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

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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 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.

11 Responses to “A Guide To The Cultural Battle That Is Reshaping The Media Business”

  1. Well, as an old fart, I appreciated this article. I did a good job of summarizing what’s happening in the media world. In my opinion, the current popular culture is going to have to re-invent itself or perish. Quite frankly, I love the internet. Not for it’s memes, but for its ability for the many different perspectives that are not offered on practically anything, but mostly on politics. Popular culture long ago become a propaganda machine. That is why they are losing the content war. They do not have freedom to publish the truth, just obedience to their masters. Those masters are now feeling threatened by the peoples ability to communicate what is happening local the their area. And the ugly truth about who is dictating what people perceive to be reality is coming out bit by bit. And, they are offended. The momentum for change starting to swell. But, the key turning point will be when popular culture, realizing that they are doomed and not even their masters can prevent it, will began to once again publish the truth. And then, internet culture will dominate. But guess what? They just simply become the new popular culture…

  2. From the Wikipedia entry on 4chan

    “It is provided to its users free of charge and consumes a large amount of bandwidth; as a result, its financing has often been problematic. moot acknowledges that donations alone cannot keep the site on-line, so he has turned to advertising to help make ends meet.[14] However, the explicit content hosted on 4chan has deterred businesses who do not want to be associated with the site’s content.[15] In January 2009, moot signed a new deal with an advertising company; as of February 2009[update], he was $20,000 in debt and the site was continuing to lose money.[16]”

    I think that says it all

  3. “Cavemen” being an indicator of the decline of pop culture/traditional media? Has this guy watched/read any of the UGC tripe that passes as worth reading or viewing? Mass doesn’t equal quality. The internet has created a glut of content–some good, much not worth a quick glance. Oh and about traditional media being financially challenged? Wait until the VC money dries up. Then we’ll hear the wailing from new media bloggers and pundits who can’t pay the bills.

  4. You are deluded if you think that neither traditional news media nor user-driven media outlets have an impact on global culture. You are even more deluded if you think that the realm of paid journalism isn’t becoming increasingly threatened by platforms that allow users to generate and disseminate their own content.

    Will 4chan one day replace WSJ? Probably (hopefully) not, but it is glaringly obvious that 4chan continues to gain cultural relevance while paid media outlets wane.

    By the way, 4chan accounts for roughly .04% of global pageviews on a given day. WSJ accounts for half that on an outstanding news day.

    • I can agree that news media and user-driven media try to impact culture. But I do not think there is a “global” culture to impact. In fact, I think mass marketers have finally given up on that possibility. I think paid journalism is its responsible for its own demise. PEW research shows that journalism’s loss of credibility trend started before user generated content.

  5. You are all dinosaurs and it shows. The first thing on everyone’s mind seems to be monetization. How can we squeeze every last drop of life out of our tired old content to make a buck? How well has that worked for you? What’s the circulation on your local daily compared to 15 years ago? Don’t try to pretend this is a print phenomenon either. Compare traffic between the Wall Street Journal’s website and 4chan. You don’t know what 4chan is do you? Go ahead and look it up on Wikipedia, I’ll wait.

    99.99% of internet users are content providers, whether they consider themselves to be or not. 99.99% of them will not make a penny from their content. This is why user-generated content is always going to be better than what you have to provide. They don’t worry about monetization, they barely worry about whether or not there is an audience for their content or not (see: your aunt’s blog about her 4 cats), they make the content because they are passionate about what they have to say. If it is good, the community picks it up and makes it popular, if the content is bad it fades into oblivion.

    The beauty of this is there is a constant stream of new content being created, and a huge community to vet and filter the content so only the best becomes visible to luddites such as yourselves. The internet doesn’t care about “social responsibility”, don’t expect anonymous to be cooperative. It is equally preposterous to predict that internet culture will die.

    The ignorance in these comments would typically enrage me, but I’m taking solace in the fact that most of you will be dead by the time I’m your age.

    • I checked out 4Chan and it seemed like a messaging platform not a paid journalist platform. Seem to perform completely different services. One requires a subscription and one does not. It’s not hard to see which is which. Alexa ranks the WSJ 75 and 4Char 317 in the US.

      Neither has anything to do with culture.

      Good luck to you.

      Katherine Warman Kern

  6. pancho slade

    Internet culture of this sort will die once we find the limits of narcissism and busking – if limits exist (everyone needs a hobby). It’s great that the tools are being developed for expression, but without some kind of pop culture machinery few will make a real living at it. As for the music business, look at the Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger for a sign of where that’s really headed.

  7. So let me get this straight. You are saying Internet Culture will dominate Popular Culture because:
    1) People prefer to watch free content derived by mashing up popular content over original content for free.
    2) People prefer to be one of hundreds unconnected individuals over one of millions connected by liking or disliking the same icon.
    3) The derivative content preferred by hundreds of unconnected individuals is becoming more influential based on its increased share of advertising dollars to 5%.
    Meanwhile, Bernanke announced this week that new business creation is disappointing and if job growth doesn’t pick up debt levels are unsustainable.

    Wouldn’t it be more socially responsible if the internet innovators were focused on how to help traditional media generate new revenues instead of battling over a shrinking ad spending pie?

    Katherine Warman Kern

  8. Can’t agree more Steve/

    What happened to the real columnists of Leading Voices with actual media business pedigrees, not based on random assumptions about the future of media based on Internet Culture, whatever the hell that is.

    Newsflash: The future of media has not happened yet. Let’s make it work today instead.