A revolution without substance is not a revolution at all…

February 7, 2007 — 3 Comments

There is this story that Herodotus tells in The Histories about a war between Sparta and Tegea. In it, the Spartans were “so confident of reducing the men of Tegea to slavery” that they literally brought chains with them. But they lost, and ironically the prisoners were “forced to wear on their own legs the chains they had brought.”

Broadly, I think this applies to where we are now, as self-recruited members in the “Army of Davids” that Glenn Reynolds coined. We, like Alexander the Great, can “smell the end of an empire.” The blood is in the water, and the blogs are sharks circling. We talk about the ‘new media’ and how it’s going to change the world. We talk about wresting control from the titans and putting in the hands of the common man. Every news story is another ring of the death knell, and we all ‘know’ it’s only a matter of time before the balance tips–and the bower balance is permanently altered.

I’m not sure if history bears us out on this one. Tucker and I used WWII as an analogy to put this revolution in perspective. Napster, torrents, filesharing–Blitzkrieg. The music industry was Poland. It fell in days. The lawsuits–Polish Lancers charging tanks on horseback. A battle over before it even started. And so now the troops are looking towards video, towards France and ultimately Britain. This brings us to our current grandiose dreams of world domination and big money, where the user supposedly controls content.

But I think we think we need to heed the failures of the Spartans–even our own past failures. Look at the music industry now. We like to act like we accomplished something, telling ourselves that we crashed the gates and won our freedom, but did we really?

We rebelled against overpriced but tangible CDs only to replace them with restrictive, unrecoverable digital files. We walked in like the Spartans, with the chains over our shoulders, only to walk out with iTunes DRM clasped around our ankles. We told them that we were tired of records with just a few good songs only to turn around and make “Hollaback Girl” the first platinum download in history. We were angry that the industry was controlled by so few, and yet we allowed Apple to ride the trend wave all the way to a monopoly.

Cuban found these similarities on what I call the next front of the internet revolution. Youtube–the place where the user creates the content–has been invaded by movie trailers, TV show rips, and compilations. Again, what was supposed to be us enslaving ‘them’ turned out to be the reverse. We were supposed to revolutionize yet another medium, this time TV, and yet we’re falling into the same traps as last time.

There are two explanations: 1) Amateur Content is not the answer. 2) We’re essentially fighting to replace one tyrant with another.

Either the internet users radically improve the content they ‘submit’ or the establishment will simply make the proverbial switch from trains to airplanes. How many remakes of music videos do we really need? What does that even imply other than the idea that Youtube is nothing without professional quality work as a backbone?

It seems like we’ve committed ourselves to this course of action without much forethought other than a pipedream of a goal. The internet took on video like the Spartans hoped to capture slaves–and thought that was enough. It’s not, nor will it ever be. When a power falls it creates a vacuum and unless a newcomer immediately ascends to the throne, everyone in the establishment just moves up one place in line.

And I think ultimately, the poor state of say television or movies, ought to stand as a challenge to all the artists out there, toiling in obscurity. You really couldn’t conceive of a sketch better than SNL for half the budget? SNL videos have been blowing up the internet lately not because of any inherent hilarity, but more because a lack of quality competition.

So I see two possible solutions, both of which go hand in hand. We need to improve what we create and what we watch. And we need to realize that this revolution isn’t going to happen on its own. It has to be a coordinated effort. There needs to be a cohesive strategy. The Long Tail theory implies an overall improvement in taste–but we’re not seeing that. I would argue–and I don’t think that many would disagree–that the quality of internet video is vastly inferior than anything the mainstream media is putting out. And resources while important, cannot explain how consistently awful the majority of YouTube content is. Videos go viral precisely because they’re exceptions–exceptions in this case, that prove the Sturgeon’s Rule.

