Big Media's Ambivalence about Commons-based Creativity

As new types of networked media take root and flourish, large media corporations are running up against the horns of a dilemma. Should they continue to vilify unauthorized sharing of their film, video and music (“immoral pirates are costing up billions of dollars!”) or should they exploit online sharing as an incredibly cheap and hip form of marketing? Should they continue to invest in the hugely expensive “blockbuster model” of product promotion (which increasingly feels like an archaic cultural style, and fizzles a lot of the time anyway), or should they jump feet first into a burgeoning online culture of participatory networking and save oodles of money on marketing that is more targeted and culturally authentic?

The dilemma is coming into sharper focus as the power of user-driven networks proves itself. While for now, most user-created content seems to consist of amateur junk, paparazzi outtakes and snippets of copyrighted films and TV shows, there are also some real gems of original artistry, imaginative mashups and populist self-expression. (A recent favorite of mine is :Mr. Lamont Goes to Washington“:, which remixes the original movie trailer for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with contemporary footage of Ned Lamont, Zelig-style.) Websites like Revver, YouTube, Flickr and Ourmedia are garnering some phenomenal traffic because they give users a wide-open a venue to express and share their creativity.

By creating bottom-up, self-organized commons, these sites are assembling the very audiences — hip, young, social pacesetters — that Big Media covets. Which raises an interesting question — who shall control the “hip cycle” that originates on the commons? We’ve seen how bloggers often beat out print and broadcast media with more timely news and commentary. In the same manner, social networking and mashup sites are fueling a bottom-up “hip cycle” that is faster and cooler than anything contrived by the top-down marketing geniuses at Apple or Levi’s.

Pity the agonizing dilemma faced by corporate purveyors of cool! When a remix artist does something groovy using a new TV show or film, should they condemn it as piracy and sue — or ride the publicity wave for all it’s worth?

Unless someone is making money off of the unauthorized use, the latter choice seems to be prevailing. When a video editor did his own private remix of two films — Mr. and Mrs. Smith, starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and The Break-Up, starring Pitt’s ex-wife Jennifer Aniston ? the resulting movie trailer mashup-spoof, Mrs. and Mrs. Pitt, was a hit in its own right. No harsh denunciations or lawsuits from Hollywood…yet.

For hip folks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the copyright concerns posed by unauthorized Internet clips don’t even seem to register as an issue. Their production companies surely realize that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report couldn’t buy the kinds of publicity that they get through pass-along video excerpts of the shows on the Internet.

Some major Hollywood players are starting to get religion about online commons, however, and are actively exploring its marketing potential. Sara Kehaulani Goo of The Washington Post reports (August 2) that Warner Independent Pictures recently sponsored a mashup contest inviting fans to create their own trailer for the movie, A Scanner Darkly. MasterCard, which once sued Ralph Nader for his campaign ads using the tagline “Priceless” without authorization, actually invited the public to create its own advertising messages using the “Priceless” ad format.

These attempts by the market to colonize the commons are entirely predictable. Wherever large numbers of people congregate, wherever there is genuine creativity and social authenticity, corporate marketers want to be there. That’s fine. The question is, what sorts of conditions will marketers seek to impose that might inhibit or corrupt the commons?

The Washington Post reports, “When General Motors experimented with a build-your-own-Chevy Tahoe online commercial this year, environmentalists had a field day creating mash-up ads that promoted the sport-utility vehicle as a gas-guzzling polluter — using the company’s own images of the car rolling through the snow.” GM terminated the experiment. David Bowie once hosted a contest inviting fans to remix his music, but he insisted upon retaining the rights to the final product. In other words, he wanted to fans to contribute their creativity and word-of-mouth promotion, but he wanted to own and monetize all the results.

Some companies have more insidious designs, like surreptitiously exploiting the social credibility of online commons. Last week, a P.R. firm associated with Exxon was caught posting a faux-amateur video on YouTube that spoofed Al Gore and his film, An Inconvenient Truth. No disclosure of Exxon or the P.R. firm was made. They clearly wanted to disguise corporate propaganda as the authentic creation of an ordinary citizen.

As the corporate world begins to seriously engage with the world of mashups, remixes, social networking and other online commons, I’m wondering if corporate marketers will be willing to abide by the verdict of the commons, allowing people to speak candidly without retribution or preconditions. Or will companies be too fearful of the truth, and try to jigger the results lest some commoner dares to say that their products suck? I feel certain that we will have more empirical data on these questions very soon.