Thursday, February 16, 2006

Is New Media That Bad?

Andrew Keen has a polemic article here about Web 2.0. Though a blogger himself, he argues against the democratization of media content. He discusses some of his critics’ arguments here.

Keen fiercely argues that the new media paradigm is leading us down a narcissistic path reminiscent of Marx’s writings. He asserts that big media appropriately erects barriers that ensure general access to the most elite forms of talent, and that it constantly pushes art forms to higher levels. He rages against new media pushing us toward mediocrity and toward personalized content that shows us nothing beyond ourselves and only reinforces what we already think we know.

In reading Keen’s article, I found myself agreeing with some points, but simultaneously fascinated and repelled by other points. For instance, I have seen excellent talent come out of the big media outlets. But much of the writing, art, TV shows, movies, and music promoted through mainstream outlets constantly push toward new levels of awfulness. It seems like there is an intense competition to constantly descend to new depths.

Years ago, a man that was a fine fiddler in Norway told me that he thought the best violin player in the world was probably some old man living some Podunk place that nobody knows about. Imagine if that old man in the middle of nowhere could get his music out to a wider audience. Big media completely ignores this possibility.

On the other hand, Keen makes a good point about the sheer volume of content available in new media. What is the possibility that, even if the great unknown violinist published podcasts of his works, anyone would find out about it or care if they did? Keen seems to ignore the fact that advertising of content happens very rapidly in the new media. The word spreads with a speed not possible in traditional media. People quickly key into excellence and quickly dump less excellent content. That is the miracle of democratization.

Yes, the new media channels are filled with a lot of mediocrity and noise. You have to find the diamonds in the mud. But exactly how does this differ from MSM channels? Is it simply the amount of money and organization behind them? We become our own gatekeepers instead of paying others to do it for us.

What about Keen’s argument that new media content is catering to narcissistic tendencies? I can see both sides of this coin. People are free to ignore voices that differ from their own, and many do. That is why we see examples of people that are shocked to discover that the cause they promote is actually less popular than they thought it was. They engage in cyber groupthink. People have the freedom to do that. But they also have the freedom to expose themselves to alternative thought. None of this is forced on anyone, and is open to everyone.

If Keen’s arguments of the pitfalls of personalization have some merit, it is obvious that pitfalls exist in big media controlling what we read, see, listen to, and think. Besides, this argument only becomes significant in a world where big media outlets go away completely. I don’t think anybody sees that happening. I think we see big media slowly morphing to respond to the challenges presented by new media. And vice versa.

I believe any new media content creator would benefit from reading Keen’s article. I find problems with many of Keen’s assertions. But his article is provocative and provides a different perspective than many of us are used to thinking about.

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