Saturday, December 26, 2009

Show me the village

The weekly print edition of the Christian Science Monitor has an article (not available online) in its December 20 edition by Gloria Goodale called "Show Me the Money." The article explains how sites like YouTube, Hulu and Metacafe are doing less posting of user-generated content and more delivery of commercial content, essentially because little-s, naturally occurring stories don't sell well enough.

"In the rush to monetize the Internet, the little guy is getting pushed out," says Benjamin Wayne, a digital media strategist and CEO of Fliqz.

Since I can't find the article online, I'll quote more than I had planned to. Later the article says:

"User-generated content is one of the most democratic developments in the creative world since the days of Homer," says Paul Levinson, author of "New New Media" and a media studies professor at Fordham University in New York. "People can distribute their own creations widely and easily for the first time in history," he says. "They will not give that up easily."

And finally:

Wayne says that the great illusion of widespread access to storytelling tools is that everyone has a meaningful ability to tell their own story. In fact, very few are capable of telling a story that the rest of us want to pay to watch, he says. "Everyone wants to create this," he says, "but nobody wants to consume it."

This is where I think the internet strategists are getting it wrong. It's not true that nobody wants to consume user-generated content. It's just that people in other villages aren't interested in it.

People haven't changed much since the days when news and entertainment meant the village bard in the village square. Just because we can connect with thousands of people around the world about any issue under the sun doesn't mean our brains have suddenly changed to suit it. Yes, we surf the web and look at the occasional skateboard-riding dog, but our substantial web connections happen among a relatively small number of people. Even the word "surf" implies not entering the water but merely skimming the surface. When people want to dive in, they still look for their village.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the internet is splitting into two internets: the local democratic village, and the global corporate marketplace. Using the terms of the "identity interaction braid" in this paper, the internet is undergoing a split between selection interactions, which can be huge in scope, and those of mobilization and commitment, which require reduced scope. Maybe we need separate terms for these two internets. Maybe the "internet" is a village while the "Internet" is a global marketplace.

As I remember it, the early web (and here I'm talking the early 80s, when I first used it) did a better job of helping people navigate connections between local and global than it does now that the marketplace has become more prominent. If you remember "logging in" to a BBS or joining a listserv, you can remember how web gatherings felt more like locations than big "sites" like Facebook do today. Maybe it was easier to feel like there were online communities when there were fewer people online; but I think the culture of the web has changed too.

Some of the messages, beliefs and assumptions that improve selection interactions wreak havoc in the worlds of mobilization and commitment. This impacts storytelling as well as other interactions. Not only are we told that only purposeful stories deserve to be called stories, and that stories should be rated by popularity as if they were toasters; we are also told that bigger groups are always better, no matter what activity takes place in them. Size provides power and utility in the marketplace, but in the village it can be harmful. Some so-called community sites prominently display the number of group members in ways that suggest groups succeed only when they grow large. And to hear people talk about their amateur video postings, you'd think that stories only matter if thousands of people are watching. That's not how people interact: it's how companies sell their wares. Turning every act of storytelling into a super-sized marketplace activity may put more money into the hands of web service providers, but it goes against what stories have done in human groups for thousands of years. The clever insertion of the word "you" in YouTube did not bring television into the village, as it seemed to promise; it dragged stories out of the village and into the marketplace.

I'm not saying people should return to insular ignorance and abandon the amazing diversity of the web, where we can discover affinities with people in locations and walks of life we would never have encountered in past ages. What I'm saying is that rushing to the opposite extreme of trying to create one giant village isn't working either. The naturally occuring stories people tell each other only because things have happened to them belong in villages, not in the marketplace. And this covers most amateur digital storytelling.

If the village is the natural habitat of wild stories, the marketplace is a fenced monoculture farm where domesticated stories are raised. It makes perfect sense that YouTube and its like are increasingly promoting purposeful stories over naturally occurring stories, because such sites are not villages. When people post naturally occurring stories on sites like YouTube, the stories are like wild animals struggling to survive on a fenced farm: they fail to thrive. When wild stories can no longer find refugia in the little-i internet because of habitat destruction by the asphalt big-I Internet, the result is a reduction in narrative diversity. This in turn reduces our collective capacity to respond elastically to crises. It's also less fun.

They took all the trees
Put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

-- Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

(By the way, Big Yellow Taxi was written in 1970. Guess how many people have recorded versions of it, according to Joni Mitchell's site? ... 262 people. Struck a nerve, do you think? Maybe it wasn't just about trees.)

What we need to preserve narrative diversity is two things: first, better support for storytelling in small groups (more natural habitat set aside); and second, a better conversation between local and global scales (better urban wildlife management, including wildlife bridges).

If the internet wants to enable such a conversation between local and global, it might be well served by looking at oral storytelling traditions. Bards learn stories from local or nearby bards, usually over decades of apprenticeship. They interact with their communities in both telling and listening, incorporating elements from local stories as well as influencing stories told in conversation. And these traditions do not rely entirely on the professional telling of stories by a few bards; the term encompasses other, more casual forms of storytelling such as the grandmother bouncing the little one on her knee. In the oral tradition, larger story themes move across large regions through site-to-site transfer, and local and global elements are deliberately and skilfully mixed. Most of all, the oral tradition lives in the village and draws its power from community and connection.

It's interesting that the media studies professor quoted in the CSM article mentions Homer. Most scholars believe that Homer, like Aesop, represents a conglomeration of several or even many people who wrote down tales that had been passed down and elaborated in the oral tradition for hundreds of years. By saying "the days of Homer," I'm curious whether Mr. Levinson meant the act of writing down the Illiad and the Odyssey, or the oral tradition from which they came. In a way, user-generated content as a democratic development would be better supported by making the little-i internet work more like the days before Homer than like what came after.

[T]he Cyclopes ... have no laws nor assemblies of the people,
but live in caves on the tops of high mountains;
each is lord and master in his family,
and they take no account of their neighbours.

-- Homer, The Odyssey


Paul Levinson said...

Actually, I'm the source of the Homer quote (not Mr. Wayne) - as you correctly indicated in your block quote near the top of your article - and I meant the oral tradition from which Homer came. Because that was indeed the epitome of democratic creation, in contrast to the written tradition that followed. More on this in New New Media, and in The Soft Edge.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Sorry about that! Mistake fixed.