Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Symbol Meets World

An article from the other day entitled "Truth or illusion: What's real on YouTube?" (via /.) raises issues over what is "real", in comparison to what is created merely to sell things. With the importance placed on "user-generated content" (U-GC) in the drive for a new media paradigm, new questions are raised: Does an entangling of corporacy or simple promotion with "honest" content threaten the paradigm? Or does it enhance it somehow, lending credence to it and providing evidence that here is a new model that, to some extent, is capable of bending traditional promotion to its will?

Only a naive fool could insist that such "upward" content could remain free of the influence of "promotional deception", and that a "truth" of an ethical production value could be maintained without complications. The history of viral advertising and the infiltration of social network recommendation (see, ironically, this book, for instance*) show that the simple provision of "false" media is probably the least of our worries, alongside the "rewarding" (read "buying") of socialite kids to brainlessly promote products, in exchange for both freebies and social capital.

It is this latter which brings the matter full circle. Here's the rub, and the crux that makes the whole "infection of user-generated content" idea so gnarly. The fact is that the new media paradigm wouldn't be possible without an already existant brand-saturated culture. In other words, the vast majority of user-generated content - the volume with which YouTube, MySpace, etc depend upon to maintain some future - is built up around the "branding" of the people involved. Reviews, comments, demonstrations, novelty sneak-peeks, even "what I like" lists... We define ourselves according to what we buy, what we watch and what we listen to, and so our communications, and our "social indicators" (i.e. things that say "who will like me?") reflect this utterly.

Take a look at the YouTube most favourited videos, for example. It's a good bet that at any given time, at least half of the list will contain copyrighted footage, references to video games, spoofs of pop culture, and so on. Truly "original" content - possibly the utopia that those who espouse U-GC are aiming for in a bid to undo the large corps of the world - is often lacking, and when it does come along, it usually gets bought up by one of the big boys anyway. If not, it is at least 99% likely that such talent recognises itself, which today means that such talent also brands itself and wrestles with the possibility of "making it big" anyway.

This is not to say, of course, that upward content is doomed or anything. On the contrary, it has never truly been "free" either. What we should expect to see is a far more subtle direction and misdirection of this content from both within and without "recognised" moral boundaries over what is advertising and what isn't. Creating false content isn't "morally" a sin - indeed, a lot of the time, when it turns out that some content is actually a "false" promotion, people are pretty impressed with the blurring if the line. ("Nice, but fake.") The "sin" is when people feel duped into believing a person is a person, as with lonelygirl15 in the original article. The new/old adage of "on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog" is true, only now, nobody knows you're a multinational company with a 7-digit special effects budget. The "faceless" corporation, man, has many, many faces. If you knew your best friend was being paid to invite people along to see a film, would you still go? Would they be your friend? If your life is defined by marketing, then the answer is probably "yes" to both - because hanging out with people in contact with a brand is cool, man.

Don't expect the blurriness to go away though. YouTube must be sweating it a little, what with videos being policed and copyright infringement being cracked own on. That fuzzy line might just turn round and bite them which, in turn, doesn't necessarily help out the people who's content U-GC relies upon - i.e. the people doing the suing. But the media leviathons have enough in place to weather the storm. As mentioned, nobody's stopping them from infiltrating good ol' fashioned social networks.

I think the outcome of all of this will be one the 2.0 utopians will be disheartened by, and it will come about partly because they** just don't want to think about it. Just as it's hard enough to discern between "legal" (i.e. royalty-free) music swapping and "illegal" swapping, so it's just as hard to discern between "legal" (either according to law, or according to morality) content and "illegal" (either infringing or "false") content, partially because there is no such gap. technology confuses the issue, and makes it sound like you can come up with a definitive technological "fix" to contrast the two. But how can you differentiate when, in the "reality" of culture, there is no difference? The only way to draw on such an "infringement" culture is to allow everything.

This is why YouTube, and any other service that relies on cultural U-GC, will need to morph - because it makes explicit and centralises that which can only exist in an informal, truly decentralised manner. Corporates still "own" new media paradigms in the sense that business models depend on popularity, popularity depends on infringement, and infringement is decided by law which, in turn, is often decided by the corporates. New social networks do not "break free" of traditional media or culture. They feed off it, and as such are entirely circumscribed and within the grip of it.

Expect, then, the integration of business with networking to expand. Expect "advertising" to shift to "ownership", just as MySpace has been bought up, just as Microsoft and Apple are keen to promote their own distribution networks. Expect "review" sites to take up the challenge, but never forget that many review sites are often kept sweet after getting various freebies. Expect U-GC to become contextual, sanitised, and self-censored according to which network it's aimed at and posted in. Companies will no longer need to "fake" content, because they will simply own all the content. The battle will (once again) be in attracting people to a service through word of mouth.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

* The first reference that comes to mind, anyway. Actually, the book was a little feeble, all told.
** The curse of a idealised, generalised, abstractised demographic strikes again. Oh well.

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