In my last post, The Value of Wikipedia and Collective Intelligence, I addressed one of Jaron Lanier’s criticisms of Web 2.0 that dealt primarily with Wikipedia. In this one I want to respond to his criticism of another Web 2.0 feature, one that strikes a little closer to home: blogging. This was the part of the Stranger article that sparked a long conversation between Sam, Casey, and me as we sat in Bauhaus. Sam handed me the paper and said, “Here, just read this section,” as he marked a paragraph with his pen:
“[Jaron Lanier] is concerned about the direction of the internet…He believes that the borrowing culture of blogs, social media, and file sharing — a video from here, a song from there, some words from someone else over here, and all of it for free — is leading to a cultural stagnation, wherein all anyone ever does is remix preexisting popular culture again and again.”
The article goes on to briefly summarize some of Lanier’s proposed “solutions” like micropayments for media, but its all built upon the idea put forth in the above sentence. It should be pretty evident why this struck a chord with us — with me in particular. What Lanier is describing is exactly what I’m doing, not just here but on the Johnston Architects blog as well (albeit to a lesser extent). It’s pretty relevant to me whether all of this constitutes cultural stagnation or the development and publication of pertinent and original ideas. Not surprisingly, I very much disagree with Lanier on this one.
Lanier’s argument is based one of two ways, either empirically or philosophically. That is to say, he either has observed a cultural stagnation and has hypothesized that Web 2.0 is to blame, or he is assuming that the shared, free aspects of the internet are leading to an as-of-yet largely unobserved cultural stagnation. I believe that both of these logical paths are fundamentally flawed, primarily because I don’t think we’ve witnessed any such stagnation. Intelligent and critical thinking as as prevalent (if not more) than ever, and artistic output seems similarly unaffected.
Take music for instance. Lanier’s argument seems to be that the ease with which music is shared and experienced has caused a cultural convergence and remixing in which nothing new is produced. Now there is certainly some truth to that on the surface. This is the era of the “remix,” where nobodies in their bedroom can modify songs and repost them to the world, and artists like Girl Talk gain a following by combining the work of other artists. Whether this alteration constitutes the creation of something “new” or not (I believe it does) is hotly debated by music critics and musician’s lawyers alike, but one can at least claim that this is indicative of cultural stagnation. However, there are huge examples of incredibly unique work developing (or at least reaching prominence) out of this network of sharing. Vampire Weekend and Passion Pit are the two examples that spring most readily to mind. Both are bands that are intimately linked to music blogging, yet they both exhibit a sound that is completely their own.
In a broader context, assuming cultural “progression” is fueled by great and original ideas, I think where Lanier goes astray is in confusing the volume of great ideas with the percentage of great ideas. The blogs, social media, and file sharing that Lanier has a problem with haven’t stifled the creation of new ideas, they’ve just made them harder to find.
The beauty of blogs is that anyone can write them. People are free to post about whatever they like, and the internet community will respond by either following them with zeal or ignoring them completely. I agree with Lanier that there is a whole lot of nothing out there. People like to talk about themselves and their opinions, and more often than not, the product just isn’t that interesting. The vast majority of blogs are either online journals or else highly personal thought repositories with little relevance or interest for the general public. But that isn’t to say that great ideas aren’t being put forth.
Before companies like Blogger and WordPress brought online writing to the masses, publishing thoughts was time consuming and difficult. Because of this, the quality of the writing and the ideas was higher. Just as books contain more cohesive, stimulating content than your average blog, so the internet writing of the past was better than current blog writing (on average). If it’s tough to write something, you’ll only write things that are worth it. Nowadays it takes no effort to publish writing to an online audience, so there’s nothing regulating quality. This has led to the current ocean of internet writing and a corresponding drop in mean cultural value.
