Entertainment Weekly recently gave us the "100 greatest characters of the last 20 years." The list includes Buffy, Jack Sparrow, Rachel from Friends, Harry Potter, John Locke, Miranda Priestly, and Ron Burgundy.
In his latest book, Clay Shirky suggests that we now have around 1 trillion hours of creative surplus at our disposal. We use this time variously, offering Lolcats and, yes, blog posts.
Will Shirky’s surplus ever create a character that will appear on the Entertainment Weekly list? Will we ever create our own Homer?
I am not being argumentative. This is an open question. The answer could be "soon" or it could be "never," and I’ll be happy. However we answer this question, we will have improved our anthropological understanding of contemporary culture.
There is a general presumption, I think, that we are sitting on a gusher. Shirky’s surplus is so vast, so inexorable that the creation of an EW "100 winner" can’t be far off. And it’s not that we are talking about the proverbial 100 monkeys. It won’t happen by evolutionary accident. It will happen because our use of the Shirky surplus gets better and better. This argument says "soon."
Some will say our surplus is already in evidence on the EW list. They will say that these creatures are the result of user participation, consumer cocreation, the agency and activity of fans, transmedia assembly, textual poaching, and a liberal borrowing from the cultural commons. Homer Simpson is all about borrowing and, like any bard, his standing depends finally on our consent. This argument says "already."
But there is an argument that says "never." The red neck version of the argument rehearses the idea that popular culture is a waste land. Thus speak Keen and Bauerlein. But there’s a more sophisticated approach that says the creativity of the internet is a derivative creativity, that mashup culture must begin with something first to mash. Our culture may be in the direction of the consumer-producer but it will always depend on the producer-producer as a kind of "first mover."
Let’s push things a little further. (And again I do this for the sake of argument only. Living at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics, I can be ecumenical on a question like this.) What if the people who make Homers and Buffys must be funded by something other than the "creative surplus." Must there be an enterprise that engages people to invest financial and creative capitals in a (relatively) expensive and therefore risky productions which then compete in some cultural marketplace.
By this reckoning, the EW 100 list will not exist without the intervention of commerce (of some pretty literal kind that goes well beyond the gift economies of the cultural commons.)
I’m just asking.
This would make a dandy topic for a Futures of Entertainment session, with Shirky, Henry Jenkins, Larry Lessig, David Weinberger, Dan Snierson, Jeff Jensen, and several other thinkers. With Sam Ford moderating, of course.
Anonymous. n.d. "Lolcats" entry on Wikipedia here.
Bauerlein, Mark. 2009. The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future. Tarcher.
Carey, John. 1992. The Intellectuals and the masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Faber and Faber. (For an argument that anticipates and, I believe, dispatches the kind of argument made by Bauerlein and Keen)
Jenkins, Henry.2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Media Consumers in a Digital Age. NYU.
Jenkins, Henry. 2008. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU
Keen, Andrew. 2008. The Culture of the Amateur: how blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values. Broadway Business.
Shirky, Clay. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Press.
Snierson, Dan, Jeff Jensen, and many others. 2010. The 100 Greatest Characters of the last 20 years. Entertainment Weekly. Double Issue. No. 1105 and 1106. June 4 and June 11. here.
Thanks to Gareth Kay for telling me about Shirky’s new book.