One of the things that drives me nuts about the stalwart defenders of old media and their closed-shop underpinnings is an unwillingness to concede that online media have conclusively demonstrated just how stale the air was in the old-media room, how much they excluded a huge range of imaginative and distinctive creators, just how narrow and socially particular the tastes of editors and publishers were, and just how many things were kept from publics that they should have seen or known.
Say you enjoy comic strips. Imagine that there’s no Internet. We’d have the same bad, dull, legacy-infested newspaper comic strips that we have today (and no Comics Curmudgeon to mock them). Maybe one or two of the people who’ve created webcomics since the 1990s would in the papers, but most wouldn’t be. Maybe a few of the people who’ve created webcomics would be doing other kinds of sequential art or humor, but most wouldn’t be. Now pick the best 30 webcomics and stack them against the average newspaper comics page. It isn’t even a close comparison: the webcomics are not only vastly better than the newspaper, but in some cases, they’re creative in ways that don’t even have ready comparison to the best strips of the past. The digital world isn’t just an improvement, it’s a vast expansion of the creative space of this one genre.
Look at what happened with the Tories’ Cash Gordon website, in part because they put some people in charge who didn’t know what they were doing. That kind of crowd subversion strikes me as so much smarter and robust than anything in the Situationist playbook of thirty years ago. Look at Ben Folds’ repurposing of an already clever reusage of Chatroulette, the speed and nimbleness and sheer inventiveness of it is like nothing I can remember from when I was a kid, except maybe improv theater of some kind–but here we all get to see it, reuse it, and see it again.
The Wikileaks video of an Iraq War shooting that’s being linked to and discussed around the world has its analogies in past leaks and disclosures, but these are less and less something that a small group of experts and editors make closed-room decisions about. It’s up to all of us to decide whether and how some information matters, and up to all of us to capture and circulate video and text and evidence, to make it harder to hide and conceal. That’s all to the good, because if there’s anything we’ve learned about post-Woodward & Bernstein investigative reporting, especially on the matter of Iraq, is that most editors and producers and journalists with lots of inside-the-Beltway connections can’t be trusted to make critical decisions for the rest of us about what we need to know and see. They had their chance to serve the sacred civic role that they so often attribute to themselves, and they blew it.
Concede how much some kind of shake-up in old-media hierarchies was desperately needed, and I’m happy to concede that the online world is also infested with trolls, that it often uglifies rather than beautifies public life, that some online obsessions and performances are trivial or stupid, that for every wonderful breath of unexpected creativity there are ten creators who best should have kept the world from seeing their work, and that the diffusion of expertise in favor of crowdsourcing can sometimes be really problematic. But the starting point is that however you add up that balance sheet, you’ve got to acknowledge that pre-digital media vastly underutilized the human potential for imagination, that our possibilities have become so much richer and varied.