So you can see how Lanier would come to the opinion that we are intellectually foundering. Where this breaks down, however, is in examination of the great ideas that are still being produced. There are still great blogs being written. Paul Krugman, the nobel prize winning economist maintains a blog, as do countless other incredibly brilliant and insightful people. Many of them probably aren’t the same people who were prone to prolific internet writing in the days before the blog became popular, so their contributions constitute a huge gain for the broader intellectual community, due primarily to the development of the same Web 2.0 that Lanier accuses of culturally and intellectually bankrupting our society.
But the argument could be made, I suppose, that those brilliant people are engaged in such research and thought processes regardless of whether or not they share them with the masses. So let’s take a more basic example, me. I would not be formulating these ideas to nearly the same extent if I weren’t intending to publish them to what may or may not be a broader audience. This blog has unquestionably increased my intellectual thought and the volume output of my ideas. The question then, is whether or not they are any good. I would, of course, like to think they are, but for the sake of argument, let’s say I produce one insightful, original thought every 50 posts, on average, and the rest is just recycled, co-opted, cultural material. I’ve published 55 posts to date, so that gives me approximately one good. Now that would certainly make this blog seem like a waste of time, and a detriment to cultural progress.
But now let’s look at the blogosphere as a whole. According to Adam Singer, a prominent social media marketing strategist, on his blog The Future Buzz (see his post for further references), there were around 133,000,000 blogs on the internet in 2002 – eight years ago. Today there are over 900,000 posts published each day. If you hold the rest of these bloggers to the same 1 good idea/50 posts figure, that means there are 18,000 good ideas being posted per day or roughly 7 million good ideas per year! Now my figure of 1/50 is of course incredibly arbitrary, but it isn’t terribly important to my argument. What bears noticing though, is that while 7 million seems like a huge amount, these good ideas are buried in nearly 330 million yearly posts, and more often than not they are present in a single sentence or a single paragraph, not in a post as a whole.
That is the transformative power of Web 2.0. It isn’t that we’ve reached a point where nothing insightful and original is produced, it’s that these relatively rare pages and paragraphs of brilliance are adrift in a sea of mediocrity. In the past, by picking a web page or writing at random you had at least a decent chance of getting something interesting. Nowadays your odds are dismal. But that doesn’t mean the good stuff isn’t there.
The challenge of Web 2.0 going forward is not to increase the quality and originality of its writing; the challenge is in locating and making accessible those ideas that are truly deserving of exposure, because there are more of them than ever before, they’re just harder to find. That’s part of the brilliance of sites like Digg and StumbleUpon – they use the collaborative aspects of Web 2.0 not to generate new content, but to identify worthwhile content and bring it to the forefront of the internet.
But this strategy falls prey once more to Lanier’s criticism of mass intelligence. What’s good for “the masses” isn’t necessarily what any one of us is after. Funneling people down a few select pathways under the assumed mantle of objective superiority is dangerous. That’s why these sites will never replace smaller community networks, they merely augment. There’s a site called Hype Machine, that compiles all of the mp3’s uploaded to over 100 different music blogs, and lets people rate them. By seeing what’s popular on Hypem, you get to see “the best of the music blogosphere.” The problem, at least for me, is that I actually don’t like most of the most popular songs. So now I’ll still check Hypem occasionally, but I far more frequently read Adio Muffin and Pretty Much Amazing – two music blogs that, though more limited in their scope, are run by people with tastes more similar to my own.
Each layer of exposition has its own benefits. We need comprehensive, collective intelligences like Wikipedia and Digg for our most general information, more defined communities like Audio Muffin for specificity within a preference-based collective, and site-specific search engines like Google so that we are still free to seek out things beyond the preferences of “the world” and our chosen communities.
Web 2.0 has undeniably reshaped the nature of information generation and exchange. But it hasn’t, as Lanier claims, done so for the worse. That millions of people want to share their thoughts with the world, I think bodes very well for humanity. The collective intelligence of the blogosphere is far from omniscient, but it is invaluable. The very act of decreasing the mean value of our expression has enormously increased the raw value of our collective brilliance. Now we just have to learn how to find it.
Image Source: Visual representations of blogosophere data created by Matthew Hurst from CreativeReview.co.uk.