Danger of the Desktop

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 communication design?

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” general public.

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 evidence:

Desktop text
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 beltway.

Desktop audio
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 margins.

Desktop video
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.

What’s next?
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.

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.

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 so-called “pros.”

Or maybe not.

About the Author: David Vogler is a vice president, creative director at Modem Media. Before becoming a full-time agency man, David spent his career at MTV Networks designing entertainment content for kids and teens. David can be reached at david (at) davidvogler.com.