A Media Of One’s Own: The Future of Criticism, in Retrospect
by Robert Barry
He was referring, of course, to the Internet. Or, more specifically, to the particular paradigm of Internet culture that has been gathered under the questionable rubric of Web 2.0. Since the coining of the truncated neologisms ‘blog’, ‘blogger’, and ‘blogging’ at the very end of the 1990s, the net has become host to an expanding number of sites whose aim is less to provide static pages for users to consume, and more to allow those users to actively intervene in adding music, video, opinion, and information of their own. All of a sudden, the web started to seem less like a settled text and more like a flexible, indeterminate ‘open work’ in which everyone was invited to have their say.
In their opening address to the first Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko in October 2004, publishers John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly introduced the notion of ‘the web as platform,’ referring to the dramatic growth in blogs hosted online and ‘adult Internet users who have contributed content to the Internet.’ These developments, they claimed, collectively provided the foundations of an ‘architecture of participation.’ Amazon, Napster, and eBay were all based on systems that relied on the input of ordinary users in order to take shape.
Thurston Moore is far from alone in seeing such structures as a new kind of media possessed by the people. When Time magazine nominated ‘you’ as their ‘Person of the Year’ two years after Battelle and O’Reilly addressed the Nikko Ballroom, the cover story cited ‘the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace’ by way of justification. Time used its annual selection of an influential figure to fete the ordinary folks at home (like you!) for ‘seizing the reins of the global media.’ We were in charge now—or so the story went.
For Jeff Jarvis, Web 2.0 has been a source of consumer empowerment. In 2005, the American journalist bought a new computer. Pretty soon it ran into problems. Dissatisfied with the customer service he was experiencing, Jarvis took to his blog, Buzzmachine, and wrote a post with the title ‘Dell Sucks, Dell Lies’. The title, he later insisted, was ‘not quite as juvenile as it sounds.’ Searching for any brand name followed by the word ‘sucks’, Jarvis claimed, would invariably throw up what he called ‘the Consumer Reports of the people.’
His blog post soon gathered steam. Before long, several thousand people had linked to it, commented on it, and added their stories, spreading it along to thousands more like them. Eventually, it even came to the attention of Dell themselves. The company finally relented and stumped up for a refund. By this point, Jarvis was evidently coming to see himself rather like some 18th-century pamphleteer, a man with his ‘own printing press,’ as he declared in an article for The Guardian. In a later essay he went further. ‘Today,’ he wrote, ‘everyone has a press.’ But to what extent is Jarvis’s ‘press’ really his own?
Like many people of my generation, I used to have a MySpace page. You could do quite a lot with a MySpace page circa 2003. The early social networking site allowed you to add songs and videos to the page that bore your name. You could even customise it with HTML tags, changing its colour and moving the page elements around. You could really make it your own. I remember thinking of it, rather proprietorially, as ‘my’ page.
But then in July 2005, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation bought MySpace for $580 million. Keen to make good on their investment, the new Murdoch-owned MySpace crammed its pages with more and more ads. I remember noticing that I wasn’t getting a cut from the revenue accrued by the ads on ‘my’ page. Due to the facility of customising them, MySpace pages had always been somewhat colourful. Increasingly overburdened with ads, they began to look decidedly cluttered. Pages would take ages to load up. It got buggy. And then Facebook turned up, looking all smooth and smart. In April 2008, Facebook overtook MySpace in popularity, plunging the latter into an irreversible decline. In 2011, the older site was formally put to bed. ‘My’ page disappeared from the net with all the others. Turned out it had never really been mine to begin with.
In the years since then very little has changed, as Instagram users discovered in 2012 when that service was acquired by Facebook and they were promptly issued with new terms and conditions seemingly giving the company the right to exploit all their images without limit. Outside the walled gardens of social media, the situation is ultimately little different, albeit more complex. The lines of ownership and control are more obscure.
In the early days of the web, it was quite common for people to host their own websites on the hard drive of a domestic desktop. Today, for reasons of speed of loading, ease of access, or simply the impalpable allure of the cloud, it is more likely that the elements that comprise, say, Jeff Jarvis’s Buzzmachine blog will find their material existence distributed across multiple servers in anonymous-looking data centers in Las Vegas, Langfang, and Bluffdale, Utah. None of which are really owned by Jarvis himself – not in the way that a radio station might own its studio, transmission lines, and antenna.
