Can Social Media Draw People Away From Search and Save Otherwise Doomed Culture Industries?
Music sales have had a rough run of it since going digital – with ebooks approaching ubiquity, is publishing ready? Social media is creating a system that’s got us returning to personal recommendations – can this trend be harnessed to solve the value/cost problem? Can we build a system that pays for creative production or are we doomed to a world in which all artists and writers are either hobbyists or independently wealthy?
As we transition to a fully-digital media environment, with ebooks and mp3s officially past the tipping point, existing distribution platforms are starting to really show their stress points and it’s getting harder for readers to discover new authors and artists outside of the echo-chambers of iTunes and Amazon.
But there may be a hope for aspiring writers, yet. Social networking is bringing the gatekeeper – the human recommendation – back to the forefront of culture consumption, and new models are cropping up to try and take advantage of this recent shift in online behavior.
Conventional wisdom says that the author is a dying breed. Being a musician is increasingly a phase that someone goes through and not a real occupation; and even though we’re publishing more books (and reading more) than ever before, the vast majority of writers are barely paid for their work. The fact is – there’s just too much content and too much of it is free or freely available.
So does the writer of tomorrow look like the poet of today – with just a handful of ‘professionals’ eking out living in obscure journals and tenure-track jobs?
With Facebook, Goodreads, and a host of newer sites designed to connect authors and musicians with their potential audiences, the pendulum has already started swinging back towards human intelligence and curated search, rather than artificial intelligence and ‘recommendation engines.’ People are becoming less interested in what a computer thinks they should like and more interested in what their friends recommend. If this sounds familiar, it means you’re probably old enough to remember going to a local record store and asking the owner to recommend you something good.
Great value is added by good curation. Whether we’re talking about 1970s Manchester or 1780s Vienna, cultural movements are reinforced by proximity. And maybe that’s why one of the last major cultural movements, Hip Hop, occurred before we entered the era of the chain stores and online retail. Eric Shmidt, CEO of Google, said at an Aspen Ideas Festival event I saw him speak at that “digital watering holes” can replace the real-world enclaves that subcultures were built from – but I’m not so sure.
The alternative involves dooming ourselves to a world where all our writers are hobbyists, the independently wealthy or, even worse, shameless self-promoters.
When every single customer is directed, by a machine, to one single product, we lose the bottle neck. We lose the gatekeeper and the gathering place. And we lose some of the value in the process.
As I see it, writers and musicians have two choices in the coming digital age: Use their cultural output to promote live, monetizable events – like speaking tours or live concerts; or hope that the new crop of innovative start-ups mark a return to human-based curation and effectively replicate the corner record store experience.