“Oh, they have the internet on computers now!” – Homer Simpson—
When Congress passed a bill this past December that enabled the United States government to detain suspects indefinitely there was little uproar, even though the bill signed into law by President Obama (albeit with a tepid signing statement that promises to totally not abuse the power) effectively took Habeas Corpus, the foundation of our over two-hundred year old legal system, and disposed of it like an old cell phone that’s too primitive to surf the internet.
A month later, however, the proposal of a bill that would restrict the internet was met with swift and fierce outrage. SOPA and PIPA were aborted so quickly you’d think they had been conceived on Prom Night, and their proponents like Marco Rubio backed away and washed their hands of the whole affair. And all because Wikipedia shut down for a day (The Inclusive did as well and I’m sure that contributed).
The difference in the way the public responded to these two bills isn’t actually that surprising. Most Americans don’t realize how important their right to a fair and speedy trial is; they’ve never been arrested and assume the law will not affect them. Their fear of terrorism outweighs their fear of losing civil liberties.
But everyone uses the internet and has become so reliant upon it that the mere thought of a world without YouTube or Google is enough to cause an asthma attack. The internet has become as essential a utility as heat or water, and Americans clearly showed last week that they wish to continue to use it unencumbered by government oversight. This being an election year, Congress quickly wised up and assured the public that they could use Wikipedia freely once again. Speaking of which, did you know John Stamos’s middle name is Phillip?
But Hollywood still cries foul. The MPAA has apparently taken a break from its usual duty of counting the number of times characters say fuck in a Kevin Smith movie and transformed itself into the world’s foremost crusaders against digital pirates (I’m hoping they expand and start to take on the actual seafaring pirates in Somalia).
And while my sympathies are firmly in the pro-internet camp, I must admit their concerns about piracy do have validity. I’m not worried about studio heads or producers being able to afford a third Ferrari, but I do want writers and filmmakers to be compensated for their art. The internet has indeed taken money from artists, but it also has created interesting alternative possibilities. The studio system may die, but that doesn’t mean film must.
The answer may be to look backwards while we move forward and return to the way art was funded for most of history: patronage. The beauty is that we no longer need a wealthy family like the Medici to bankroll a masterpiece. Thanks to the internet we can all foot the bill. Louis CK proved this fact with his most recent comedy special. Instead of selling the special to HBO or Comedy Central as he had done previously, CK chose to make his performance at the Beacon Theater available for download on the internet and merely ask that his fans pay five dollars to his PayPal account.
He engaged in a live chat on Reddit for several hours and explained that he wanted to try an experiment and see what would happen if he made his comedy available to as many people as possible at a price as close to free as possible. Within two weeks, CK had earned a million dollars, which he will use to buy a home for his family and fund future projects. By appealing to the sensibilities of the internet generation and making his art open on the internet rather than restricting it, CK was able to earn more off of this project than he had in previous deals with HBO.
He’s hardly the first comedian to discover the internet as an alternative medium to television. You may know David Wain from the greatly loved -- but shortly lived -- comedy series "The State" and "Stella". Despite small loyal cults, his shows were cancelled. In 2007, Wain began making an episodic short series called "Wainy Days" hosted on My Damn Channel and available on YouTube. No longer dependant on Nielsen ratings or vulnerable to whims of executives, Wain has produced four seasons to date, and like many artists has enjoyed the greater freedom that the internet provides.
The indie duo Pomplamoose (named for a phonetic pronunciation of grapefruit in French) has proven that you no longer need a record contract in order to profit off your art. In 2008, they began posting covers of popular songs on YouTube (something that would have been illegal if SOPA or PIPA had passed) and quickly began gaining thousands of subscribers which gave them the opportunity to showcase their original songs. They rejected offers from record companies and instead chose to produce their music themselves, making it available for download on iTunes. While artists signed to record company only see a small percentage from a 99 cent iTunes download, they receive the whole thing (split between the two of them that’s nearly fifty cents apiece!), and after a couple hundred thousand downloads, it turns out you can still make a decent living.
