One of the web’s primary flaws is that it’s actually too easy to use.

And as content becomes ever easier to create, finding quality content becomes even more difficult.

That’s the general premise of Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen, which lobbies for the return of cultural gatekeepers.  It’s when those gatekeepers are reinstated, Keen argues, that the cream [at least according to the gatekeeper’s opinion] of YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, etc., will rise to the top more easily, while the trash will sink to the bottom.

But even if that idyllic (if patriarchal) picture did occur, we’d still have one big problem:

Who’d actually bother to watch quality content?

“Quality” implies an investment of time and effort from both the creator and the audience.

And that’s problematic because, at its root, the web operates as a series of willful disruptions.

Is the vast majority of the content on YouTube actually good?  No.  But that doesn’t stop swarms of people from creating (and watching) millions of videos every day.  For them, a lack of quality is not a deterrent.

In fact, it may even be the point.

Short Attention Span Theater

The very act of “surfing the web” implies a constant state of motion.  Ideas collide.  Interests expand.  The citizens of the web spend their entire online lives as willing nomads in search of ever-newer stimuli.

In such a milieu, breadth trumps depth and skimming supersedes absorbing.  Our eyes are drawn to bullet points, pull quotes and captions — any shortcuts that help us grok the gist of something without actually needing to process it completely.

And it’s not (entirely) our fault.

The media we create — and our ability to process it — is constantly evolving.  Our post-MTV generation can now intuit the complete meaning of a film from a 30 second preview, thus rendering the viewing of the film itself unnecessary.

We’ve become so familiar with the formula of information, it’s increasingly difficult for media creators to reward our attention by providing us with actual revelations.

So we skim.  Chronically.

And who can blame us?

Why read a book when you can read the CliffsNotes for five books in the same amount of time?  (Or, more likely, when you can skim a few pages of the CliffsNotes and then do well enough on the subsequent test to pass it, which invalidates the need to read the book in the first place.)

Why surrender our attention to one-way media like novels and films when video games and social networks provide us with the illusion of control, choice and unpredictability?

Why invest ourselves in one piece of media when so many others might be worth our time?

Being Unfulfilled Is My Default State of Mind

I’m no stranger to the paradox of quality.  One of my own complaints about the web is its lack of content that blows my mind and inspires me to action.

And yet, whenever I find a piece of media that has the potential to do such a thing, I immediately become desperate to click away from it at the earliest possible convenience.

Why?

Because no matter what I’m doing online, I always feel like I should be doing something else.

I used to think this was my reaction to the generally poor quality of the web overall.  But now I’m not so sure.

Because even as Google, social networks and other disruptors work night and day to disprove Andrew Keen’s premise simply by making it easier to find good content, I don’t find that I’m actually spending any more time with the good content I do find.

I just spend my time finding more of it.

It’s as though the web’s old problem — a lack of quality — has been replaced by a new problem — too much quality, or at least, quality that’s too easy to find.

Sooner or later, we all find the information, entertainment or enlightenment we’ve been searching for.  And it’s getting sooner and sooner all the time, until we no longer have the time to make use of what we did need because we’ve already discovered something new that we’d rather have.

In order to actually stop and absorb the information and insights at our disposal, we’d need to switch off the parts of our brains that feel compelled to find more of the same and just be content with what’s in front of us at the moment.

And I’m not sure we’re wired that way anymore.

In fact, maybe Andrew Keen was on to something.  But his premise is still flawed.  It’s not that we need gatekeepers to help us find the good stuff; we just need them to stop us from finding too much.

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20 Comments

Justin Kownacki · May 18, 2010 at 1:36 pm

As an idealist, I agree with. As a practicalist, I like efficientrnways of finding media and information that’s relevant to me. That’srnwhy I think there’s room for both DIY (or FIY — Find It Yourself) andrninfluencers / gatekeepers. You can always opt to explore the webrnyourself,but if you’re in a hurry, knowing which arbiters of qualityrnare most closely aligned with your tastes / needs is helpful.

SHerdegen · May 18, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I know exactly what you’re saying about finding but not really appreciating (as in using) really great content.rnrnOn the subject of gatekeepers; I’m not so sure that’s a great idea. I like the wisdom of crowds and I think natural leaders will emerge for people who are not into checking everything out for themselves.rnrnThe problem with gatekeepers is it’s a power focal point and becomes too easy to manipulate and/or corrupt. By dispersing the power to decide what is “good” across millions of people, it becomes impossible or at least not cost effective, to attempt to influence everyone.rnrnThat’s why marketers are obsessed with the idea of finding “influencers”. If they can identify the few with decision-making power they can apply pressure to advocate their product.rnrnI say, the more dispersed and open the process is the better.rn

Justin Kownacki · May 18, 2010 at 6:36 am

As an idealist, I agree with. As a practicalist, I like efficient
ways of finding media and information that's relevant to me. That's
why I think there's room for both DIY (or FIY — Find It Yourself) and
influencers / gatekeepers. You can always opt to explore the web
yourself,but if you're in a hurry, knowing which arbiters of quality
are most closely aligned with your tastes / needs is helpful.

