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The Rise of the Internet’s Creative Middle Class


Earlier this spring, I made my way to a modest broadcast studio, situated on the second floor of a polished office building in downtown Washington, D.C., to watch a taping of an Internet news program called “Breaking Points.” The show’s producer, a young man named James Lynch, met me in the lobby and led me to a crowded control room. Three experienced-looking, middle-aged engineer types staffed the video boards. The scene reminded me of any number of studios that I’ve passed through for television appearances. Unlike those traditional shows, however, this control room also contained a much younger engineer, hunched over a computer screen, furiously editing the video streaming in from the studio. “We’ll post the show on YouTube by eleven,” Lynch explained. It was already close to ten.

Everything about the production of “Breaking Points” is fast. The show, which stars Krystal Ball, a former MSNBC host, and Saagar Enjeti, a former White House correspondent for The Daily Caller, produces three full episodes a week, sometimes adding extra “mini” shows responding to current events. The episodes are released in both audio and video formats almost immediately after they’re filmed. This speed is necessary because “Breaking Points” is attempting to approximate, using the tools of Internet publishing, the immediacy of live news broadcasting. A segment filmed in the morning might be out of date by the afternoon.

To meet this production schedule, the hosts attempt to record each block using as few takes as possible. When I arrived at the studio, Ball was recording a monologue about Ukraine in which she inveighed against “the baked-in pro-war bias” of cable news. A control-room engineer who was working the show’s video TriCaster console threw up a graphic a beat too soon. Ball stopped: “Can we do this again? Why was that so early?” This is the only reshoot that I witnessed during my visit. A little later, there was a lull as Lynch attempted to track down a former professional baseball player who was scheduled to be interviewed about the status of Major League Baseball’s labor negotiations. Ball and Enjeti stayed at their broadcast desk during the delay, using the time to write headlines for the short YouTube Clips that would be made of the segments they had just finished filming.

“MSNBC caught ‘floating’ . . . No, caught ‘platforming’ fake Ghost of Kyiv war news,” Ball offered.

“That’s good, that’s good,” Enjeti replied.

“That’s not too long?”

The headlines for the YouTube Clips, Enjeti explained, are very important for driving views, and little things like capitalizing emotive words can make a difference. The eventual Ghost of Kyiv headline was worded as “MSNBC CAUGHT Platforming FAKE ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ War News.” Ball told me that hyperbolic headlines help bring viewers to the straight-news content that’s contained in the clips. “We promise desserts, but serve up vegetables,” she said. (When I checked a few days later, the Ghost of Kyiv clip had already had more than a hundred thousand views.) Lynch eventually located the former baseball player, and I was ushered back to the control room. The young engineer continued to furiously edit and post clips. By 11:30 A.M., the filming was done: the content had all been uploaded, the control room had emptied, Enjeti was on his way to the gym, and Ball was headed home to relieve her babysitter.

Prior to going independent, Ball and Enjeti co-hosted a show called “Rising,” produced in a more traditional manner by The Hill, the D.C.-based political newspaper and media company. Enjeti estimates that “Rising” required a full-time staff of thirty. “Breaking Points,” by contrast, gets by with a rented studio and the part-time efforts of eight hourly contractors, yet its viewership metrics are already outpacing the hosts’ former show. These numbers provide an interesting case study of the evolving news industry, but my interest in “Breaking Points” is deeper. I see the show as part of a more important trend, one in which a dismissed prophecy about the potential of the Internet to support creative work might be making a triumphant return.

In 2008, a lot of attention was centered on the shift toward Web 2.0, a more participatory version of the Internet in which users could post information just as easily as they could consume it. We’re used to online participation today, but back then so-called user-generated content was seen as both cutting-edge and the key to unlocking the Internet’s full potential to improve the world. At that year’s Web 2.0 Summit, a splashy annual conference founded by Tim O’Reilly, the roster of speakers included Mark Zuckerberg but also Al Gore and Gavin Newsom. It was in this atmosphere of possibility that Kevin Kelly, a respected prophet of the West Coast techno-optimism scene and the founding executive editor of Wired, published an essay on his personal Web site making a case that the Internet was about to transform the world of creative work in a profound and positive manner. He titled it “1,000 True Fans.”

The essay opens by responding to an idea that was enjoying a peak of cultural influence: the long tail. The concept was introduced in a Wired article written by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, who described the ability of Internet-based consumer companies, such as Amazon and Netflix, to use online interfaces and smart-search capabilities to offer rarer and less popular products—those that exist in the “long tail” of traditional sale charts. These new markets could be sizable. Owing to space constraints, a physical Barnes & Noble bookstore at the time could carry a hundred and thirty thousand titles. Amazon, free from the limits of retail real estate, found that more than half of its sales came from books outside their hundred and thirty thousand most popular sellers.

In his “1,000 True Fans” essay, Kelly explains that he wasn’t as excited about this new economic model as others seemed to be. “The long tail is famously good news for two classes of people: a few lucky aggregators, such as Amazon and Netflix, and 6 billion consumers,” he writes. “But the long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators.” If your work lives in the long tail, the introduction of Internet-based markets might mean that you go from selling zero units of your creations to selling a handful of units a month, but this makes little difference to your livelihood. “The long tail offers no path out of the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales,” Kelly writes. “Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artists do to escape the long tail?”