All of this babble about the entertainment industry is leading up to my real concern: the future of journalism. Perhaps no other industry has been more affected than the rise of the internet. It has been a fantastic tool for news consumers – with the click of a few keys we have access to the pages of every newspaper and magazine across the globe. News aggregators like the Huffington Post update us with breaking stories every second. However, the news industry — the industry in which I have foolhardily chosen to pursue a career — has been suffering. Papers have gone out of business, printers have experienced massive layoffs, and opportunities for journalists are increasingly rare (God, I’m depressing myself). But can the situation really be so dire? News apps are among the most popular for smart phones and news websites are consistently the most highly visited. People still need and want the product. The only thing that has changed is the way it’s consumed.
Many people blame the internet. I’ll admit that even though I enjoy reading a physical paper or magazine, I mainly get my news online. There seems to be little point in purchasing a subscription to any publication when I can find any article I want online. Publications have relied on web advertising as a means of generating revenue, but the returns can’t make up for the loss of subscription money. That’s why the New York Times has begun to charge for full access to its online edition.
Arianna Huffington at least has able to make a fortune off of internet news, but one has to question whether the Huffington Post is actually good for journalism. The paid employees of the Huffington Post spend little time researching stories, fostering sources, or conducting interviews. Instead, they spend their work day scouring the websites that range from The New York Times to TMZ, finding the content that will generate the most hits which they then summarize and provide a link. That’s not really journalism. It’s more akin to collecting periodicals and cutting out your favorite articles for a scrapbook.
Nonetheless, the Huffington Post will receive more hits and thereby generate more ad revenue simply because it collects all the highlights and makes them available in one place, like a media version of SportsCenter. The rest of the content on the Huffington Post is produced by bloggers that work on a voluntary basis. This fact has created some controversy with some critics decrying the Huffington Post and its parent company AOL of profiting off of unpaid labor. Some of the bloggers are wealthy celebrities like Alec Baldwin, but others are experts or enthusiasts on a particular subject that write for free either as a hobby or a way to further their writing career by greater exposure, even if that means sacrificing payment for the time being.
The Huffington Post points out that the bloggers write by their own volition and have the right to choose to donate their time and produce content for free. While this is true it still presents a conundrum that the field of journalism must face in the coming decades: in a world in which technology enables anyone to publish as a citizen journalist, could journalism still be an actual vocation?
While blogging has given people a greater voice and the opportunity to produce work that can be viewed worldwide, it’s unlikely that it will ever become a sufficient substitute for true investigative journalism. Bloggers provide valuable commentary on current events, but reporters still need to uncover the stories first. It’s difficult to imagine a blogger being able to devote the time and energy to investigating a story like Watergate, and if a professional press is no longer to sustain itself, society would be without its watchdog. That’s why journalists ought to take a page out of Louis CK’s book.
Publications in the traditional sense may cease to exist, but the field of journalism just like film and music will survive the digital age. Patronage just may be the answer to journalism’s financial woes. Through sites like PayPal it is conceivable that amateur bloggers could graduate to the next level and become professional journalists. A writer could maintain a site or contribute to a news aggregator, but survive from the donations of subscribers.
Hypothetically, if a journalist could garner several thousand subscribers on the strength of their work and ask, like CK, for five dollars (or even less) per a year’s worth of reporting then they could easily make a living even without the employment of a newspaper or magazine. You could even imagine writer collectives (like The Inclusive, for example) in which various writers pull their resources and audience functioning at a high level through a combination of web advertising and reader donation. You can call this business model the NPR approach and the good news is that everyone gets a tote bag. [Ed. note - I like tote bags]
Those of us in the internet community were quick to pull together to oppose SOPA and PIPA not because we “just want free shit,” as Bill Maher callously suggested in a recent episode of Real Time. We did it because we realize the potential of the internet and know that any attempts to restrict it are sure to hamper its growth. Louis CK’s recent experiment succeeded because he trusted in his fans to do the right thing and support his work rather than steal it. In the coming years we will show the web’s critics that we’re not all pirates just because we’re sailing the digital seas (was that too cheesy? I don’t care; I so rarely get to make nautical metaphors).
If we do this and find new ways to support our favorite artists, authors, and journalists, then creators and consumers alike can benefit from the web’s increased freedom. I’d much rather give my money directly to a filmmaker or writer I like than some studio head or publishing magnate. That may be why organizations like the MPAA are really afraid of the internet. They realize it gives us the chance to cut out the middle man.
And now if you’ll excuse me I have to Wikipedia Henry Winkler.