Why Online Commons Are Besting the Mainstream Media

When I look at the online world these days, I feel like I’m watching one of those old nature films in which an unseen narrator excitedly whispers as a baby bird miraculously pecks its way through the eggshell and announces itself to the world. Who is this fragile new creature? I feel the same sense of amazement as I contemplate the new modes of expression made possible by digital technologies. What is this podcasting, this video-blogging and these new public-domain repositories?

Here’s my excited narrator’s whisper: A lot of new media genres seem to be empowering individuals by providing them with a lightweight commons infrastructure. Unlike today’s media market – our brain-dead NYC-LA axis of TV, radio and film that cranks out sensational junk/product to mass demographics – the new online commons are soaring because they tend to be more efficient, versatile, responsive and socially authentic as modes of communications. They’re out-competing the market!

Yesterday, I looked at the explosion of wikis. But consider how podcasting is enabling the same sorts of cultural and economic emancipation for commoners. Anjali Athavaley’s article in The Washington Post, “ Mainstream Media Is Tuning in to ‘Podcasting’” (July 18, 2005), explains how the corporate media are stampeding to embrace podcasting. Podcasting is a grassroots-developed genre that uses the self-publishing of blogs and syndication feeds to let people “broadcast” music and talk by posting them on Internet servers, which subscribers can then download for free on to their Apple iPods. iPod users can then listen to a podcast playlist or interview or newscast any time they want.

Podcasting has been a largely underground mode of self-broadcasting for a year or more, but now that audiences are getting bigger (as iPods become ubiquitous), the corporate media is taking a keen interest. ABC and NBC (and MSNBC and CNBC) already offer podcasts of their newscasts, and NPR, Infinity Broadcasting and Clear Channel make many of their radio programs available via podcasts.

The commercialization of podcasting got a big boost last month when Apple incorporated podcasts into its iTunes online music store. By making it easier to find and download podcasts, iTunes has given the homegrown feeds a much larger audience – while also attracting corporate media looking to capture the fickle, fugitive ears of today’s young people. Within two days of its launch, the podcasts on iTunes had garnered more than a million subscriptions.

Already, podcasting pioneers are bemoaning the arrival of Disney and CNN. There goes the neighborhood! On the other hand, just as blogs are changing the network news, so podcasting is likely to force the corporate media to adapt. Will the old-school corporate styles of news and programming become more populist and interactive? This is going to be an interesting thing to watch.

It was perhaps inevitable that the successor to blogging and podcasting is already on the horizon – video-blogging. (Thanks to J.D. Lasica for this tidbit.) Now that video and film are becoming democratized (just look at the citizen-journalists who used their cellphones to video the London bombings!), it’s inevitable that we begin to see experiments that combine bottom-up with top-down media.

Case in point: The Travel Channel is producing a new series, 5 Takes Europe, in which five young filmmakers are let loose in Europe for two months with a Sony Z1 high-definition camera, a laptop computer with Apple’s Final Cut Pro and a budget of $50 a day. Reality TV meets blogging! 5 Takes Europe may end up combining the worst of two media, but the idea behind it – interactive, participatory media with the power of mass audiences and global reach – is immensely appealing. As producer Michael Rosenblum explains:

Television is a medium that has been traditionally closed to all but a select elite, and as a result, what we see on television, and increasingly on the Internet, is for the most part banal, insipid and uninspired. It is the natural end of turning over our primary means of communication to a handful of people, no matter how well intentioned.

With a more public-spirited attitude, the venerable BBC has been making its own adaptations to the online innovations. As Wendy Seltzer reports on Copyfight, the BBC offered the British people public-domain versions of all nine of Beethoven symphonies, with commentary, for free download. Dubbed The Beethoven Experience, the month-long project resulted in more than a million downloads.

British record labels were incensed at the Beeb. They argued that The Beethoven Experience was a form of unfair competition (ah, so that’s why the commons must be enclosed!) – and that people would begin to regard recorded classical music as less valuable. Wendy Seltzer has a nice rebuttal:

You’d think that arts leaders struggling to expand their market to younger generations would welcome evidence that downloaders want to give classical a try. Any classical aficionado knows that one performance of Beethoven’s Ninth isn’t a direct substitute for another, just as baseball fans don’t stop watching just because they’ve now seen the Red Sox win the Series. Instead, hearing and appreciating an initial performance is the first step toward wanting to hear the other greats, in concert or on CD. Those pop fans who realize Gianandrea Noseda’s Pastorale fits on their iPods may well be moved to try more.

Here’s one conclusion that I draw from the developments above: As we are able to capture more of our socially created value through commons (blogs, wikis, webcasts, open source, etc.), we are forcing the mass media to re-tool its business models in order to compete with the strange new forms of non-market value-creation. Can they do it? In what sorts of “value-added” service will they excel?

Whatever the eventual answer, the balance of power between commons and markets is suddenly, for the moment, open for re-negotiation! The market can no longer capture and control so much of our creative and cultural lives. We must make the most of this opportunity, not just in establishing new online commons that are more responsive to us (and, usually, free!), but in validating the general power and theory of the commons.