This question might seem fatalistic, but Kelly had a solution. If your creative work exists in the long tail, generating a small but consistent number of sales, then it’s probably sufficiently good to support a small but serious fan base, assuming you’re willing to put in the work required to cultivate this community. In an earlier age, a creative professional might be limited to fans who lived nearby. But by using the tools of the Internet, Kelly argued, it was now possible for creative types to both find and interact with supporters all around the world. The same Internet that allows Netflix to help a small number of cinephiles discover an obscure documentary might also allow that filmmaker to be in touch with these same people directly, perhaps converting what Kelly termed “Lesser Fans” into “True Fans,” defined as those “who will purchase anything and everything you produce,” who “will drive 200 miles to see you sing,” and “buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat.” According to Kelly, the cultivation of True Fan communities is about more than just ego or the celebration of art: they can become the foundation for an artist to make a living. Kelly’s back-of-the-envelope math is both simple and compelling: if you can recruit, over time, a thousand such loyal supporters, each of whom is willing to spend a hundred dollars a year to support you and your creations, you’re suddenly making a good middle-class salary doing creative work as your full-time job.

The 1,000 True Fans theory is classic Kevin Kelly. He took something potentially dark—in this case, a long-tail economic model that mashes creatives like a digital-age ore crusher—and found an aspirational alternative narrative. The new tools that allow Amazon to dominate Barnes & Noble might also allow more creative types than ever before to make a living off their work. When placed against the context of the global financial crisis, which was hitting its full stride when Kelly’s essay was published, the appeal of this promise was amplified. Unemployment was soaring while the value of retirement investments was plummeting, but perhaps you could respond to the disruption by finally pursuing the creative career about which you’ve been daydreaming. You didn’t need a functional global economy to find happiness and economic security, just a thousand other people who love what you do—and the Internet would help you find and connect with them. Not surprisingly, the essay was a sensation. “This is Kevin Kelly’s best riff of the year, and that’s saying an enormous amount,” the Internet-marketing guru Seth Godin wrote, on the same day the essay appeared online. “Go read it!”

Kelly’s optimism, however, didn’t convince everyone. Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and virtual-reality pioneer who had known Kelly for a long time, had doubts. Lanier had once been a fellow techno-optimist, but by 2008, as he explained in an interview with the technology-news outlet The Verge, he was going through a period of “great personal pain” caused by the reconsideration of his utopian digital ideology. “I [had been] writing fire-breathing essays like, ‘Piracy is your friend’ and ‘Open everything up and it’ll work out,’ ” Lanier explained. “Then, when I started looking at the numbers of people who were benefitting, I realized that what was actually happening was the loss of the middle hump of outcomes; we were concentrating people into winners and losers, which is the worse outcome.”

Lanier, who had spent some time as a struggling musician, wanted Kelly’s theory to be true. “I didn’t want to jinx it,” he later wrote. But he couldn’t shake the insistent reality that he personally didn’t know any artists who were making a living from an online group of dedicated supporters. If the 1,000 True Fans model was valid, its impact should be more visible. Lanier brought his concern to Kelly. In response, Kelly posted a follow-up essay that summarized Lanier’s skepticism and asked his large readership to help assuage Lanier’s fears. “To prove Jaron wrong,” Kelly wrote, “simply submit a candidate in the comments: a musician with no ties to old media models, now making 100% of their living in the open media environment.” As Lanier describes in his book “You Are Not a Gadget,” Kelly’s readers struggled to identify more than a “handful” of artists who seemed to prove his theory. “This is astonishing to me,” Lanier writes. “By now, a decade and a half into the web era . . . shouldn’t there at least be a few thousand initial pioneers of a new kind of musical career who can survive in our utopia? Maybe more will appear soon, but the current situation is discouraging.”

Kelly offered a pragmatic explanation for why his model faltered. “It takes a lot of time to find, nurture, manage, and service True Fans yourself,” he wrote. “And, many artists don’t have the skills or inclination to do so.” Lanier, however, proposed a more fundamental obstacle: the structure of the Web itself. As he elaborates in “You Are Not a Gadget,” the initial emergence of the Internet, in the nineteen-nineties, was a halcyon period. “The early waves of web activity were remarkably energetic and had a personal quality,” he writes. “People created personal ‘homepages,’ and each of them was different, and often strange. The web had a flavor.”

In Lanier’s telling, this digital landscape shifted once the success of Google’s ad program revealed that you could make a lot of money on user-generated creative output, which led to the rise of social-media companies such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Initially, these companies emphasized their simple, elegant-looking interfaces and their sales pitches about online expression and connection, but really they were hijacking the Web 2.0 revolution by concentrating much of its new energetic user activity onto their own proprietary platforms, where it could be efficiently monetized. Lanier argued that, in order for these platforms to justify making so much money off voluntary productivity, user content needed to be separated from the unique, interesting, diverse, flesh-and-blood individuals who’d created it. To accomplish this goal, the “proud extroversion” of the early Web soon gave way to a much more homogenized experience: hundred-and-forty-character text boxes, uniformly sized photos accompanied by short captions, Like buttons, retweet counts, and, ultimately, a shift away from chronological time lines and profile pages and toward statistically optimized feeds. The user-generated Web became an infinite stream of disembodied images and quips, curated by algorithms, optimized to distract.



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