December 18, 2013
Recently PandoDaily ran an excellent opinion piece by Hamish Mackenzie that took a look at an emerging trend in online media. Mackenzie told the interesting story of Nicholas Carr of the Business Insider website, who created a 75-page slideshow detailing a recent international flight he was on. There was nothing special about the trip – it was a regular flight from New York to Beijing on which Carlson occupied a regular class seat. The slide show (look at it if you want, but if you don’t you’re not missing anything) has a few captions just in case the audience couldn’t identify the airplane seat from the airplane lavatory from the airplane meal.
Anyway – Mackenzie’s post raised the somewhat vexing fact that Carlson’s slideshow generated some three million page views. This in contrast to a 22,000 word profile of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer which appeared on the same site a few months before and generated a third of the number of page views. That’s correct, a stupid slideshow that is neither informative, nor funny, nor entertaining generated three times as much traffic as a deeply researched, well considered and, frankly, important story about a high-profile technology CEO. Sheesh.
Mackenzie’s main thrust is that Business Insider’s increasing trend to post meaningless slideshows is merely a ploy to generate more page views – in the default mode, each slide is an individual page – and therefore derive far more advertising revenue that would otherwise be the case. Mackenzie seems sympathetic to the fact that BI is doing what it needs to do in order to be financially viable – if 75-page slideshows of pure pulp are what it takes, then so be it.
In a follow up post, GigaOm’s Matthew Ingram defends the trend saying that “sometimes we just want to be entertained”. He seems to back up the attitude of BI founder Henry Blodget who breathlessly proclaimed that this sort of drivel is “native digital storytelling.” Go figure huh?
I’m not a “real” journalist, and am not interested in jumping into the fray and arguing the point with Blodget, Ingram or Carlson but what I do want to suggest is that what we’re seeing is symptomatic of a sad and ultimately damaging trend for humanity, and one which we really need to guard against. That of not only giving everyone their 15 minutes of Warhol-esque fame, but also of dumbing down what constitutes beauty, truth and art.
Recently I spoke at the Cyber Summit in Banff. One of the other presenters was NYC based stand-up comic and presenter on PBS’ Idea Show, Mike Rugnetta. Rugnetta’s presentation, entitled “How to Take Goats Seriously” (I kid you not), was an hour long whirlwind (embedded below) in which Rugnetta proceeded to defend the sort of content typified by funny goat videos on the internet. Delivered with machine gun-like pace, and backed up with numerous example of goat videos, his perspective was that being able to create and post said goat videos is testimony to both the democratization of technology and the democratization of the artistic process itself.
It seems to me that what we’re seeing has nothing to do with democratization of a creative process but is rather an example of pure escapism. People generally don’t make and post goat videos (or for that matter funny cat videos or whatever internet meme is the flavor du jour) because they have a pressing need to express their creative drive. Rather people do so because it has been proven that with just the right amount of luck, the right choice of image and sufficient pithiness of the caption, this sort of content can give the creator a few seconds of relative fame and a degree of attention that they’d not normally get. If it democratizes anything, it is “look at me” attention seeking that is neither sustainable nor positive.
Frankly, I think it’s often just an example of people seeking escape from a life they’re not satisfied with or fulfilled by. Rather than do something substantive to change their life and their world they instead fritter away time and an entire industry has been built around helping them to do so. Now, I get Rugnetta’s perspective that this is a democratization of creativity writ large, but there’s a reason that art, music and literature have, in the past, been the realm of deep specialists who spend a lifetime honing their craft.
In part this might be intellectual snobbery – some suggest that goat videos and lolcats are simply our modern equivalent of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup artworks. In his presentation, Rugnetta points out that people question the value of goat videos in contrast to, for example, the sitcom How I Met Your Mother or a pointless Buzzfeed listicle. While it might serve his purposes to attempt to validate his “Goat videos as art” perspective by pointing out that there are other pointless content pieces created by so-called professionals, I’m not convinced that the existence of other pieces of tripe builds the case for tripe as a content class being a positive addition to society’s body of work. I’m no art critic but it seems to me that Warhol was blazing a new path and creating a new approach to art. Goat videos and the like however aren’t art, they’re simply the mass production of pure pulp that adds nothing to society.
The internet is an amazing invention – it has bought information and connection to people who never had it before. But alongside the very positive traits the internet brings, it also has a tendency to homogenize things down to the lowest common denominator. Funny cat pictures, goat videos or YouTube clips of people going about the minutiae of their day is one of the negative sides of the internet. Sure it’s not up there with the web being used for hate crime and human trafficking but it’s negative nonetheless. Here’s to a (hopefully) higher-brow 2014.