e.g. peer review, credentialism, and the whole apparatus of taste. Similar moves are afoot now for similar reasons. Some of the motivation for new means of filtering is malevolent and much of it is merely crass, but the process itself is inevitable granted that the precondition for communication is the restriction of discourse to a tiny subset of what is possible to say. If a technology increases the range of options, new means must be found to diminish them, though different groups may make different selections and thus wall themselves off from the others.

28

chris 04.07.10 at 5:59 pm

Lest I be thought to merely be engaging in snobbery, the point of my last paragraph above is not that the gatekeeper is failing at gatekeeping by some *objective* standard but that one gatekeeper does not fit all and 10,000 gatekeepers are not that different from none, since most things will get in through one gate or another anyway.

29

novakant 04.07.10 at 6:02 pm

So what was J K Rowling’s “massive upfront investment” again?

30

Josh R. 04.07.10 at 6:14 pm

It’s true that Apple has an uncomfortable amount of power over the platform, in the sense that it can accept or reject applications. However, in fact they have not undertaken to use this power to control what content is published.

They’ve tried to. Cf. their removal of sexually explicit apps.

http://news.cnet.com/8301-13579_3-10457460-37.html

The major saving grace for the argument is the browser, since even if Apple can dictate that no explicit materials be accessed through applications, then one could theoretically do it via browser.

31

Cian 04.07.10 at 7:15 pm

Chris:
Gatekeepers is the wrong word here. Its not that they block stuff, its that they pull stuff out from the stream for people who share their tastes. Gatekeeping is impossible in a world where anyone can publish, and distribution is essentially free.

32

Michael Bérubé 04.07.10 at 7:30 pm

all these democratic hoo-hah dreams of the Internet will of course have gone down the pipes

What this prediction overlooks, obviously, is that the Internet itself is a series of pipes. That and the fact that the proposition “there won’t be democracy on the Internets because there will be too much stuff on it” rests on an entire Internet full of questionable assumptions. Like you know who else was in favor of gatekeepers and editors? That’s right, Hitler Hobbes.

33

mds 04.07.10 at 8:03 pm

you have no protection against wasting your time on the next Eye of Argon.

For this reference, I hereby award chris an Interlace.

What this prediction overlooks, obviously, is that the Internet itself is a series of pipes.

“The appearance of the tubes and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a tube in the middle of a tube.”
–Ezekiel 1:16

34

Ted Lemon 04.07.10 at 8:10 pm

They’ve tried to. Cf. their removal of sexually explicit apps.

Not only is your point about the browser correct–you can still access sexually-explicit material through the browser if you want–but in fact many of the applications will happily load any content you tell them to, with no regard to whether or not it is sexually explicit. What is forbidden is offering you the content, not displaying the content once you’ve found it.

So Apple’s refusal to offer a place on its site for sexually-explicit material is, as you say, an example of Apple taking on that gatekeeper role, but it’s consistent with the idea that Apple has to act in the interests of its customers. Apple hasn’t prevented you from accessing this material–they’ve simply made it difficult for it to be placed in front of your eyeballs without your deliberate intervention. Many users are quite happy with the current balance.

You can argue that they’ve gone too far, since they don’t even offer a checkbox to enable such material, but they’ve no doubt wisely determined that the desire for access to sexually explicit material is strong enough that they need do nothing to make access to it easy; people will access it anyway.

I would say that the strongest argument in favor of them striking a less draconian balance is simply that at some point the lack of sexually explicit apps in the app store, combined with competition from app stores for jailbroken phones, like Cydia, may lead people would not otherwise do so to jailbreak their iPads in significant numbers. But I haven’t seen any evidence of that yet.

35

blah 04.07.10 at 8:39 pm

It’s a very weird discussion that is ostensibly about democracy on the Internet, but focuses almost entirely on the difficulties of sorting out good entertainment from bad. I don’t think democracy has much to do with the discussion at all.

