Jeff Jarvis, one of the preeminent thinkers of the internet age, has written a great post on the democratization of content and talent on Buzz Machine. In the post, he argues that the internet removes big media and cultural institutions as the high priests of culture:
Internet curmudgeons argue that Google et al are bringing society to ruin precisely because they rob the creative class of its financial support and exclusivity: its pedestal. But internet triumphalists, like me, argue that the internet opens up creativity past one-size-fits-all mass measurements and priestly definitions and lets us not only find what we like but find people who like what we do. The internet kills the mass, once and for all. With it comes the death of mass economics and mass media, but I don't lament that, not for a moment.
The curmudgeons also argue that this level playing field is flooded with crap: a loss of taste and discrimination. I'll argue just the opposite: Only the playing field is flat and to stand out one must now do so on merit - as defined by the public rather than the priests - which will be rewarded with links and attention. This is our link economy, our culture of links. It is a meritocracy, only now there are many definitions of merit and each must be earned.
It's an argument so well put that the next time I'll be speaking to a new media crowd I'll be using it myself.
However, while I agree with Jarvis that the key shift to the internet levels the playing field and brings us to something more like a meritocracy, to suggest that the playing field in now truly flat or online content lives in a pure meritocracy is, in my belief at least, incorrect.
The internet is an enabling conduit for talent that offers just rewards for those that warrant merit, but a culture of links does not necessarily allow the most talented to rise to the top. Sadly perhaps the rules of old media and old marketing still play a significant role in promotion. Internet advertising is proof immediately that the level playing field Jarvis suggests does not always exist. Talent cannot rise to the top if it is not found, even if the internet age makes the process of rising easier. A blogger who in another age may have been a poet laureate remains unknown unless they are read. The culture of linking can create stars, but does the discovery process exist without promotion? Cannot a solid marketing campaign or good PR create buzz that sets forward the rise to the top, presuming that the content is something above average to start with?
Today we see big media advertise and spin their online content with mixed results, but we still see hits. Viral marketing can be manipulated to give a push to content not based on meritocracy but the craftiness or expense accounts of those involved.
Is the ability to market and manipulate a fair component of merit in itself? It could be fairly argued that someone with talent in self promotion rises higher because that skill is part of the talent mix, but that doesn't necessarily deliver the best content.
I agree with Jarvis that the internet has democratized the process away from the high priests of old, but in accepting that things are better today, we should not confuse a shift to something better with a notion that what the internet has created is somehow pure. That the days of the cultural elites who decided alone one-size-fits-all mass measurements and priestly definitions of creativity are passing is a given, but the new world creates new challenges. The internet may enable anyone with talent to be a star, but getting there will still show a divide between those with the money or skills to promote, and those without.
(img credit: ZDNet)