Aggregated Communities


From Examined Life, Astra Taylor, 2008

From New Left Review:

Taylor ruefully describes the experience of discovering that her documentary film, Examined Life—interviews with philosophers, two years in the making—had been posted online by strangers before it had even opened in theatres. When she wrote to those responsible, explaining that she would like a few months to recover the film’s costs before it went free online, she was told (with expletives) that philosophy belonged to everyone. ‘I had stumbled into the copyright wars.’ She has no doubt that existing us copyright law is indefensible. In 1978, authors’ exclusive rights to their work were extended for seventy years after their death, making a mockery of the original principle of copyright as a reward or incentive for cultural production. Instead, she argues, it gave a handful of conglomerates an incentive ‘not to create new things, but to buy up tremendous swathes of what already exists’. The People’s Platform argues strongly for a reformed copyright system, in essence as a defence of labour, and calls for a relationship of ‘mutual support’ between ‘those who make creative work and those who receive it’. Taylor quotes Diderot’s splendid fulmination:

What property can a man own if a work of the mind—the unique fruit of his upbringing, his studies, his evenings, his age, his researches, his observations; if his finest hours, the most beautiful moments of his life; if his own thoughts, the feelings of his heart, the most precious part of himself, that which does not perish, that which makes him immortal—does not belong to him?

Contrary to tech-enthusiasts’ hopes for new forms of creative collaboration, the majority of online cultural content is produced by commercial companies using conventional processes. The internet has steepened the ‘power curve’ of cultural commodities, Taylor notes, with a handful of bestsellers ever more dominant over a growing ‘tail’ of the barely read, seen or heard. Netflix, which occupies 40 per cent of us bandwidth most evenings, reports that the top 1 per cent of its inventory accounts for 30 per cent of film rentals; YouTube’s ten most popular videos get 80 per cent of total plays. Taylor laments the hollowing of the middle strata—less conventional works that nevertheless resonate beyond a specialist niche.

The ‘missing middle’ is particularly relevant when she turns from film and music to journalism. The news industry is another ravaged environment in the digital age, with local and rural papers in the us hit especially hard; the number of reporters covering state capitals halved between 2003 and 2009. Even in the booming Bay Area, the Oakland Tribune shrank from two hundred reporters in the 1990s to less than a dozen today. As Taylor points out, while you can now access the NYT, British Guardian and Canadian Globe & Mail with a single click, your home-town papers have likely shut down. Her defence of the profession is a classic one, based on the idea that journalists should act as democracy’s watchdogs against ignorance and corruption, calling politicians to account and bringing events from around the world out of potential obscurity and onto front pages—paper or digital. In modern newsrooms, however, in-depth international reporting is all but extinct: by 2006, she writes, American media, both print and broadcast, supported a mere 141 foreign correspondents overseas. Budgets are channelled into developing digital editions and online magazines, like The Huffington Post; news aggregators such as Gawker or ‘contagious media’ sites like BuzzFeed proliferate. Yet the time-bomb hanging over foreign correspondents was ticking long before the Web. Here again, new problems are generally old problems with a different face: trends already evident in the 90s underwent a dizzying acceleration as the digital era took hold. The original newspaper model had used profits from print advertising to fund its most expensive but often least read international pages by bundling audiences together—crossword aficionados and business-page readers with sports and celebrity-gossip fans. Online, a newspaper’s sections are split and audiences unbundled, allowing readers to go directly to the news they want without having to glance at—or pay for—anything else.

AOL’s guidelines for the new-model Huffington Post suggest the orientation of the future: editors are to keep their eyes glued to social media and data streams to determine trending topics, pairing these with search-engine optimized titles—often barely literate, but no matter if they top results lists—and drawing on thousands of bloggers as well as staff writers to push out a non-stop stream of condensed, repurposed articles. Those determining the content of the magazine are already locked in a ‘most popular’ feedback loop. Meanwhile, the rapid-fire output of news agencies that run to a ‘hamster wheel’ tempo—wire-copy writers may be expected to churn out ten stories a day—is becoming the only source from on-the-ground reporters around the world. Agency journalists may be good reporters, but their remit is to stay faithful to the neutrality commitment of their employer and only say what someone else, usually in an official position, has said already.

The ascendant model for news in the advertising-driven digital era is to offer us what we’ve read about before, whether this is the price of oil or the latest tennis results; major internet services shape content according to algorithms based on past behaviour. We can personalize the news, ‘curate’ and share content, but in the process, ‘what we want winds up being suspiciously like what we’ve got already, more of the same—the cultural equivalent of a warm bath.’ News aggregation is about ‘capturing eyeballs’. As one young toiler in ‘the salt mines of the aggregator’ explains: ‘I have made roughly 1,107 times more money linking to thinly sourced stories about Lindsay Lohan than I have reporting any original news.’ Independent online news sites can be starved of funds. After the Baltimore Examiner shut down in 2009, journalists tried to set up a web-based in-depth reporting site, Investigative Voice, along the lines of Voice of San Diego, MinnPost or ProPublica. It seemed, Taylor writes, ‘a shining example of what many hope our new-media future will be’, combining ‘the best of old-school shoe-leather journalism’ with the internet as ‘a quick and affordable distribution platform’. The reporters pioneered ‘episodic investigative journalism’, posting and updating revelations of government and police department malpractice, inviting reader input. After barely a year, they were broke. Taylor’s contact took a job with a local Fox affiliate, so he could see a doctor.

“Culture After Google”, Emilie Bickerton, New Left Review