Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Recession, Online Media and the Resurgence of American Creativity

How the economic downturn inadvertently closed the gap between technological elitists and “the common man”

Wi-Fi, as it turned out, just so happened to become the last bulwark of democratized society.

You scoff at such an assertion? In a country rattled by mushrooming unemployment numbers (capped off by a severely under-reported national under-employment rate hoovering around 18 percent), wireless Internet has been pretty much the only thing that’s kept the under-class and under-privileged relevant in a society becoming more and more insulated in regards to pop culture. “Technological homogeneity,” I call it: the reality that the upwardly mobile are becoming increasingly distant from the cultural artifacts of the common man and his social relics. That means more and more of the tablet-scribbling, smart phone-using, latte-sipping techno-nerds are beginning to resemble one another in cultural likes and dislikes, no matter their dissimilarities in ethnicity, race, gender or political/social affiliations.

The rhetoric we’ve heard for the last two decades has been that the “Intranet” would be the great unifier of culture. While that is true in some regards, technology has also been a great separator in regards to communal productivity, too. Prior to 2007, who exactly was making the most use of “free” technological services like YouTube, Twitter and even social networking sites like Facebook? The answer, of course, was the early adapters, the technologically-savvy that flocked to such services not as a means of broadcasting, but as a means of insulating. While it seems pretty counter-intuitive to think of such sites as insulated domains now, you have to think about the state of such sites five years ago. If you were on YouTube, it’s because you wanted to share information with very insulated groups of people, not necessarily because you wanted the entire world to comment on your recorded trifles. The whole point of Facebook was to give college kids a venue to chit and chat without the interloping typing of non-academics. Short message services were meant to relay truncated, and occasionally coded, messages to small numbers of people; sites like Twitter and Tumblr became ineffaceable social monuments not because people wanted instant information, but because people originally wanted access to abbreviated and encrypted messages.

Social media, the bloated, overpopulated parasite that it is, was born not of egalitarianism, but good old fashioned elitism. The techno-nerds are in constant search of the next, uncorrupted, unpopulated site, server or service to do their assorted deeds in without having all of the Johnny-come-latelies show up and ruin all of their insulated fun. From a psychosocial standpoint, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on: the original adapters of the Intranet are trying to reclaim their territory, a sort of nostalgic return to the days of online bulletin board systems that seem positively antediluvian these days. When everybody’s online, it’s kind of hard to be “elite,” isn’t it?

By now, we are all familiar with memes, those annoying, usually stupid “jokes” that get popular on the Web and then blow up into cultural phenomena. We’ve seen the three thousand “I’m a Mac / I’m a PC” commercials about a million times now. We’ve all been told to go attempt procreation with ourselves by some nameless, faceless “troll” at least once or twice in our online sojourns. These three artifacts are very much driven by the idea of technological homogeneity. If you’re “with” the cyber-crowd, you pretty much have to exhibit certain traits and tendencies; you become a hyper brand loyalist, you find succor in very specific online phenomenon and oh yeah, you consume your way into so much credit card debt that by the time you hit retirement, your live savings ought to number a good six or seven digits to the left of the first decimal. There are very much two kinds of users on the Internet; the technologically elite, and the commoner. Of course, most people are more or less a synthesis of the two extremes, but I’m feeling contentious in a Marxist sort of way this afternoon, so we’ll just assume that you’re “either/or” in this scenario. Now, if you have the technically competent at one pole and the technically incompetent at the other, who do you think will be creating the most popular culture to be found on the Internet?

It’s an obvious answer, of course. Prior to 2007, I would say that a good 95 percent of Internet-based “popular culture” was created, managed and cultivated by the technologically homogenous. That means if you saw a video on YouTube, or read a message on Facebook or clicked a link on Twitter, odds are, the person that put said media in front of you was a person that was leaning more towards being a technological elitist than a commoner that could barely find a way to hook the charger cable up to his cell phone without tripping over the wire.

And then, the economy tanked, and things, they slowly began a-changing.

In the Great Depression, the insolvent drowned their worries in speakeasies and saloons. In the Great Recession, the penniless and hopeless are airing their worries through Vimeo and Reddit. That’s not to say that such tools have become empowering agents in a literal sense (they certainly aren’t helping people overcome economic peril, that’s for sure), but the gap between technologically homogenous produced web culture and commoner produced web culture has diminished greatly since the Lehman Shock of ‘08. This is the case, for a number of reasons.

First off, the obvious one: if people are unemployed, they have more time to do stuff. Methinks the guy that used to work at the carpet factory always wanted to post karaoke videos online, but thanks to the albatross of gainful employment, such creative endeavors never took flight. One of the great, unforeseen dividends of the market crash has been the resurgence of commoner art - a resurgence, I surmise, that can only be attributed to the proliferation of Wi-Fi access over the last six years.

The second reason is a psychological one. Web based “commoner” pop culture is not only the resultant of free time, but distressed mindsets. Your kids are starving, your car has a hole in the gas tank and you’re seriously thinking about throwing a brick through a vending machine to score yourself a week-long supply of candy bars and moderately outdated ‘tater chips. Basically, your only outlets for channeling such psychosis are through immediate violence or metaphorical art - and since Farmville is cheaper than weaponry, you can tend to see why more people these days would rather blow the heads off aliens in “Halo” than the heads off their ex-coworkers.

Of course, my definition of “popular culture”, in web terms, is a lot different than my definitions of non-Internet based “pop culture.” To make a movie, or record an album, or to release a book, or to make a TV show, you probably have to be on the “inside” of the culture industry - or at the very least, have enough money to do some self-media production. To make “web pop culture,” all you really have to do is leave something on the ‘Net that can be found through Google. A lot of “commoners” are producing “web pop culture” without really knowing that they’re producing “web pop culture” - with so many recession-affected souls flocking to social media, it’s quite apparent why the aforementioned “technological elitist / commoner” production gap has exponentially decreased in the last half decade.

There’s definitely not a whole lot of good you can say about the ongoing economic decline, but the resurgence of commoner art and the reduction in the elitist /commoner gap may be one of the few positives we can cull from the crisis. If you’re a proponent of the Flynn Effect, you could even make the argument that a good ten or twenty years down the line, the commoner will become technologically-able enough to create web pop culture of a quality and consistency on par if not better than what the technologically homogenous are pooping out at the current. Of course, only time will tell if Steve No-Job and Suzie Social-Entitlement will harness social media for beneficial political and cultural change - i.e., confronting social injustice and inaccurate media representation instead of posting quasi-racially insensitive comments on vlogs and begging relatives for cash via Mark Zuckerberg’s wondrous, all-encompassing social construct - but, hey, we can all hope, can’t we?