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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



Archive for June 5th, 2009



When do you stop being a reader online, and start being a participant? This would seem to be an important question, especially among those who insist that the exact ratios between consumers and creators should determine how significant the result is. That is, if most “user-generated” content on the Net is made up of a tiny percentage of the overall audience, should we care about it less? Me, I don’t think so, but for arguments that get bogged down in exactly how “democratic” the Internet is, it does seem to be critical.

What I do think is that the very fact that the line is blurred is in itself significant. Let me contrast it with my experience growing up in the Seventies and Eighties. I didn’t go to arty clubs in London; I didn’t make my own teen fanzine. I didn’t even send off for any fanzines. What I did was buy Time Out, and FactSheet Five, and read the reviews. Obsessively. I loved it. I don’t know why I rarely watched the films I read about, or buy the thousands of zines that Mike Gunderloy (pboh) obsessively reviewed each issue. It just seemed a step too far, somehow. I was perhaps a little scared that the reality wouldn’t live up to the dream. But I’m sure there were thousands, hundreds of thousands like me. People read books, never knowing there are whole communities of book-readers who create conventions and have conversations about those books, writing fan fiction and holding long correspondences with the author. It’s not that they can’t imagine it, but it’s that there’s a natural stopping point. You’d have to be crazy to finish the latest Neil Gaiman book, and then think you could write him a letter.

When I went online for the first time, that distinction blurred for the first time. I’d read my heroes posting items, and then I’d reply (just really because the keyboard was there, and the bulletin board prompt gave you that option), and my heroes would write back. I’d be involved. It was barely a transition. It’s the same frisson people get when celebrities call them out on Twitter. Actually, they don’t even have to be acknowledged; just the figment of a conversation is more than you’d expect reading a book or watching a film.

This may be obvious, or even hard to imagine a world without that lack of transition if you’ve grown up with the Net. Talking to Debbie today, she described how Sears Catalogues were called “wishbooks” in the early West, and we talked about how FactSheet Five was a wishbook, too. It broadened your mind: but it only occurred to the most ambitious (or deluded) that you could actually pursue those wishes, or that they represented anywhere that was truly accessible: just viewable. I think old media taught us to observe the spectacle, but assume it took place somewhere else, somewhere remote.

It takes a while, even online, to notice this is possible: that such-and-such may have a blog, and might read the comments, and might reply. But it’s not quite the same leap, especially as you quickly find yourself in a community of others making those leaps just like you. It’s not how many create; it’s how easy the jump from watcher to do-er is. The two are connected: the easier the transition, the more creators there are. But the transitions the thing. Not everybody wants to be a creator; but everybody who wants to create should at least know that that is an option.


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.