Gillnets for the internet

An interesting story today in the New York Times “What’s On Your Playlist.” It notes that the iTunes Music Store is now selling celebrity playlists. Selling, mind you.

This is interesting, because it suggests a solution to one of the great problems created by the Internet: too many content creators and not enough mediation. Even when a “power law” helps organize this community, it is almost impossible for any of us fully to canvass all the things going on out there. Even if it were static, this would be true. But of course it is anything but static. New music, new art, new blogs, new everything arrives daily.

This is especially true for music. There are now so many producers working in so many genres that it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on. Clearly, this is a special problem for an anthropologist who has chosen contemporary culture as his “beat,” but it is, I think, a problem for us all. We all wish to remain in touch with what is going on in our culture. (There are indications that some of us are tempted by the possibility of secession from this culture. See Virginia Postrel’s comments yesterday about like minded people chosing to live together as one possible indication of a larger movement of this kind.)

The way the market typically solves this problem is by incenting some people to act as mediators. (This is the new dynamic model. The old one was to have an elite appoint guardians of taste, and this was one of the first casualities of the Internet and contemporary culture.) These mediators audition all the novelty taking place “out there” and they recommend some of it to the rest of us. They act, in sum, like magazine editors or DJs drawing up playlists. They serve as our early listening devices.

Clearly, magazine editors and DJs continue to play this role. But there is way too much invention out there for them to serve as authoritative or even modestly exhaustive mediators. The new system is so voluminous that it will take a hierarchy of mediators, dividing the labor, some of them out there on the bleeding edge of contemporary culture with an array back to those of us who live in the middle. (This is not a new elite. Consumers will vote on who they find useful and who they do not.)

The trouble so far has been that there is been no way of monetizing the process. Some of these editors can do their work part time, but this community will not create real value until people are able to work full time. And this can’t happen until they find some way to recover some part of the value their efforts have created in and for the world.

So back to the New York Times piece. It suggests that iTunes will sell celebrity play lists and this says that we know have a business model. We will surrender value to capture value. (And this breaks with the internet model that says everyone gives away everything–a model I was personally fond of, but not fully persuaded by. More on this in a later post.)

Now, who should do this? Certainly, not celebrities. They have already been hired in this editorial capacity by the big labels–as when Fred Durst and Madonna are given their own labels. And, generally, they are good readers of the dynamism of contemporary culture–and could not be “stars” without this ability.

But what we want is an array of editors that stand between all that invention out there and the thicker parts of the market place. And we want to fill this array with people who can get paid without having to be celebrities. Who will build it? When does the market place supply this “emergent” response to a compelling consumer, cultural need?

One thought on “Gillnets for the internet

  1. steve

    Virginia gave a talk a number of years ago about the coming “age of the editor”. Her basic argument was similar to yours–given a flood of information sources, people will pay for editing and selection. I think this insight extends to the role of retailers as merchandisers, who can edit the exploding product proliferation of the marketplace and put forth meaningful selections of items. Certainly the catalog business has functioned this way since the 1970s.

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