Bridging the Pro-Am gap?

The world is changing, that much is undeniable. In a modern society built upon the principles of exploration and investigation, how can things possibly stay the same? In every lab, under every microscope, in every new gadget gizmo or fad a thousand futures are waiting for the spark of conception to rouse them from just beneath the surface.

It’s strange then, that one of the most startling changes can be seen in plain view on another starlit Hollywood evening. The grandeur and sleek presentation are for the most part the work of a company quite content to milk their cash cow for everything it’s worth, but behind that there are the stirrings of a message from another source entirely.

The voice of the people is manifest here, in the thousand camera flashes, the banners and poster-boards waved with fanatical vigour, the screams and chants of a hysterical crowd; a chaos rushed to boiling point by the click of a Mercedes’ door. No this isn’t a extremist rally, though for the jilted literati it may as well be.

This is the premier of the third film adaptation of the Twilight “saga”. It lazily deals with a single generation of a single family, and vaguely details a few generations of another which apparently is enough to make it a saga by today’s standards.

Some would say they’re using the archaic genre to make their movies seem different and edgy, chicly aloof from the series and trilogies of their time. Not me though. No, for me, it’s far more desperate than that. Invoking a classic style seems like a plea to the upper echelons of Literature, a desperate cry for approval. It’s puzzling why Stephanie Mayer and her colleagues feel that they must pander to the world of the critic when it is the Twilight saga that highlights the increasing irrelevance of the authorative accolade.

The people that once revered every word of a review enshrined within the respectability of an established paper or magazine  have experienced a new freedom and realise that perhaps it’s time to banish these haughty spectres. For too long they’ve sat on their pedestals, casting contemptuous glares at anything that doesn’t meet their exacting rubric. They are stiff and inflexible, too accustomed to the easy life of being better to see what is happening. Piece by piece they are coming apart, their words falling on ears that are not so much deaf as uncaring.

In the past, literature was the domain of the rich, the powerful, the elite. The first step towards the masses was the widespread success of the printing press, which helped to bring around a swing in momentum. Suddenly a whole new market opened up: the market of the people. Books were designed specifically for the masses rather being the exclusive pleasure of the privileged few and as such their content and purpose changed dramatically.

One cannot but be caught up in the fervor and excitement of the new generation but I honestly believe that this may be the beginning of something just as gamechanging, and it won’t be long before the flood gates open and wash away the old avatars of privilege and exclusion. The catalyst for this change is the Internet. If the printing press allowed the public to become intrigued by text, it is the internet that encourages them to create it. From the community run message boards to the sprawling myriad of blogs to the mundaneity of 95% of your friends’ Tweets, there is a surge of people reading, and more importantly, contributing.

Anyone and everyone has the platform to be heard if they wish, and it is this chatter of a million voices that cry out for the end of the singular critic. They find themselves in a world where the air around them is no longer so thin, so insubstantial. Every particle is another voice, every one provides resistance to another’s words: contradicting opinions drawn from a broader scope of context. Those establishments that fail to adapt face a swift decline and the cynic amongst us might take great pleasure in the irony that the demise of the critic comes because he or she is just one voice. Review websites that poll hundred of people’s opinions on everything from a restaurant to an electric strimmer, are now the first reference point for consumers because they are not so isolated.

In short they are the voice of the whole community, not just the upper strata. In this brave new world  the authoritative voice of the critic could be diminished to such an extent that they are no longer in a superior position; their isolation as a source of well informed opinion could be their greatest weakness.