Even the digital door keys that link the memorable phrase ‘buzz-machine’ to a string of numbers in machine code that tell your computer how to find the page in question are no more than leased by Jarvis from a third party domain name registrar. In the event of their sudden bankruptcy, the blog would be lost, even to Jarvis himself. So to say that he has his own press – that we all now have our printing presses – is pushing it, to say the least.
To speak of having a press, of having a media of one’s own, suggests infrastructure. But the question of infrastructure is curiously absent from panegyrics to the liberating force of the net. Jeff Jarvis doesn’t mention million dollar undersea cables, as thick as a Coke can and a hundred thousand miles long, coated with galvanised shielding wire. When Time nominated you person of the year, they neglected to touch upon space frame warehouses of a million square feet, stuffed to the gills with servers that eat daily the same energy as a small town.
By their own estimates, Google is one of the world’s biggest hardware manufacturers. But none of the computers they build is for sale. They are made to stock the company’s many data centres in Finland, Chile, Belgium, and Taiwan. Just one of their facilities in Wasco County, Oregon, can boast forty-five shipping containers with over a thousand servers each.
All of which seems commonly to evanesce into metaphors of clouds, streams, and cosmic nebulae. Look a little closer at the promise of our media and it quickly dissipates into the fiction of no media at all. Just a few months before I met Thurston Moore I had been struck by a line in a keynote speech from his contemporary on the American alternative rock scene, Steve Albini. Addressing a music industry conference in Melbourne, the famously prickly producer of Nirvana and the Pixies praised the Internet for allowing audiences to ‘develop direct relationships’ with artists. Time’s cover story, likewise, spoke of new forms of communication ‘citizen to citizen, person to person’ as if there were nothing between the two. For Jeff Jarvis, Google is a ‘post-media company’, a phrase that suggests the distortions of twentieth-century communications technologies have all been overcome, that all intermediaries are now redundant (or will be soon).
This coinage is not quite original to Jarvis. In the late 80s, the French philosopher-psychotherapist Félix Guattari was already trumping up the transition from ‘the mass-media era to a post-media age, in which the media will be reappropriated by a multitude of subject-groups capable of directing its resingularization.’ But Guattari had never even heard of the Internet. He would be dead before the release of the first popular web browser. When he spoke of ‘post-media’ he had been stirred, mostly, by a technology called Minitel, a simple French videotex service that allowed passengers at rail stations to buy concert tickets and check stock prices from public terminals. Its most common use was as a screen-based telephone directory.
But if Guattari’s fervour for a system whose revolutionary inter-activity scarcely exceeded that of a game of Pong seems surprising, listen to the voices of today’s dot com enthusiasts. ‘We don’t need the gatekeepers anymore,’ said Courtney Love, another voice from the alternative rock scene, to a conference in New York in the spring of 2000. I’ve been quoting a lot of music industry figures in this essay because, thanks to the development of file-sharing sites like Napster and the convenience and compactness of the mp3 format, a lot of the changes that the Internet is bringing about in other fields happened first – and hit hardest – in music. When Love talks about gatekeepers, she’s talking quite specifically about record labels, artist managers, concert promoters, and radio producers. But increasingly this quasi-mythical figure of the ‘gatekeeper’ has entered the discourse of the publishing trade. ‘Today, you can bypass the gatekeepers,’ claimed Andy Weir, the author whose self-published novel The Martian became a Hollywood film starring Matt Damon, in a podcast interview with author and hedge fund manager James Altucher.
Like the god Telipinu, the mediatic gatekeeper is a figure evoked only to announce its disappearance. Unlike the Hittite farmer deity, though, this gatekeeper’s disappearance apparently brings only abundance. Our communications are now ‘direct’, unfiltered, untrammelled. Our artists produce and connect with their audiences without restraint or intercession. Like the ‘ether’ of Victorian spiritualists, the net promises a fantasy of perfect communion, a medium that does not mediate.