36

Tim 04.07.10 at 8:53 pm

There is no difference between controlling apps and controlling content. The fact that they currently allow a browser on their platform that gives free access to the internet does not mean that they always have to. They can pull apps at will. It is entirely possible for them (both technologically and legally) to replace said browser with a draconian browser with filtering built in. And Apple as a corporate entity will do whatever is in their ultimate economic interest. Right now it is open access, but it need not always be.

I again urge people to think about historical precedents. I’m sure that folks tootling around with early radios believed it would be impossible for anyone to control the ether…and yet they did. Social and legal constructs ultimately determine how systems like the internet are used.

37

bianca steele 04.07.10 at 9:06 pm

@32
Ah, the old “Hitler was a vegetarian therefore brownshirts would be real cool, Wagner’s operas have no political argument (okay, maybe they explicitly argue for economic socialism), and Nietzsche was perfectly sane” argument. OT.

38

garymar 04.07.10 at 11:01 pm

Vance Maverick @13:

Wallace does have a point about the difficulty of finding good fiction. But I had the same problem in 1996, and then as now my solution is to pick up the next recommended dead author.

You, sir, are obviously in thrall to some defunct filter!

39

tomslee 04.07.10 at 11:13 pm

Jason (2), Cian (10, 31) and bob (4) – I think you need to take off those rose-tinted glasses that you are looking at the Internet through.

Jason – “He didn’t consider the possibility of democratic rankings, which make the crowd into the gatekeeper”. Do ‘democratic rankings’ lead to a more diverse culture? Not obviously – see Matthew Hindman’s “The Myth of Digital Democracy” for the case of political culture. And Susan Boyle.

bob – “The mass market is dead, at least relative to thirty years ago, and to what extent there remains a mass market it now interacts with niche audiences in complicated ways” – The mass market is alive and well, but has moved on. All my friends grew up knowing Dr. Who and Star Trek, all my children’s friends grew up knowing Mario and Luigi – it’s not so different. And the mass market always did interact with niche audiences in complicated ways, like the Batman bubble-gum cards I collected or the Thunderbirds games we used to play in the back garden. Now that was a niche audience.

Cian – “Gatekeeper suggests the power to keep stuff out. Nobody has that power anymore.” Nobody ever did. Whether it was samizdats or wargaming clubs or school newsletters, there have always been distribution channels that recommend and pass material of interest along to to others. The caricature of mass-market monoculture past and the diverse present is common, but the forms of variety have changed rather than shrunk.

And music always was mostly amateur and mostly shared by word of mouth through clubs and pubs. That’s what folk music means. It wasn’t “published” but there is nothing magic about the act of publishing.

And Cian again: “Gatekeepers is the wrong word here. Its not that they block stuff, its that they pull stuff out from the stream for people who share their tastes. Gatekeeping is impossible in a world where anyone can publish, and distribution is essentially free.”

This, together with the whole “filter” idea, is a curiously one-dimensional view of culture which sets the old world
production -> gatekeepers -> publication -> promotion -> audience
against the new world
production -> publication -> filters -> audience.

The idea that good filters are the answer misses the point of how much culture gets produced. To go to music again, there is a reason why “scenes” drive new trends, and it’s because they don’t follow this linear model.

The big question is whether a more diverse set of production reaches the audience than there used to be, and that’s a complicated answer but I think it resolves to “in some ways yes, and in some ways no, and the main blockages are not technological.”

Well, that’s all over the place. I wanted to chime in earlier but the day job does interfere.

40

Martin Bento 04.08.10 at 12:31 am

I think it worth mentioning that, around the time DFW wrote this, much of the “smart money” in the Internet space was being sunk into portals, server push, narrowcasting, and similar ideas, which seemed enormously credible to those who hearts were warmed by gatekeepers. After vast investment, substantially all that stuff bombed, even while the general dot com bubble was still going. Portals proved to be the “Hoo Hah” dream. Even now ATT email attempts to be a portal, and I am sure it is ignored by most of its users. Partly this is because ATT doesn’t know how to be a portal, but the notion that people are going to “beg for and pay for” portals seems very far-fetched: they are currently free and shoved into faces, have been for about 15 years, and still get little traction.

