Saturday, May 8, 2010

Webism, Advertising and Old Privilege

n+1 has redesigned, attractively, and they’ve published a great essay about how the internet is actually a social movement. I’m glad that they refrained from saying “the medium is the message,” since the essay is an elegant explication of that kind of idea. Here’s a nice couple of grafs:
In its purest form, webism comes from a specific place: California. The computer and the internet spent their childhoods there. If the rhetoric of the webists sometimes sounds like nothing so much as a mutant futuristic strain of hippie-speak, this is why. Stewart Brand, creator of the great hippie handbook Whole Earth Catalog (1968–72, mostly), was a firm believer in technology as a pathway to a better, more liberated life; influenced by the techno-transcendentalism of geodesic dome–builder Buckminster Fuller and the oracular techno-apocalyptic pronouncements of Marshall McLuhan, Brand was the founder of the first online community, the WELL, which in turn influenced the founding editors of Wired. Almost all the great computer companies and innovations have come from a very small stretch of California known as Silicon Valley, which is essentially an extension of Stanford University. The founders of Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo!, and Google all came from Stanford—as did Stewart Brand. An hour north lies San Francisco, the historic home of the counterculture. And as Fred Turner—a communications professor at Stanford—has convincingly argued, it is a mixture of the technophilia of Stanford and the countercultural ethos of San Francisco that has created the ideology of the web as we know it. The first business venture of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple, both college dropouts who grew up in the Silicon Valley town of Cupertino, was to build little circuit boxes to steal long distance service from the phone company in 1976. They sold them in the dorms of nearby universities—for $100 you could get a little circuit breaker and save some money on your long distance bill. Best of all, with this gadget you could stick it to the man. Thus the era of the great freeload began.

Computers, initially, were meant to keep track of weapons and personnel in the era of mass warfare; the internet to keep alive flirtatious intragovernmental email in the event of nuclear attack. Silicon Valley sought to effect an ideological reversal. “One person, one computer,” Apple sloganeered in the early ’80s; “the web is for everyone,” Netscape said when it launched its first browser in 1994. From the mechanism of our mass administration, the computer would be the means of our individual liberation. Another early Apple slogan: “Why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” This was pronounced at the end of the famous commercial (directed by Ridley Scott and aired during Super Bowl XVIII) in which a young American female athlete threw a sledgehammer at a gigantic screen on which Big Brother was delivering his latest motivational lecture (“We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology,” Big Brother was saying). Which reminds us of the other, related source of utopian webism: the collapse of a utopian dream elsewhere, in Soviet Russia. There is something uncanny about the fact that Tim Berners-Lee wrote his first proposal for the world wide web in March 1989, six months before the Berlin Wall came down.

If you’re reading this obscure blog, I sense you’re likely of similar tastes and ideas as the webism movement: you believe in the enlightenment republic of letters extended for everyone at evey time in every place. “Information wants to be free” is something of the programmatic epigram—it seems simple at first (oh, charge nothing for information) but, as the essay points out, has political content too: information, like people, wants to be free to frolic.

If you’re for freedom, what you’re often against is privilege. And the old media barons were that. Warren Buffett in one of his famous shareholder letters once relayed the anonymous quote of a newspaper operator: “I owe my fortune to two great American institutions: nepotism and monopoly.” This was the very cushy fate of the newspaper operator after the yellow journalism days. It was broadly true, too, of other media operators: you couldn’t help but make money as one of the Big Three TV networks when there was only three choices. The worst you could do is simply make much less money than the rest. It bred an easy privilege among media operators.

As with all privileges, this had its disadvantages and advantages. Privileged people often have a noblesse oblige type of deal going on where they spend on extravagant wonders that are in no sense economically justified but are nevertheless neat. So we can blame that noblesse oblige for, say, Stanford University; in the case of the media barons, we can blame noblesse oblige for the supremely detailed foreign bureaus they supported. Privilege enables great generosity of spirit, but it also enables the lowest laziness.

As the essay linked above notes, of the radical journalists who used to love to punch around the NYT: “For all its defects, if you read to the end of the endless articles you got most of the facts. It was the best and most comprehensive newspaper in the world.” It was great, but it was also dreadfully long and boring. You might decry lower attention spans these days, but you can’t decry lower attention spans if your content isn’t worth paying attention to, because it is boring at length. If you write something excellent, and then can’t find eyeballs, and this is systematic, then we have a systematic problem. I’m not sure that problem exists nowadays. The Times’ writing is leaner and better these days, and it’s among the most-trafficked newspapers in the world. Attention isn’t the problem.

The fact of the matter is that for the consumer of media, life has never been better than the year 2010. It may be better; it may be worse, and it all really depends on advertisers, doesn’t it? No one has yet figured out how to enchain information and sell it now that it knows it wants to be free.

Which reveals one of the hidden tensions with the webism movement. You want to attack privilege, you want to stick it to The Man. This is great, and I support you. Unjustified privilege is one of the worst social evils. But you can’t attack one kind of privilege and support the other kind. I refer, of course, to advertising. Advertising is complicated, as you well know, and it is often informative. I’ve clicked on google advertisements from time to time and contributed to its vast bottom line, so I know it’s true. But of course advertising more often isn’t particularly helpful or informative. More often advertising plays off of our elemental fears and desires and transmutes it into buying beer or buying cars or buying whatever. These commercials are often funny and awesome (The Most Interesting Man in the World is a personal hero of mine), but you can’t really escape the conclusion that advertising is The Man’s tool to get you to buy into whatever product The Man needs you to buy at the moment.

Advertising is the preferred business strategy of the webism movement. And the movement is not particularly critical of advertising per se. Remember the Twitter business strategy rollout? People praised Twitter for coming up with a particularly elegant way of not pissing people off that they were serving ads along with the information they actually wanted. More than a necessary evil, it was treated as a pretty damn good hack.

Now, it’s not as if previous media incarnations were advertising-free; in fact newspaper’s biggest profit source was advertising. But it does seem a bit odd that the webism movement can attack some kinds of privilege and enable it all at once. The webism movement has made my life incalculably better than it would otherwise be, but I can’t pretend it comes free.

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