No Marigolds in the Promised Land (Response Paper No. 5 — Revised and updated)

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If history is any guide, the blogosphere is in the second phase of a three-stage process that will end with its co-option by a moneyed mainstream, increasing its reach but greatly diluting its appeal.

Sure, blogs represent a revolutionary medium of unprecedented power. They’re easy to publish and the startup cost is virtually nil. Distribution is free and immediate, and every blog in existence has a potential readership measuring at least in the tens of millions. Those factors are unlikely to change. But the blogosphere as a mighty podium for the lone voices crying in the wilderness, as a place of great creative and political foment, is on its way out. We need only look at the great revolutions in media in the past to see why.

Consider the phonograph. It’s difficult to understate how important this technology was to the development of music in the early 20th century. The previous generation of musicians relied on performances and sheet music to propagate their art, and as a result their reach was severely limited. But with the advent of recorded music even the modest-of-means and uneducated had access to the latest music and, just as importantly, found for the first time a means to preserve music that otherwise would have been lost to the ages — for example, regional folk music styles. This simultaneously freed music from the hidebound conventions of the elite form and spared heretofore little-noticed regional forms from geographic anonymity.

It was in this context that blues and jazz, obscure regional styles that had been effervescing for years in the cultural gumbo of the Mississippi Delta, were brought to the notice of the mainstream in the early 20th Century. Laurence Bergreen, in his 1997 biography of Louis Armstrong, notes the significant role technology played in these formative years of American music:

“Jazz had been a preeminently aural medium, and its essence eluded even the most skillful notation. … The spread of recordings meant that performers could influence and learn from one another at a dizzying rate, and on a scale unimaginable in the days when jazz was heard only in New Orleans. From now on, it could penetrate everywhere, to an unlimited audience. … Even musicians with small followings, such as Bix Beiderbecke, who seemed destined to be forgotten, were able to leave a musical legacy to influence unborn generations of players.” (Bergreen 1997, pp. 214-215)

To Armstrong, a dirt-poor black kid from the worst neighborhood in New Orleans, this must have seemed the very essence of democracy. But anyone who would describe the modern recording and music industry as a great democratizing force in society is, in a word, nuts.

What happened? Well, we can rule out several variables. First, the barriers to entry have actually fallen on the creative side of the equation: A musician with a few hundred dollars worth of equipment and a modicum of know-how can produce recordings far surpassing in technical quality those scratchy 78’s of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (on which Armstrong made his recording debut). Nor is distribution the issue: The modern musician can make tracks available for download to a potentially unlimited audience.

It was neither of these. Rather (and here the much-belabored comparison with blogs ought to become clear), the very abundance of recordings, combined with a burgeoning profit motive, has led to a natural channeling of tastes into well-worn grooves, gaming the system in favor of the established and the familiar. This benefits consumers overwhelmed by an overabundance of choice, and makes it far easier to market music according to people’s tastes. This comes, of course, largely at the expense of the sense of ferment and discovery that existed in the early days of recorded music, when consumers were still creating and discovering the grooves we now follow.

I propose there are three stages to the popularization of a new technology. The first phase is adoption: The first people who use a new technology often belong to a scientific elite or moneyed class who have access to it by virtue of their special expertise or wealth. The phonograph early on was used to record historical speeches, and was considered a novelty for the rich. Likewise, the precursors of blogs – e-mails, listservs and hypertext — were almost exclusively used by academics, defense workers and Silicon Valley pioneers before the 1990s.

The second phase is exploration and experimentation: as the technology spreads, it’s put to new and novel uses, and those uses are relayed to other users. This can result in immense creativity and expose undiscovered genius. Phonographs captured the soulful music of Southern blacks, and the music caught fire in the public imagination, generating entirely new genres. Bergreen (1997) notes the “dizzying rate” (p. 214 — apparently no pun) at which new musical ideas spread among jazz musicians with the help of these recordings. Similarly, new ideas are emerging and spreading like wildfire with the aid of blogs. In Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel (2006) document how this powerful new technology was used, at virtually no cost, to spread the Firefox Internet browser to 25 million users in just 99 days. The authors quote ICQ entrepreneur Yossi Vardi: “Blogging is word-of-mouth on steroids” (p. 34). Likewise New York Magazine’s Clive Thompson (2006) notes the metoric rise of the techie blog Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things, created almost as an afterthought and on a shoestring budget.