41

Vance Maverick 04.08.10 at 12:44 am

garymar #38:
You, sir, are obviously in thrall to some defunct filter!

No kidding. Any suggestions?

Martin Bento @40: Yahoo does get pretty massive traffic, for better or worse.

42

Jen Bernstein 04.08.10 at 12:54 am

This reminds me of this book: The Myth of Digital Democracy. Hindman is talking about politics specifically, but the general principles may still apply.

Also, CT readers may be interested in this post, which includes scans of some Wallace artifacts, a student paper he marked up and a poem he wrote when he was a child.

43

Darius Jedburgh 04.08.10 at 1:39 am

Well, this is a real interesting discussion and all on the part of you educated types, but I can’t help wonderin when you’re all going to learn a little humility, and why you all persist in ignoring the question that’s been staring you all in the face all along:

Why hasn’t anybody court martialed the assholes who are losing the war for us?

44

tomslee 04.08.10 at 1:57 am

Because the assholes who are losing the war are in thrall to some defunct filter. You’ve got to get to the filter.

45

Martin Bento 04.08.10 at 2:35 am

Vance, didn’t they almost go under last year? They had a first mover advantage, which is huge in this space, but decided to emphasize portal over search engine. Google is still a search engine first and foremost. I think it easy to see which was the better idea.

46

Vance Maverick 04.08.10 at 3:03 am

I hold no brief for Yahoo. I happened to be looking at Quantcast estimates, and they give about the same volume for Yahoo as for Facebook. It was a surprise to me.

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Substance McGravitas 04.08.10 at 3:06 am

They had a first mover advantage, which is huge in this space, but decided to emphasize portal over search engine.

My recollection is that they decided to emphasize everything else over portal. This still looks useful and attractive to me. Then it started filling up with crap.

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Ted Lemon 04.08.10 at 4:45 am

Why hasn’t anybody court martialed the assholes who are losing the war for us?

Maybe because we don’t have a clue what you’re talking about? What war, who is “we,” and who are the assholes to whom you refer?

It’s a very weird discussion that is ostensibly about democracy on the Internet, but focuses almost entirely on the difficulties of sorting out good entertainment from bad. I don’t think democracy has much to do with the discussion at all.

When the best news program on cable is a comedy show, I think it’s pretty obvious that the distinction between “news” and “entertainment” is strictly artificial. Perhaps the distinction you were looking for was between “truth” and “fiction,” but that distinction is as frequently blurred today as it was in Alice Liddell’s day.

It is entirely possible for them (both technologically and legally) to replace said browser with a draconian browser with filtering built in.

In what part of this scenario does their market not immediately begin to die? Who would buy a device like that? Certainly they can do this technically. Possibly they could do it legally, although I think they’d get sued into oblivion if they tried. But regardless, they will never do it, because the culture their device depends on does not allow it.

I’m sure it’s very satisfying to pen paranoid screeds like this one, but when you do so, you entirely miss the playing field upon which the game is being played. If the culture into which Apple sells iPads becomes willing to accept the draconian browser you fear, it’s possible Apple will begin shipping it. Until that time, it is irrelevant: if they choose to do so, the internet will route around them. It’s the culture that matters, not its artifacts.

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Martin Bento 04.08.10 at 7:40 am

Yahoo is to this day a canonical portal. Here is the definition of “web portal” from wikipedia.

“A web portal, also known as a links page, presents information from diverse sources in a unified way. Apart from the standard search engine feature, web portals offer other services such as e-mail, news, stock prices, information, databases and entertainment. Portals provide a way for enterprises to provide a consistent look and feel with access control and procedures for multiple applications and databases, which otherwise would have been different entities altogether. Examples of public web portals are AOL, iGoogle, MSNBC, Netvibes, and Yahoo!.[1]”

Of those examples, Yahoo was the first to call themselves a portal and generally referred to their site as the “Yahoo Portal” until the term became unfashionable. The functionality of the “Yahoo Portal” of 1999 includes much of the most important functionality of Yahoo now, and it’s hard to see that the additions are that different in kind.

