A Guide To The Cultural Battle That Is Reshaping The Media Business

Ben Huh is the CEO of the Cheezburger Network, the company behind the blogs that include I Can Has Cheezburger?, FAIL Blog, and There, I Fixed It.

For all our lives, one device has dominated and shaped our cultural understanding of the world. The television has consumed years of our lives and has been our window to the outside world. In fact, going all the way back to the 1930s, the television has physically occupied a central place in our family lives. It wasn’t until the popularization of internet that the cultural hegemony of television has come into question. But boy, are we questioning it now.

With its ability to remix content, satire and criticism, Internet Culture is slowly chipping away at the cultural fortress built by television, radio and other forms of mass media — commonly referred to as Popular Culture. While many of us casually participate in this process online, we’re unaware of the sea change that’s occurring. Status updates, social networking, blogging and other habits have given rise to Internet Culture and now, internet users have created more content than mass media has created since the invention of the printing press. We have started to take control of the culture that molds our world view — taking the control away from the powerful in the media and giving it to our unwashed peers.

The challenge for big media companies is not just financial. They have to find a way to embrace the power of their users and change their thought process and attitude towards their customers, while not alienating the creator-centric model that currently pays the bills. Interestingly enough, it’s the music industry (thanks to the pains caused by file-sharing) that’s beginning to experiment with ways to embrace the fans through merchandise and concerts, even if it means less short-term revenues.

The battle for dominance between these two cultures is playing out today, pitting users and tech companies on one side (Internet Culture) and big media companies on the other (Popular Culture). Full disclosure: As the CEO and Founder of the Cheezburger Network, we firmly put ourselves on the side of Internet Culture. Popular Culture is economically and socially the opposite of Internet Culture. In fact, they occupy almost polar-opposite positions when it comes to ownership, filtering and creativity. Here are the three core differences between the two camps:

Ownership vs. Fair Use

Popular Culture deals almost exclusively in the domain of rights-owned content. That TV show you’re watching, or that movie with the tall blue aliens? Someone owns the exclusive right to control how that content will be used. Internet Culture, however, creates value via remixing and twisting popular out of content — extending the definition of fair use. The brouhaha over Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope Poster is a microcosm of this conflict. The Internet Culture crowd has almost no problem accepting the fair use argument of Fairey, whereas the AP strongly argued the opposite.

The Hero vs. The Masses

We love a hero. Or a superstar. Or a cultural icon. We love to demonize some people and put others on pedestals. Fact is, no one is creative in a vacuum. Joss Whedon had influences and inspirations, and so does Stephenie Meyer. But Popular Culture loves to make stars and heroes. It’s more lucrative that way. With Internet Culture, it’s a little harder to pinpoint the heroes of a collaborative process that involves hundreds of unconnected individuals. The lolcat meme started in 4chan and worked it way through internet humor forums until two people in Hawaii built a shrine around it called icanhascheezburger.com The internet is a faceless hero, whose name we can’t call in a time of need. It’s a little harder to love and easier to write off as “weird.” While geniuses create TV shows, movies and albums, we (the internet), create memes.

Top-down vs. Passion-driven

Ever watch an episode of Cavemen? You know, the comedy based on the GEICO cavemen characters. No? Neither did I. But it was broadcast on ABC (NYSE: DIS). A few executives decided that it was worth the precious airtime and created 13 episodes of this show. That’s the epitome of top-down decision-making. On the other hand, the Internet Culture process is far more fluid. And while not perfectly meritocratic, none of us hold enough power to make or break the popularity of a cultural meme. If something does become popular, it’s likely that hundreds, if not millions of passionate individuals will volunteer their time, voice and social status to propel the meme forward.

This isn’t a zero-sum process, but we’re already seeing friction between two camps especially when it comes to the ad dollars that power them. We’re certainly witnessing the slow decline of Popular Culture’s influence in our lives — particularly if you are young and well off. And like any good meme, Internet Culture will continue to gain influence over more and more groups of people.