But what of the Internet service providers, web hosting providers, domain name registrars, search engines and search engine optimisation companies, recommendation algorithms, ad servers, content discovery platforms, online identity managers, and social networks? Upon closer analysis, the web quickly turns out to have produced an overwhelming profusion of new kinds of gatekeepers. These new intermediaries appear perfectly inert and transparent – until you try posting a nipple on Facebook or searching for free mp3s on a Virgin Media connection. The immediacy of new media may be their greatest ideological trick.
Despite this, the web has undoubtedly produced a certain feeling of empowerment for many of its users, the tangible effects of which should not be dismissed lightly. Think of Jeff Jarvis and his ‘Consumer Reports of the people.’ Here, perhaps, is criticism in its rawest form. The capacity to say, this sucks, and have others pay heed. ‘On the Internet,’ the New York Times recently declared, ‘everyone is a critic.’
In 1997, James Berardinelli – the subject of an L.A. Times’ article entitled ‘In Online World, Everyone Can Be A Critic’ – had to actively choose to start his ReelViews film review website. Today, we can scarcely get in a cab, buy a toaster, or use a public convenience without having our opinion of the experience demanded of us by some web-enabled device or other. This development was already somewhat anticipated by the critic Armond White’s 1989 suggestion that ‘in the future, everyone will be film critics’ – a statement almost perfectly reproduced (while given new resonance in the social media age) in a post on Twitter by another critic, Ryan McGee, on the ninth of July, 2015. ‘In the future,’ he wrote, ‘everyone will be an online TV/ film critic for fifteen minutes each night after their actual bill-paying job.’ If this is beginning to sound like a Philip K. Dick novel, surely one of the oddest things about McGee’s tweet is that he continues to project into the future what, as a Twitter user, he must already be witnessing on a nightly basis.
I shan’t, for the time being at least, be wringing my professional critic’s hands over what this means for the sanctity and security of my job. I merely question to what extent this is a phenomenon strictly limited to the present. Thurston Moore had already spoken of the attempts to establish samizdat forms of media in the punk era of late 70s New York. Arriving in the city in 1976, Moore would have encountered a blossoming profusion of unofficial communication channels in the form of flyers, posters, and fanzines, cheaply photocopied, wallpapering the downtown streets or handed out at gigs. Xerography, that seemingly most bureaucratic of inventions, became what Kate Eichhorn has called ‘the Trojan horse of the punk movement.’
As Eichhorn argues in her recent book Adjusted Margin, photocopying provided the perfect technology for left field artists and activists in the 70s and 80s due to the easy availability of low-cost copy shops, the perfect anonymity of such institutions, and the lack of any trace or master copy left by the reproduction process in the machine itself. In contradistinction to the net (after the revelations of Edward Snowden), nobody at the copy shop knows you are a dog. At least, no post-facto metadata analysis could prove it. Photocopying was cheap, fast, and—for a while—close to ubiquitous. By the time Courtney Love formed her band, Hole, in 1989, there was a remarkably resilient network of ’zine producers around the world, exchanging their wares by mail, at gigs, and through independent record stores.
Though you might search for antecedents in the amateur press associations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (of which a young H.P. Lovecraft was a member), the origins of the fanzine movement inherited by punk lie in the cloistered world of science fiction fandom. The very term ‘science fiction’ was invented by a Luxembourgian expat in New York named Hugo Gernsback. An inventor and entrepreneur by trade, he arrived at the publishing industry from a background selling radio parts to hobbyists. His first magazines were little more than catalogs that only gradually introduced more and more editorial content.
With his Amazing Stories, from April 1926, he produced the very first regular journal devoted to the field he first dubbed ‘scientifiction’. Evidently quite unprepared for the flood of enthusiasm for his new publication, Gernsback soon found himself inundated with appreciative letters from his readers. From January 1927, he began to publish these letters in a new ‘Discussions’ column in the magazine itself, playing host to sometimes lengthy debates on the merits and scientific plausibility of the stories he printed. From the beginning of the following year, he began to print not just the letter with the correspondent’s name and home town, but also their actual home address. This may seem like a small step, but its effect was profound. It allowed the readers to correspond with each other by mail, independent of Gernsback’s editorial eye.
