Sunday, January 22, 2012

Big Content, systemic control and cultural consumption

The vast majority of popular entertainment content - movies, tv shows, music, games - is owned and legally controlled by media conglomerates. They co-operate, via organisations like the RIAA and the MPAA, in ensuring that the system of ownership and control by which they can generate content and make a profit from it gets maintained, legitimised and extended. This is done via lawsuits, anti-piracy advertising, lobbying for greater legal ability to control distribution channels, and what have you. This system - let's call it "Big Content" - depends not just on the existence and aggressive enforcement of laws restricting the distribution of intellectual property, but upon the popularity of the content distributed within the boundaries of the restricted system. It also depends on the near or total lack of popularity of content outside of this system.

This describes the current situation. Sure, content is created and circulated outside of this system - copyleft, Creative Commons licensing - but in terms of popularity, these efforts are small potatoes compared to Big Content. The most popular media content is Big Content's content.

A quick clarification: "popular" as I'm using it here can refer to both content that is widely consumed, and content that is widely known. So Justin Bieber's music may not be popular to everyone in the first sense, but it is definitely popular to everyone in the second sense: people at least know who he is, even if they hate him and don't ever listen to his music. My belief is that the popularity of Big Media content in the second sense - the shared knowledge of it - is what makes finding a viable alternative to Big Content's system so difficult.

Why is Big Content's content popular? This is where people start getting it wrong. Supporters of the Big Content system interpret "popular" in the first sense, and say that content generated and distributed within the Big Content system is popular because it's good, and it's good because the system works: content creators get paid for good stuff, and the better the stuff they create, the more they get paid, and the more incentive they have to create stuff that's good. But "good" is a relative term. While the label "good" can perhaps objectively be applied to things like technical polish (and even then there's the existence of things like "garage rock"), it becomes much mushier when it comes down to matters of aesthetic taste. One person's "good" is another person's "low-brow trash" is another person's "pretentious twaddle". Saying that popular content is popular because it's "good" is simply saying that it's popular because a lot of people subjectively agree that it's good. Popular content is popular because it's...popular.....

A more technical-minded person might interpret "popular" more broadly, and might identify the reason for popularity as the control over the system of mass distribution by which Big Content had monopolised the content accessible to people. Big Content's content became "popular", in both senses described above, because it was foisted on consumers through narrow broadcast media like radio and TV. Consumers had little choice about what content they actually could consume. Fortunately, with the Internet and the proliferation of other distribution channels, it's now only a matter of time before the popularity of Big Content's content, dependent on narrow and controlled distribution as it is, stops being popular. Right? Well, no, that doesn't seem to be happening.

While as much control as possible over the system of distribution is very important to Big Content (the basic reason why proposed legislation like SOPA/PIPA even exists is to increase this control), it is not the sole thing buttressing the popularity of Big Content's content. The popularity isn't just tied to mass distribution, but to mass consumption. Or more specifically, to mass cultural consumption.

The content created through the system of Big Content is a specific type. I have previously described interaction with content as a cultural act. By this I mean that it forms ongoing relationships between the content and the people who interact with it. Here's a rough draft of how I see the different types of possible relationship formations being categorised: (1) individual relationship formation: a relationship is formed between 1 person and some content ("This album changed my life!") (2) communal relationship formation: people known to each other seek to form similar individual relationships with some content ("You should totally listen to this album!", "Let's go see a movie!") (3) mass relationship formation: people not known to each form personal relationships with each other by comparing the individual relationships with content that they have ("So what kind of music do you like?"). Interaction with content includes both consumption of content (watching movies, listening to music, etc) and production (writing fanfics based on a tv show, imagining yourself in the world of the movie, even humming).

Interaction with Big Content's content is primarily cultural consumption. But the more important characteristic of interaction with Big Content's content is that it, to date, is the content that by far the most readily facilitates cultural acts of mass relationship formation: forming new relationships with others via their share relationships with content. In our complex society where almost everyone is a stranger to everyone else, this is incredibly useful. Without it, feeling connected to others in society becomes much, much harder. It may not make sense to say that Big Content's content is popular because it's popular, as supporters of the system of Big Content do. But it may be possible to say that Big Content remains popular because its popularity is advantageous: it allows a mass society of strangers to feel like they're at least a little bit connected to each other, because they share the same culture. People are accustomed to this, and don't look like they're going to give it up any time soon.

Diversifying the channels of distribution and production - the most commonly imagined solution to the monopoly of Big Content - doesn't address this mass cultural function. In fact it directly contradicts it by breaking down the commonality of cultural experience through diversifying of the experience of content, and consequently increasing the dissimilarity of shared experiences of content between individuals.

It is this cultural issue, not a better technical platform, which needs to be addressed before any serious attempt to replace the system of Big Content can ever gain significant popularity. There is currently no alternative to the system of Big Content that can reliably generate content which facilitates mass relationship formation through the shared experience of it. Either such an alternative system needs to be created, or the system of shared cultural experience which so greatly facilitates the smooth running of mass society must be given up by that society's members. Until then, Big Content's content will remain the most popular content.

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