When the masses are empowered with the ability to create and broadcast
their own home-brewed content, is that really a good thing? What happens
when “pro” media tools fall into hands of the masses? How does that
affect those of us who are supposedly trained “professionals” and have
dedicated our careers to producing legitimate entertainment and
As a designer and Internet veteran, these are the questions that keep me
up at night. Lets face it folks, I know deep down you agree with me.
With the proliferation of intuitive, content-making applications and the
ability to self-publish, an abundance of “reality media” is flooding
the web and growing with each passing month. Most of it demonstrates the
potential danger of desktop media tools in the hands of the “untrained”
So where did this all start? As legend has it, the seed was planted in
1984 when Mr. John Warnock of Adobe whispered the word “postscript”
into the ear of a certain big shot at Apple computer. Soon after,
Warnock’s invention was powering Apple’s new LaserWriter printers, which
allowed them to do the unthinkable: they could print out crisp,
razor-sharp graphics without the tell-tale computer “jaggies” all the
other systems produced.
This lead to the introduction of Aldus PageMaker, a groundbreaking Mac
application that allowed the Average Joe to create reams of poorly
designed (but exquisitely printed) newsletters, flyers and embarrassing
print collateral that used to be produced by legitimate design studios.
The one mitigating factor is that when desktop publishing became common,
the whole typesetting industry was almost immediately put out of
business. And to that I say, “Good riddance!” If you’re an old timer
like me, you’ll remember the tedium of hand-spec’ing type and the
insanely high rip-off fees these typesetting shysters used to charge.
Shame on them.
As the newfangled “desktop publishing” helped professionals cut costs,
it also empowered amateurs to create design efforts that violated every
rule of aesthetics we learned in art school. And so, some twenty years
later the same dilemma prevails today. Only this time the danger of the
desktop isn’t limited to bad print design published on a black and white
laser printer. Good God, no. My friends, it’s permeated every nook and
cranny of the global media landscape. Dare I suggest it; in every niche
imaginable these amateur efforts have either influenced or neutered the
work of the pros. And there’s no end in sight. Let’s look at the
The invention of the blog empowered anyone, and I mean anyone, with a
computer and a web connection to become an instantly published pundit.
After reading a few, you’ll realize these “web logs” are often nothing
more than stream of consciousness rants with little value to the masses.
In fact, I suspect most blogs are visited more by their author than the
web surfing public. There have been some notable efforts that not only
broke free of their homemade roots, but actually influenced the agendas
of mainstream news media and the minds of the general public. Whether it
is Swift Boat Veterans trumpeting John Kerry’s phony claims of heroism,
exposing Dan Rather’s faked Bush documents or the biased blather of the
insufferable former talk show host Rosie O’Donnell, blogs have made an
indelible mark on the way modern news events are perceived.
Blogging has allowed the public to not only voice their feelings, but
also to hear other unconventional opinions as well. In the past, such
reporting and exchanging of “news” was exclusively in the hands of the
monopolistic major networks. Now anyone can report on an issue with
almost the same “credibility” as the big broadcast news. Just look at
Matt Drudge (God bless him) and his popular Drudge Report website. It’s a
rinky-dink operation run by one man, yet it has broken stories on par
with the big boys. After Drudge scooped the Monica Lewinsky fiasco, his
humble operation became required reading by the media elite within the
It’s common knowledge that peer-to-peer apps have essentially killed the
music business as we used to know it. Within the course of just a few
short years, file sharing changed the dynamics of music commerce, as
well as the notion of professional “product” for sale. In addition, with
the advent of the iPod and the technique of podcasting, amateur
recordings and homemade radio content are blogs for the ears. Who can
say where this will lead us? One thing is for sure: Our relationship
with audio entertainment has forever changed. The trend that has emerged
is based on user control and instant gratification—a concept that has
often been in opposition to music industry business models and profit
I think it’s safe to categorize viral “reality video” into two distinct flavors: the first features subjects who are intentionally recorded; the second, those who are unintentionally
recorded. Or, more precisely, there are amateur filmmakers who intended
for the results to be released online, and those who most definitely
did not. The best example of a video that was never meant to be seen is
the famous “Star Wars kid” footage—a tragic home movie of an overly
enthusiastic fan spastically prancing about with a stick, pretending to
be a Jedi knight. The clip leaked onto the web without the kid’s
consent, and the rest is history. Before long, the video was embraced by
thousands of heartless bastards who used the power of desktop video
production to create deeper embarrassment. The countless spoofs,
re-mixes and themed edits they created were even more entertaining than
the original. Maybe this phenomenon of user-involvement and community
content creation is the future of storytelling? But regrettably, it
doesn’t stop there. As profiled in a recent New York Times
story, the notorious “Numa Numa” clip exemplifies renegade desktop video
content. In this example, an overweight, big-mouthed nineteen-year-old
amateur videographer named Gary Brolsma, captured himself lip-synching
to an obscure Romanian pop song. This, my friends, proves my premise
more than anything else. If you haven’t seen the “Numa Numa” video,
please take a look. No one can watch this clip and not agree with me.
Some people just shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near an iChat camera.
As a designer, I’m open-minded enough to acknowledge the value of free
expression, and I endorse the notion of unfiltered access to the masses.
But at some point the design community has to put it’s collective foot
down and take a stand. Enough of all this “power-to-the-people”
bullshit. Frankly, in some cases, giving the masses the power to publish
their unpolished content is a little like giving a cranky toddler a
loaded 10 mm Glock. Sooner or later, someone’s bound to get hurt.
On the other hand, maybe I’m being a little harsh. Most innovation is
conceived on the streets, and currently pop culture’s brightest artistic
breakthroughs have been born on the desktop. If it weren’t for powerful
desktop audio-editing tools, DJ Danger Mouse never would have given us
his brilliant “Grey Album” and its accompanying music video that blends
Jay Z’s music with a breakdancing John Lennon.
Legitimate media almost always follows the creative cues established by
the “underground” media. So it’s no wonder that big news organizations
are keeping a watchful eye on blogs; record labels are finally embracing
peer-to-peer (P2P) business models; big-time radio stations are
offering their own downloadable podcasts; and of course, television has
successfully converted itself into one giant, never-ending reality
series. This trend may have reached the point of creative meltdown. It
was recently announced that FOX, the nation’s purveyor of good taste,
plans to launch a new 24-hour cable channel devoted exclusively to
round-the-clock reality shows. No doubt a series starring that pudgy
Numa Numa kid can’t be far behind.
So where do the “professional” designers fit into this brave new world
of homemade content? Rather than become extinct, I’d venture to say that
our skills might actually become more valuable. As the mass media
continues to look and sound like an endless stream of public-access
hokum, the designers of the future will be sought after to bring clarity
to the chaos.
With all this chatter and visual noise polluting the airways and the
internet, we might be entering a new dark age of communication. It’s a
form of abuse really, and we’re all victims. When everyone has a voice,
then no one has a voice. The masses will just trample everything with a
cacophony of screaming, self-made media rants. After a time, when the
novelty of self-publication wears thin, the masses might keep their
self-indulgence content out of the public domain and leave the fragile
art of editing words, composing music and designing visuals to the
Or maybe not.
Every great success story starts at the first chapter, and we are honored to start two books at once. AIGA Baltimore has been awarded two AIGA Innovate grants to work on two special projects that are poised to have a lasting impact on the design community in Baltimore and at large.
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