Yes, they get a lot of hits, but they are the oldest major dot com and their commercial viability is still in doubt.

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alex 04.08.10 at 8:17 am

Is it not rather evident that the predominant filter of content on the internet is the aesthetic and humorous preferences of adolescents? “Adolescents” being a term which encompasses a fair proportion of all those not yet in middle-age, of course, [and some who are…] in our “kidult” societies.

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Cian O'Connor 04.08.10 at 9:27 am

#39 Tomslee:
Sure they had the power to keep stuff out. There were limited distribution channels (bookstores, record stores) and limited publishing outlets. To most intents and purposes these acted as gatekeepers, as the barriers to effective self-distribution/publishing were quite high. Even if you knew of the existence of a particular item, you ususally couldn’t get hold of it outside large cities and not even then sometimes. That’s no longer true, and hasn’t been for at least ten years now. Similarly even if you were interested in a particular genre/medium, it was often very hard to find out about what was out there. Again these days that’s no longer true.

The limits these days are essentially promotional. Unless I know I might like X, I’m probably not even going to be aware of its existence. Whether this is better, or worse, is an open question. However its a different kind of problem. I didn’t really want to get into how audiences find out about stuff because its far too complex for a comments thread. But to return to scenes. Music scenes are way less geographically located than they used to be (if you’re a lone emo in your town its pretty easy to find out about emo culture), and its trivial to access products of that scene. When I was growing up neither of these things was true. That’s a big change.

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tomslee 04.08.10 at 12:03 pm

#51 Cian – I see what you mean, but I have two problems with your argument.

Publication is not the major barrier between an artist and their audience and has not been for some time. Most books that get published by a publisher have essentially zero sales and a shelf life of weeks, so even in that non-digital world, the gate to publication is less difficult to squeeze through than the gate to promotion and a sizeable audience. In music, the distinction between a major label and an indie label is one of promotion not publication and has been for decades, because promotion is the capital-intensive step to reaching a large audience. In the digital world, the promotional gate becomes even more important and it can act as just an effective barrier as the publication gate ever did.

I don’t see that the digital world makes promotion easier, just different. The lone emo (he/she has an identity and a taste, but can’t find what is needed to satisfy it) is archetypal but I don’t see it being the main driver of diversity. Most of us adopt tastes in reaction to those around us, whether those around us are digital or geographical. Information is not the major barrier here, though I don’t suppose I could back that contention up.

(Plus, if you cheer up your lone emo, doesn’t that stop them being emo?)

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Cian O'Connor 04.08.10 at 1:32 pm

Tomslee:
No it was distribution. Growing up there was a lot of music that I’d heard of, but couldn’t buy because nobody near me would carry it. It was difficult to buy a lot of stuff, even if you wanted to. There were barriers of access. That’s no longer the case. Hell, even buying books from small presses was difficult. A bookshop might order it in for you, then again they might not. Those barriers are long gone now.

In music, the distinction between a major label and an indie label is one of promotion not publication and has been for decades, because promotion is the capital-intensive step to reaching a large audience.

I wasn’t talking about a large audience. That’s a whole seperate discussion. Gatekeeper seems like the wrong metaphor for promotional budget. I mean are there gatekeepers for bakedbeans? All you’re arguing is that largescale commercial exploitation relies upon capital. Which is also true of baked beans. Not sure how this relates to quality, or the arguments of Foster though. I can still buy this stuff even if the author doesn’t become a millionare.

