Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomy guy (I don’t really want to call him the Bad Astronomer 😉 ), recently brought up a post by Will Wheaton, known almost entirely for playing the part of the endlessly-irritating Wesley Crusher on the equally endlessly-irritating Star Trek: The Next Degeneration.
For what it’s worth, I like a lot of what appears in the Bad Astronomy site, including Phil’s blog posts. I also don’t have any problem with him ‘diversifying’ as some do; he has a right to his own views and politics and I support his right to express those things, even if I don’t necessarily always agree with them. I also don’t have anything against Will Wheaton (apart from the aforementioned role, and I guess that’s the show producer’s fault rather than his personal responsibility).
The article by Wheaton is one of these along the lines of nasty-rich-and-powerful-old-media just don’t understand the web and are trying to kill it off or control it. They don’t understand how it has changed the world and set all of us free to become newly-discovered overnight dotCelebs(tm) in a new and better dotRenaissance(tm) and not only that it won’t cost anything either.
The main gist seems to be that nowadays anyone can post anything online – youtube, blogs, gallery etc. So now magazines, newspapers, movie companies and the like, are just dinosaurs doomed to extinction by the fall of the digital asteroid.
What so many people who live on the Internet fail to realise is that this ‘freedom’ is itself the problem; removing barriers to ‘publishing’ sadly doesn’t mean we all become overnight Shakespeares or Mozarts or Kubricks. All it means is that every talentless prat in the world can now attempt to force his or her detritus on an unsuspecting (and largely uncaring) world. Talent requires somewhat more than an illegal copy of (insert creative software package name here) and the ability to click on a nice friendly ‘upload’ button.
Some of the responses on the Bad Astronomy post have put forward another viewpoint: that the products of ‘old-media’ at least guarantee a certain basic level of quality to the book/movie/article. Come again? If that’s the case you people must have access to a whole network of TV channels that I don’t, you must have different movies coming to your theaters than I have appearing in mine and your book stores must be full of books I’ve never heard of. In fact TV became so bad that when we moved over to Canada, we just didn’t bother getting any. We have a TV, we watch occasional DVDs (99% of which are complete rubbish) and that’s it – we have no TV ‘channels’.
It’s not really that old-world-media provides quality and new-world
provides errr… doesn’t. The quality is almost universally bad – it just ranges from bad to very bad in most cases. And if nasty-old-media is dead then they sure don’t seem to know it. What was the biggest media event this summer? Harry Potter? The Transformers movie? Something with Disney Pirates in it? Yet-another-Marvel-comic-turned-into-a-disappointing-movie (YAMCTIADM – also ™)? What it certainly wasn’t, was something from youTube, or BookLocker, or in fact anything from the Internet.
There’s no doubt that there have been some ‘successes’ in the ‘new media’ world. I’ve heard of a couple of youTube people being made offers that undoubtedly wouldn’t have come their way if it wasn’t for their online activity. I’ve also heard of a couple of writers being picked up after self-publishing on places like BookLocker. The point is that once their talents are discovered – they’re being picked up by ‘bad-old-media’ and the Internet has just been a vehicle for them to get noticed. What I don’t hear is people saying, “Hey no, we don’t want your filthy stinking nasty-old-media money, we prefer to stay as we are, freezing cold and hungry thanks very much.” Even Phil Plait has books published by nasty-old-media. And as for Will Wheaton – well we already mentioned his past ‘evil history’.
So if nasty-old-media is dead or dying and we’ve finally got the uppers on those selfish money gougers that must be good – right? Instead of giving them all that money, now we… oh yeah, we give it to Google, and Microsoft and youTube, and presumably all of those wannabee authors are making BookLocker a tidy sum too.
Replacing one set of rich controlling media companies with a new set hardly seems to be progress.
In fact, it’s quite easy to say how new-media is the best thing since sliced (insert product placement here) bread when you’re not actually relying on it to pay for that bread. The expenses of the Bad Astronomy site are, I’m sure, more than covered by Phil Plait’s undoubtedly generous University stipend (and the proceeds of his book sales). He boasts how he has 30,000+ readers, a substantial fraction of any astronomy magazine, but what has he done with those readers? All he’s really done is drawn away 30,000 of people who at one time would have probably bought magazines and provided employment and helped to convince them that everything should be free. Oh… and collected a rather nice audience for his next book (and I applaud him on doing that!). He even says, “My publisher appears happy to have me working hard on the ‘net to promote the book as well.”
Phil also makes a good argument for the speed of publishing on the Internet. But again, speed isn’t everything. In 2006, members from the Duke Lacrosse team were charged with raping a black dancer. The news was splashed about the Internet at the speed of light. The responses came in from all sides just as quickly – it was a violation, the worst kind of sexual assault and bigotry committed by a bunch of sadistic, selfish, over-privileged white boys. The only problem was… it didn’t happen. The evidence was fudged, the prosecutor lied in court (that would be Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong lest we forget), withheld evidence, and the victim’s testimony was shaky at best. Eventually the case was dismissed, but by that time the boys were already tarnished. Opening the box is a lot easier than closing it again – just ask Pandora.
Speed of information dissemination is no boon if the information itself is incorrect, or from a tainted source. The Bad Astronomy site itself is littered with posts about people publishing bad information; in fact as the title suggests, that was its prime motivation for being created. Speed kills – not just people, but objectivity.
Most of the success stories I have heard that have come ‘from the Internet’ have come about not because of the Internet but rather the people involved. They were determined, they plugged away, they kept on beating on those doors, bugging people, pleading with people, irritating the hell out of people – until eventually someone said, “Oh Jesus, just buy the damn thing if only to shut them up.” They have been a success because they had the essential characteristics of successful people – resilience, persistence and sheer bloody-mindedness.
They used the Internet for sure; but if it hadn’t existed, they’d undoubtedly still have succeeded – because of those characteristics. Without the Internet being there, they’d have just found another way.
I once heard that Billy Gibbons said in an interview that ZZ Top was: “an overnight success, it just took seventeen years to get there”. In the ‘instant world’ that most people seem to live in, it seems scandalous almost sacrilegious to say this, but success takes those three things: resilience, persistence and sheer bloody-mindedness. Yes, you may get lucky. Yes, you really may be an ‘overnight success’, it does happen – just don’t hold your breath. It takes hard work.