Some  lack the dynamism which is defining internet relations and their one way relationship with their audience is doomed unless they realise the importance that the readers themselves play. The reader is the force that adds vivacity and life to those cold streams of data, the one that discusses, that argues, that forms their own opinion and creates a fascinating level of depth simply by adding their own thoughts.  They allow the subject of the critic to attain the same level of collaboration and challenge as the fields of science, mathematics and philosophy. Simply put, they turn a static, unresponsive entity into something organic and mutable; a discussion.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of social media. Twitter dispels the hype around stars, whose every actions are sensationalized by celebrity culture; it reminds the public that their idols are just ordinary people, that they are human. Facebook and the multitude of forums are acting not just as a way of keeping touch but also as a way of communication and debate. In the past, most people have been limited in their potential to contribute to a debate by three main issues: the people they knew, their schedules and their own interests. The only way to get beyond the first was to either to write to the newspapers and respond to other people’s comments or join a society. Although writing to the comments page was a great starting point for getting people involved in issues, it is all too often mind numbingly slow and laborious for those that really want to interact with their subject with passion and enthusiasm.

As for joining a society, what if you wish to debate other things or discuss issues with more than a handful of people? Now, you can join a Facebook group or forum and discuss the issue to their hearts content with a far larger pool of contributors. The very medium of the internet solves the second problem completely; even if one works awkward hours, is busy for most of the time or cannot attend a physical discussion for any reason they can still be just as involved as anyone else without inconvenience.

The final issue of one’s interests not being very exciting to friends is remedied by the sheer diversity of such sites. There is a group and a forum for almost anything. Yesterday I joined a forum about emetophobia, a facebook group discussing the contents of a perfect breakfast and renewed my membership at a site that specializes in poetry critiques. Whilst this mind boggling array of societies may have existed before, many of them- particularly the most obscure and fantastic- had no way to publicise themselves and make people aware of their existence. With Facebook and any good forum, it simply takes a click of the search bar and suddenly you’re surrounded by people who want to engage with you, who value your opinion.

The concept of using social media to find people to discuss with combines the best parts of letters and live debate. There is no need to wait days on end for a reply but at the same time one has the time to mull the issue over and develop a far more thoughtful response than they would be able to in a real life conversation, where sitting in silence for fifteen minutes before replying isn’t especially polite.

This interaction between the people and the ‘experts’ is arguably transcending the realms of journalism and spreading to all facets of life. The wisest politicians, critics and fashionistas are recognising their role as the figureheads of opinion, rather than the ones than define it. The highly respected film critic Roger Ebert recently refused to rate a film because he acknowledged that he could not attach a summative rating to it when he was not a fan of the culture and genre in which it sits. Rather than trying to inflict his own tastes upon the masses by judging it to be “good” or “bad”, he simply asks: ‘is a film true to its genre and does it deliver what its audiences presumably expect?’

Every factor is begging for the people not just to comment on the works of the professional media, but to start actively contributing themselves. Their value,their relevance, is on the rise in a climate where one’s opinion and insight can be heard without having to pass through the censor of profitability or conform to institutional belief. It seems foolish to sit idly by and deny the importance of your voice when such exciting opportunities are beckoning. The world is changing, that much is undeniable. The question is: “will you be a part of the revolution?”

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5 responses to “Bridging the Pro-Am gap?

  1. Excellent article, I couldn’t agree more. What makes me laugh is the “Daily Mailite” reaction that email, text and twitter is killing the art of letter writing. What utter, utter drivel there is more writing going on now that has existed in total up to about 1990. Sure the quality ( spelling, punctuation and grammar) may not be that high yet, but it WILL improve written skills.

  2. “The wisest politicians… are recognising their role as the figureheads of opinion, rather than the ones than define it.”

    There’s a whole other article there, on the modern tendency of politicians to abandon the idea of sticking to their principles and trying to persuade the public of their worth, in favour of blatant populism, finding out what the public think and then moulding your “opinions” into whatever you think would get you votes. So we have the endless chasing of the “centre ground”, where a left-wing party can have a leadership candidate criticising his colleagues for being too concerned with the working class, and a right-wing party can become preoccupied with a desperation to be “fair and progressive”. Far better if they stopped treating the public as too stupid to cope with views that differ from their own, and went back to engaging the electorate in debate instead of trying to act as a mirror of “swing voters”.

