Sunday, July 29, 2007

An audience of one

I'm watching "Mad Men" on AMC (their first original series), and really enjoying it. The cinematography is great, the costumes and settings are lush and complex, and -- most importantly -- the writing is fantastic. For me, "fantastic" means tight, layered, funny-in-context and rich with irony.

Here's an example: Pete, who is (to be blunt) a dick (period term: cad), is on the phone with his fiance, whom he will be marrying in two days. It's Friday night, and his buddies are going to take him to a strip joint (which can be shown on basic cable 50 years later). He says to his intended:

"Of course I love you. I gave up my life to be with you, didn't I?"

Fatastic. You learn 57% of what you need to know about Pete from that one line of dialogue.

The whole shebang is like that. So, for now, after two episodes, I highly recommend it. It's especially fun for me, as they're using real advertising examples (like the Lucky Strike, "It's toasted!" campaign), and the 50's are an incredibly important time in American advertising, the history of which I teach as an adjunct at CCAD.

Which brings us to the WSJ debate between  anti-Web 2.0 anti-appologist Andrew Keen (author of "Cult of the Amateur") and David Weinberger (author of "Everything is Miscellaneous"). Read the debate; I don't want to excerpt my favorite lines here, because I'd be bringing over most of it. But it's good. Real good.

Keen does a very eloquent job of defining the benefits of a Web World where we do stuff together. Weinberger is equally well spoken about the benefits of top-down, authoritative, editorial review. If you know me, you'll know which side I come down heavy on.

Lots has been written on this. The best I've read is on Wired's "Crowdsourcing" blog, which includes an interview with Keen. He's a well-spoken guy with an important angle on creative technology; important because it's shared by many. It boils down to this: one line from his Wired interview:

This is where we fundamentally disagree. I don’t want the crowd to tell me what’s worth watching. I want a movie critic to tell me that. I don’t want the crowd to tell me where to eat, because I don’t trust them to know. Give me the old gatekeepers any day.

And here's where we get back to "Mad Men." I love my job (in marketing and advertising), and I think I'm in an industry (libraries) where I can put my talents to some good. But regardless of what is being marketed, I think advertising (per se) plays an important role in our economy and culture.

That being said, I think non-advertising voices should play more important roles. Watch "Mad Men." And then remember that it's mostly people like that -- like me -- who are the ones that Keen wants telling him what to watch, eat and listen to.

Where he's most confused is about "the crowd." There is no real crowd on the Internet. It seems that way when you browse fitfully, don't spend some time with others in online social situations, and pick from the giant field using the same tools and skills you use in a KMart or Barnes & Noble. This is a case of not seeing the trees because of the forest. The trees are people, and people are what make the difference here.

I like the New York Times. I like mainstream movies. I like good TV shows, well-produced music, professionally written and edited books. I like authority. But I don't always *trust* authority. Do you? And, on many subjects, I prefer the words and wisdom of people I know and like over those with paid agendas.

Before mass media, most "culture" was produced by many, many amateurs. If you wanted stories, music or news, you had to write them (tell them), play it or talk to someone. Cultural authority has only been top-down since about the invention of cheap pulp paper, sometime around the middle 1800's. Before that, the culture two towns over was vastly different than what you had in your meetin' hall. Because it was dictated by people.

This isn't either or. Though disaggregation and disintermediation may drive profits down or eliminate certain blockbuster categories, I believe there will always be a market for good content, and that *really* good content will often require major resources; time, money, process, etc.

But Web 2.0 (though I'm tired of the 2.0-ness of things) isn't about the quality of the content I consume; it's about the act of creation. And if I only find one person in the crowd with whom to have a meaningful dialogue about what I'm creating... then it's worth losing 1/10th of the mass media. Or more.

My audience of one is more important to me than being one in an audience of many. The crowd is only scary until you slow down and say hello, Mr. Keen. 

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