I’ll wrap this up before I get dreadfully lost in endless tangents. We’ve made a lot of progress on the tech side, and almost none on the content side. We think we’re about to enslave Hollywood just as we did the music industry, but that won’t happen unless we first make the conscious decision to raise our consciousness. Quality has to be the number one concern, not traffic, not Diggs, not comments. And if you’re not a content creator, you still have an important job: STOP PATRONIZING CRAPPY VIDOES. Both the artists and the consumers will be crucial in this change–a change that we desperately need.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

3 responses to A revolution without substance is not a revolution at all…

  1. I think this problem with quality stems from the general distribution curve of intelligence and talent more than anything. Any idiot can create a music video of clips of their favorite show. It isn’t very difficult to create media anymore of any type. We expect too much of the common man at this point. Their poor education stultifies their learning curve. The only way to create better content is through a better educated society.

    It seems that many presume that the content will just arise because this huge avenue to the world is now open to us. Hardly true, since most people still have neither the drive, nor the confidence, nor the intelligence to contribute anything of merit. What we DO gain is a larger distribution of people to pick from, i.e. almost everyone, and slowly we can funnel our way through the morass to pick out what is good and worth watching, and what is not.

    Eventually, smart people will begin to pick up what the Internet is really useful for, i.e. an active interface, being able to see the two-way portals. However, for more than twenty-thirty years our main home content providers (the TV, the newspaper, the radio) has led many of us to a more passive form of thinking, to kneejerk react to talking heads, laughtracks, talk shows. I think it’ll be awhile before many smart people wrap their heads around the idea of active, two-way interaction, since the Internet is still primarily used for passive things outside of email (checking sports scores, rapid news updates).

    YouTube is barely a year old, the blogosphere isn’t even at a decade yet, and the things that are coming out of them are still fairly more remarkable and innovative than most things on TV. But I wouldn’t expect a dramatic upsurge in content for quite a bit until we get students to creatively think again, which hopefully won’t be too long. For now, everyone has something to say; few people have something worth listening to.

  2. “STOP PATRONIZING CRAPPY VIDOES.”

    How crappy can they be if people like them? People vote with their mouse. I hate the notion that people don’t know what they like, it is ridiculously elitist, and not in a good way. It is not the job of the consumer to only consume “good” videos; it their job to consume the things they enjoy. Who is to say what is good and what isn’t? You can argue that there are certain objective criteria that makes something good, but ultimately, what matters is whether or not an audience likes it. In economics, price is determined by scarcity, not need, hence the diamonds/water paradox. The same is true with art.

  3. “There are two explanations: 1) Amateur Content is not the answer. 2) We’re essentially fighting to replace one tyrant with another.”

    I just plain don’t like 1). And 2) is something that can be seen throughout history. Hitler, Stalin, Castro, Mao, any number of South American countries…they all become what they hate. When Tucker launched his idea for Rudius, it was essentially “Come to Tucker, who does the same basic thing as TV/movies/books (promote artists he thinks are good), but won’t compromise your message.” The only thing the Rudius writer can rely on is that Tucker won’t become what he’s fighting, that he won’t ignore quality content because he stupidly thinks it won’t sell.

    The problem with YouTube is that it takes work to get the video for a Motley Crue song, rather than getting a video of two fat girls singing a karaoke version of a Motley Crue song. What YouTube needs is something like Digg has, where videos are streamlined according to popularity and according to category. I use YouTube only for music, sometimes for UFC vids that get deleted, and for standup/sketch comedy (SNL/Chappelle, etc.) I don’t want to see an Adidas ad or a soccer fight. If someone does, they can click on the “sports” section, whereas I can bypass that and go straight to the “classic rock” section.

    All media has a laundry list of shit that exists below what’s good; and, historically, what always always happens is the shit (that may be extremely popular in its day) drops off the radar. People won’t remember “Hollaback Girl” in 50 years, but they will remember [insert great song here] on the condition that someone creates it. They won’t remember [insert shitty blog here] but they will remember Philalawyer.

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