Rather than spreading on the strength of a medial blitz or marketing campaign, these ideas rise to the top because they are genuinely novel — that is, part of their appeal is that they arise independently of existing commercial or societal structures, on the innate strength of their genius alone. As Scoble and Israel put it:

“People come across something new, and they want to tell their colleagues about it. They like to be first and have influence. But none of this matters unless the product or service is really remarkable.” (pp. 39-40)

For obvious reasons, these early successes attract entrepreneurial eyes and become the models for future development. At this point innovation kicks into low gear as emulation sets in. Where viral marketing fails to emerge, media and marketing campaigns attempt to fill the void. This third stage, co-option, is where the groove lines start to look more like trenches. In the music industry artists are still climbing all over each other to follow in the footsteps of Louis Armstrong, the first recording megastar. And the recording industry itself has reduced the promotion of artists to a crude and cynical formula from which it rarely departs. This has resulted in a handful of artists in a given genre getting rich off of “hits” while the vast majority struggle for rent money.

Thompson suggests something of this sort is already happening in the blogosphere, where — despite a proliferation of actual sites — there has been a distinct categorizing into a very few elite “A-list” blogs, a much larger number of notable B-list blogs, and a veritable glut of C-, D-, and Z-list blogs, such as the one you are reading. “Blogging …. Should be the purest meritocracy there is,” Thompson says (2006, p. 1), noting the negligible startup cost and availability of advertising services. “But if you talk to many of today’s bloggers, they’ll complain that the game seems fixed.”

Thompson suggests “power-law distribution” is at work: that is, a tendency for popularity and wealth to beget more popularity and wealth. That’s a way of saying that people faced with an abundance of choices tend to start by picking from among options that are already popular with others. Those options quickly separate from the pack and rise to the top. This creates an uneven playing field where the most popular options are more easily able to attract yet more acclaim and capital, which can further separate them from the rest. In the blogosphere this suggests that power-curve “winners” like Gawker can, for example, buy content and attract top-level staff that are not available to less popular blogs. This is raising the barriers to entry, ending the meritocracy to whatever extent it still exists.

Chris Anderson, in “The Long Tail (Wired 12.10, 2004), suggests that interactive technology may provide an escape from this power-law tyranny. He points out that the Internet offers a way around supply-and-demand inequities that tend to reinforce the power law. Brick-and-mortar music retailers, for example, are limited by the amount of shelf space they can provide, and thus in turn limit their offerings to the most profitable (i.e., the most popular) items. But in online music retailing, there is virtually unlimited “shelf space” and thus no reason to promote only the more popular items. Anderson says of these online services:

“People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Bares & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture). (2004, p. 2)

Perhaps. But even in the absence of market-driven considerations, there seems to be a tendency toward inequitable distribution. In his seminal “Folksonomies: Cooperative Classification and Communication Through Shared Metadata,” Adam Mathes (2004) observes that there seems to be a natural tendency for users, when left to themselves and given the tools, to collectively organize the unbridled entropy of the Web through the use of tags. These become the user-created pathways (grooves?) that others follow. He writes:

“I hypothesize that it follows a power law scenario. That is, the most used tags are more likely to be used by other users, since they are more likely to be seen, and thus there will be a few tags that are used by a substantial number of users, then an order of magnitude more tags that are used by fewer users, and another order of magnitude more used by only a handful of users.” (2004, p. 16)

REFERENCE LIST:

Anderson, Chris. “The Long Tail.” Wired Magazine. 12(10). 10 October 2006 [http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html] 1-3

Bergreen, Laurence (1997). Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. Broadway Books: New York, N.Y.

Mathies, Adam (2004). Folksonomies: Cooperative classification and communication through metadata. 10 October 2006
[http://www.adammathes.com/academic/computer-mediated-communication/folksonomies.html]

Scoble, R. & Israel, S. (2006) Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 1-62.

Thompson, Clive (2006). “Blogs to Riches.” New York Magazine, February 20. 10 October 2006 [http://newyorkmetro.com/news/media/15967] 1-6

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One response to “No Marigolds in the Promised Land (Response Paper No. 5 — Revised and updated)

  1. en ouvrant la porte, fit tomber ce papier sur le parquet; le
    valet de Swine-herd

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