Self-expression demands attention, and gets it, on Web

The Baltimore Sun

Imagine paying $580 million for an ever-expanding heap of personal ads, random photos, private blathering, demo recordings and camcorder video clips. That's what Rupert Murdoch did when his News Corp. bought MySpace in July. Then imagine paying $1.65 billion for a flood of grainy TV excerpts, snarkily edited film clips, homemade video diaries, amateur music videos and shots of people singing with their stereos. That's what Google got when it bought YouTube in October.

What these two highly strategic companies spent more than $2 billion on is a couple of empty vessels: brand-named, centralized repositories for whatever their members decide to contribute.

All that material is "user-generated content," the paramount cultural buzz phrase of 2006. It's a term that must appeal to the technocratic instincts of investors. It can also be called something more old-fashioned: self-expression. Terminology aside, this will be remembered as the year that the old-line media mogul, the online media titan and millions of individual Web users agreed: It demands attention.

It's on Web sites such as YouTube, MySpace, Dailymotion, PureVolume, GarageBand and Metacafe. It's homemade art independently distributed. It's borrowed art that has been warped, wrecked, mocked and sometimes improved. It's blogs and collaborative wikis and personal Web pages. It's word of mouth that can reach the entire world.

It has made stars, at least momentarily, of characters such as the video diarist Lonelygirl (who turned out to be a fictional creation) and the power-pop band OK Go (whose treadmill choreography earned far more plays than its albums). And now that Web entrepreneurs have recognized the potential for profit, it's also a sweet deal: Amateurs, and some calculating professionals, supply the raw material free. Private individuals aren't private anymore; everyone wants to preen.

All that free-flowing self-expression presents a grandly promising anarchy. And simply unleashing it could be the easy part. Now we have to figure out what to do with it: Ignore it? Sort it? Add more of our own? In utopian terms, the great abundance of self-expression puts an end to the old, supposedly wrongheaded gatekeeping mechanisms: hit-driven recording companies, hidebound movie studios, timid broadcast radio stations, trend-seeking media coverage. But toss out those old obstacles to creativity and, lo and behold, people begin to crave new filters.

Tech oracles predicted long ago that by making worldwide distribution instantaneous, the Web would democratize art as well as other discourse, at least for those who are connected. The virtual painting galleries, the free songs, the video blogs, the comedy clips, the online novels -- all of them followed the rise of the Internet and the spread of broadband as inevitably as water spills through a crack in a dam. Why keep your creativity to yourself when you can invite the world to see?

User-generated content isn't exactly an online innovation. It's as old as America's Funniest Home Videos, or letters to the editor, or community sings, or Talmudic commentary, or graffiti. The difference is that in past eras most self-expression stayed close to home.

In the 20th century, recording and broadcasting broke down that isolation. Yet those same technologies came to reinforce a different kind of separation: between professional artist and audience. A successful artist needed not only creativity and skill, but also access to the tools of production -- studios, recorders, cameras -- and outlets for mass distribution.

Independent types still are at a disadvantage. But they are gaining.

Low-budget recording and the Internet have handed production and distribution back to artists, and one-stop collections of user-generated content give audiences a chance to find their works. With gatekeepers out of the way, it's possible to realize the do-it-yourself dreams of punk and hip-hop, to circle back to the kind of homemade art that existed long before media conglomerates. But that art doesn't stay close to home. Online it moves breathtakingly fast and far.

Folk cultures often work incrementally, adding bits of individuality to a well-established tradition, with time and memory determining what will last. In the user-generated realm, tradition is anything prerecorded, and all existing works seem to be there for the taking, copyrights aside.

In the process, another thing users generate is back talk. Surfing YouTube can be a survey of individual reactions to pop culture: movie and television characters transplanted out of their original plots or synched to improbable songs, pop hits revamped as comedy or attached to new, unauthorized imagery.

Copyright holders might be incensed; since buying YouTube, Google is paying some of them and fielding lawsuits from others. But a truly shrewd marketer might find some larger value.

Some pros understand that they don't need to have the last word on their work. Rappers like Jay-Z customarily release a cappella versions of their rhymes, a clear invitation for disc jockeys and producers to work up their own new tracks. Filmmakers have not been so forthcoming, but that hasn't stopped viewers from, for instance, editing The Big Lebowski down to all the moments when its characters use a certain four-letter word. It's a popular clip on YouTube.

Yet there is a limit to how splintered a culture can become, one that's as much psychological as aesthetic. Humans like to congregate and join a crowd, at least up to a point. One thing the Internet does superbly is to tabulate, and it's no accident that sites featuring user-generated content prominently display their own most-viewed and most-played lists.

Those list-makers make life easier for the media moguls who bought into user-generated content this year. Selection, a time-consuming job, has been outsourced. What's growing is the plentitude not just of user-generated content, but also of user-filtered content.

The open question is whether those new, quirky, homemade filters will find better art than the old, crassly commercial ones. Mouse-clicking individuals can be as tasteless, in the aggregate, as entertainment professionals.

Unlike the old media roadblocks, however, their filtering can easily be ignored. The promise of all the self-expression online is that genius will reach the public with fewer obstacles, bypassing the entrenched media. The reality is that genius has a bigger junk pile to climb out of than ever, one that requires just as much hustle and ingenuity as the old distribution system.

The entertainment business is already nostalgic for the days when it made and relied on big stars; parts of the public miss a sense of cultural unity that may never return. Instead, both have to face the irrevocable fact of the Internet: There's always another choice.

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