I don’t see that the digital world makes promotion easier, just different. The lone emo (he/she has an identity and a taste, but can’t find what is needed to satisfy it) is archetypal but I don’t see it being the main driver of diversity. Most of us adopt tastes in reaction to those around us, whether those around us are digital or geographical. Information is not the major barrier here, though I don’t suppose I could back that contention up.

a) Who said it made promotion easier? I said it made it easier for people who were already receptive to find what they were looking for. This is irrelivant to mass culture perhaps, but its pretty significant to stuff that’s under the radar of the mainstream. The problem has shifted from accessing stuff that you know you want, to filtering out stuff that you don’t want. Which in practice is pretty straightforward.

b) I didn’t say that it was the driver of diversity, and I’m not sure where that came from. I’d argue that its better for marginal artists if more people who are interested are about to find out about, and buy, their products. Its probably also good for them that thanks to the internet its easier to find out about (say) the German Improv scene and work out whether you might be interested in it, even if you live in Nebraska. The fact that most people won’t do this is irrelevant, some will and do.

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tomslee 04.09.10 at 7:27 pm

Cian – other commitments kept me away, and this thread is past its sell-by date. Obviously there are a lot of different issues. I remain sceptical about the benefit of the Internet for marginal artists, and also about the view of culture as a matching problem that is implicit in your presentation (tastes, such as German Improv must be matched to products by means of some filter), which I think skews the question such that the Internet is the answer.

But I am sure we will have a chance to return to this topic.

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SteveAK 04.09.10 at 11:15 pm

You can say that freedom of speech doesn’t matter as long as no-one is indebted to hear you (or at least told about your talk). However, I’m perfectly fine with the promotional capabilities used on the internet and have no issues finding far more useful content than I have money to afford or time to consume.

I would say most mainstream entertainment is popular because lots and lots of people prefer it over alternatives, but conversely almost everyone has a hidden unusual taste they begin preferring to the mainstream once they become aware that it exists. The internet makes this feasible and customizable channels are quickly replacing the radio and MTV. I have a sister who has virtually no time to spend learning technology or discovering new content but listens to Pandora daily. It’s not just tech-nerds who are finding freedom on the ‘net.

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JulesLt 04.09.10 at 11:36 pm

Reminds me of something in Future Shock (remember the big 70s bestseller?? or was it early 80s).

There’s a chapter that pretty much talks about the digital content revolution – predicting the instant availability of everything (even then that wasn’t a new claim) – but what was interesting was the point about how people would manage the information overload, through membership of subcultures, which would provide a social filter.

There’s certainly be a steady explosion in subcultures and scenes since the 50s – but I do think there is also a counter-veiling trend, of people who surf across cultures (possibly because it needs less involvement or commitment to find out the ‘cultural capital’ that previously required you to actually be involved) without really getting more deeply involved.

Whether that means the mainstream is ‘dead’ is another matter – I don’t think it is – analysis of Amazon and iTunes sales shows that the bulk of the income has actually shifted away from the ‘long tail’ towards the top – and anecdotally, a lot of people I work with primarily watch the mainstream TV channels and listen to mainstream radio, and that is where they discover things.

I suspect that the Internet hasn’t significantly changed the basic nature of people – the people who read blogs are people who read literary review sections or the music press or fanzines.

But so far, it seems like the mainstream culture is still largely defined through the traditional broadcast channels (is that because you can have broadcast on in the background, while doing other things . . . like surfing the web?).

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va 04.10.10 at 3:56 am

Someone is wrong about the internet!

I for one never bought into all the hype about the internet, or democracy, or Hobbes. I did buy into the hype about DFW once upon a time, so I feel compelled to defend him. To that end, though you say it’s unimportant, I actually am curious about the context of this quote, specifically of DFW’s willingness to answer whatever the question was. He did not like giving interviews, as you note in InsideHigherEd, but he also felt obligated to answer inane questions at some length with all expected intelligence for people who he knew wouldn’t understand him anyway. Watching the Charlie Rose interview from 1997 is quite comical for that reason. I think DFW produced some head-scratchers in those contexts. So, it’s not surprising that he would drop Hobbes on despotism using an oligarchy as an example, making wild claims about the whole of human history. It’s what someone wanted at the time.

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