    The abdication of opinion among cultural critics is a whole different matter of course… mainly because culture doesn’t control our lives, at least unless we want it to. But critics who do what Ebert did, and shirk speaking their minds because they don’t want to upset people, miss the point. “Popular” and “critically acclaimed” have never been the same thing. Pulp fiction novels aren’t nearly as widespread among the masses as they used to be, and when was the last time anyone saw someone reading a Mills and Boon book? And when popular music was veering off into “youth culture” in the fifties and sixties, critical opinion was following Stockhausen into places even long-time fans of classical couldn’t stomach. The critics have never agreed with all the people all of the time, and the advent of social media hasn’t changed that. In fact, what it has done is made the exchange of opinion, positive and negative, more popular than ever – almost turning reviewing into a craze in itself. That’s why online stores like iTunes and Amazon allow customers to review what they purchase, and why there’s been an explosion in cultural review sites like Pitchfork. People are more keen than ever to exchange what they think, to the extent that they can’t help but review, even when they don’t expect anyone to read . Which makes it that much more daft that Ebert, one of the few people who makes his living from what millions are doing as a hobby every day, thinks that no one wants to read what he says any more. He couldn’t be more wrong.

    • Hi NedB-H – thanks for your comment. Just wanted to pick you up on one thing: the impact of the e-reader – http://www.sidewaysnews.com/arts-culture/mills-boon-ebook-sales-soar

      It’s not that people aren’t reading things like Mills and Boon – it’s that they are consuming it in different ways, mostly thanks technology.

      And this is the crux of what we’re seeing: technology is empowering “the masses” to consume, contribute, comment and collaborate – the latter being key to me. Finding the “professional-amateur” balance will take time, innovation, mistakes and a healthy dose of open-mindedness, but I hope it will be reached.

      E. Hodgson – Civicboom founder.

  3. Fair enough – bad example there! Although the point remains that populist media is nothing new.

    I think the experience of the internet so far shows that there’s money to be made by “professionals”, just as much as there was in “old” media, and in the same ways: you make your money by creating something popular with the consumers, and then either charge advertising (eg Facebook), or by taking a charge from your users (eg eBay). What we do see that’s different is the exaggerated market forces, that are a result of the internet being such a fast-moving, ever-changing medium: so whereas once, if you published, say, a magazine that had built up a large readership, you could expect a decent run before people started getting bored of your product, now it can all happen very quickly. Witness the rise and fall of myspace for evidence of that. In terms of professional reviewers, I’m confident there’ll be more than ever, for the reasons I outlined above. But I suspect the way that “balance” between the professional and amateur will be more hard-nosed than before. If your blog becomes the new internet meme, and everyone suddenly wants to read what you think, you don’t need a huge amount of business nous to rapidly turn it into your sole income – viz Perez Hilton. But you’ll have to be prepared to have a backup plan, because internet memes have about the lifespan of a mayfly; you’ll be raking in the website hits and advertising revenue one day, and the next it’ll all be gone. In short, there’ll be more people than ever making their money as “reviewers” – but it won’t be a job for life any more.

  4. I actually agree with you Ned, the professional won’t die out by any means, but the impact of their voice will be greatly reduced. They will be forced to compete in a far more meritocratic system and if what they produce is of an inferior standard the good name of their institution will not prevent people from switching over in a heartbeat.

    The creation of large sites designed to host civic media and help establishments connect with the people, such as CivicBoom, will most likely fuel the rise of the semi professional; the amateur with great passion and expertise in a given field who can produce a more evocative or informative article than the jack of all trades professional. One of the features of CivicBoom is a widget that allows an editor to ask for contributions on a specific subject, much like a general notice. This will allow anyone interested in the subject matter to have a shot at getting their article published and whilst this does not render the professional obsolete, is vastly increases his competition by expanding the scope of potential writers. In theory this should lead to a better standard of writing which is good news for everyone!

    Just a small note, but what you’re referring to isn’t a meme. Memes are internet fads, but they centre around out of context images and videos used for comic effect. Perez Hilton isn’t a meme, he’s an internet sensation. It’s perhaps a trivial difference but one none the less.
    Some memes:


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