Almost immediately, the first scientifiction fanclubs started emerging, actively encouraged by Gernsback himself in the pages of his magazine. As Aubrey MacDermott, founder of one of the earliest such groups, recalled in a letter to fanzine writer Andy Porter in 1990, upon picking up the new Amazing Stories in the spring of 1928, he discovered ‘Gernsback had something new. He printed names and addresses of correspondents. I had for years been writing to authors and now I could write to fans. When I returned to East Oakland in April 1928, the first thing I did was to contact fans, Clifton Amsbury in Berkeley, Louis Smith in East Oakland, and Lester Anderson in Hayward. That was the start of our fan club.’
Another prominent early group was known as the Science Correspondents Club. It was this group that in 1930 began producing The Comet, probably the first science fiction fanzine. Even though the hand-drawn, mimeographed pages of The Comet were filled mostly with articles about science and extended debate about the stories in Amazing Stories that couldn’t be contained in ‘Discussions’, it would nonetheless produce many imitators with far more varied contents. In his memoirs, the prominent science fiction author Frederick Pohl recalls his own youthful days as a reader/writer of fanzines (in practice the distinction tended to be fragile): ‘The best article I have ever read on hand-to-hand combat in space was written by Harry Harrison and published in the fanzine Amra. All that I know about mescaline comes from a fanzine article by Bill Donaho. Damon Knight made his original reputation as a science-fiction critic by a surgical dissection of the quivering flesh of A.E. van Vogt, in a fanzine article when van Vogt was at the height of his popularity.’
At times, Pohl admits, the content of the zines he edited and collected was ‘not very good at all.’ But at their best (and sometimes at their worst), the fanzines produced a form of literature that is hard to imagine developing in their absence. The zines Pohl worked on published clubhouse news, fiction reviews, ‘gossip’, letters, stories, and poems. ‘Sometimes,’ he notes, ‘they were a kind of writing for which professional markets did not seem to exist.’ The Harry Harrison piece mentioned above sounds almost like an entirely new genre of speculative criticism, in which the generic tropes of fact and fiction freely intermingle.
There was a radical openness to fanzine production that was clearly the source both of the genre’s triumphs and its embarrassments, ‘because,’ Pohl explains, ‘there are no standards of excellence that fanzines must meet. Not any. All it takes to publish a fanzine is the will to make it happen, and maybe access to somebody else’s mimeograph machine, and in a pinch you can get by without the latter.’ For perhaps the first time, anyone could be a critic. Amongst stories of space exploration and utopian tomorrows, the future of criticism found its origin in a rush of futurist speculation.
There was nothing transparent about mimeograph and xerography as media. Many zines did little else but talk about zine production. Meta-zines like Factsheet 5 reported on other zines. Few accounts of the fanzine history pass without some mention of smudged fingers and low-resolution imagery. The production process was evident all over every product. The peculiar grain of photocopied pages became the object of artistic practice. Ian Burn, for instance, in 1968, produced his Xerox Book by placing a blank sheet of paper under the hood of a Xerox 720 machine and pressing ‘copy’. As the xerographic reproduction issued from the machine’s rollers and into the out tray, he replaced the original white sheet under the lid with the copy he made. Again he pressed copy, and again, going on to repeat this process until he was left with a volume of 100 pages showing a gradually deteriorating clear surface, steadily being overcome by the artefacts of the reproduction process until the last few pages were completely black. The distinction between production and reproduction collapsed in a flash of light and a whir of inked rollers.
Was this a media of our own? Not really. Kinko’s still owned the means of production. But access – if not quite convenience – was about as open as it is online. What finally separates the everyman critics of the ink-stained era from the bloggers of the twenty-first century is finally a question of context. On the Internet, that context is almost inevitably one framed and supported by advertising. Social media – and in this respect that includes Google – offer their users free services in exchange for data which is harvested and processed in order to sell those audiences to advertisers. The kind of behaviours encouraged by such a system would tend to be those which reinforce the user’s status as shopper. Search ‘reviews’ on Google and the first thing that comes up is TripAdvisor.
For now, criticism as a compulsory activity carried out by all people equally is inextricable from the circuits of consumption and exchange. Online, everyone is a critic – but only insofar as everyone is also a consumer.
This essay is extracted from The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, edited by Houman Barekat, Robert Barry and David Winters, which is out now and can be purchased via the OR Books website here.