SHerdegen · May 18, 2010 at 6:24 am

I know exactly what you're saying about finding but not really appreciating (as in using) really great content.

On the subject of gatekeepers; I'm not so sure that's a great idea. I like the wisdom of crowds and I think natural leaders will emerge for people who are not into checking everything out for themselves.

The problem with gatekeepers is it's a power focal point and becomes too easy to manipulate and/or corrupt. By dispersing the power to decide what is “good” across millions of people, it becomes impossible or at least not cost effective, to attempt to influence everyone.

That's why marketers are obsessed with the idea of finding “influencers”. If they can identify the few with decision-making power they can apply pressure to advocate their product.

I say, the more dispersed and open the process is the better.

tjcnyc · May 17, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Like Chris Walbert, I crave depth too. But I think the web is too “noisy” an environment for real depth. When I want to focus on a subject in-depth I go find some books and a quiet place to read them.

Even with that said, length and depth are not always correlated.

At Gettysburg, Edward Everett delivered a stirring two-hour Oration before Lincoln spoke. No one remembers it today.

Lincoln's address was all of 10 minutes. But it's unforgettable.

Chris Walbert · May 11, 2010 at 10:05 am

I, by nature, am prone to being easily distracted and bouncing around the web from link to link. But lately, I have become less and less interested in short soundbites and “10 ways to…” posts. I don't think I'm alone. I think people crave depth. I'm just not sure that we have found a way to deliver depth on the web, at least not in the same way it's available in books.

    Justin Kownacki · May 11, 2010 at 10:09 am

    You *can* read a book online right now, if you chose to. But I doubt
    many of us would. I personally don't consider the web to be ideal for
    long-term investment in a single piece of media. I'd rather hold a
    book, or even a magazine, in my hand and move with it, rather than
    having my head locked into one screen for 10 hours.

    So maybe what we need to consider is: how can we deliver more depth,
    value, quality, etc., than what's currently available online AND make
    it actionable WITHOUT requiring as much locked-in investment as other
    long-form media?

      Chris Walbert · May 11, 2010 at 10:17 am

      I think that's exactly it. Focus less on quantity of content produced and more on making what we do produce of the highest quality and value.

      Depth doesn't necessarily require the consumer to spend hours with it at a time, but it probably requires the producer to.

        Justin Kownacki · May 11, 2010 at 10:20 am

        And if the producer spends hours on something, how do those hours get
        compensated?

        Something tells me there's a market for “speed enlightenment,” in
        which those who can deliver the best actionable insights in the
        shortest amount of time will be proportionally compensated.

        I wonder what this means for entertainment media, which is notoriously
        undervalued online. Spending more time making better media won't
        necessarily equate to earning more money from it when the bulk of the
        market sits at zero.

          Chris Walbert · May 11, 2010 at 10:42 am

          That's the question with everything that touches the web – music, TV shows, news media. How do the producers make enough money to warrant production costs? The idea of “speed enlightenment” is essentially an ROI question. Can you reduce your time and increase the profit you get from it? Maybe some can, but for most, quality content takes time to produce.

          I don't think the solution is to produce quick, low quality content (a la content farms). The web has plenty of low-grade content, consumers don't need more of it.

          I guess the real question is whether people will pay for high-quality content on the web. If not, we really have no right to expect it.

            Justin Kownacki · May 11, 2010 at 10:47 am

            It's also possible that the kind of content we'd consider “quality web
            content” is different from all other forms of media. We may not even
            know what it is yet, because we're still adapting old forms to fit the
            new tubes.

            Irony: *discovering* what works will be more expensive in terms of
            opportunity costs than actually producing what works. This is a
            situation that rewards people with money and time to burn, but they
            may not also be people with anything interesting to say.

            Time to find new ways to connect the dots, and methods to explore
            cheaper and deeper.

              Chris Walbert · May 11, 2010 at 11:03 am

              That's entirely possible, and kind of inspiring.

              I was at a used bookstore the other day and marveling at how excited people get to find certain books that were written 50+ years ago. That made me think, am I producing anything that people will care to consume in 50 years? And how much of what is on the internet today will be interesting to people in 5 years, much less 50?

                Justin Kownacki · May 11, 2010 at 11:09 am

                True. Of course, who could have predicted what would be popular to
                web audiences today?

                Our lasting fascination with video game and pop culture nostalgia
                makes sense, since the web's core came of age in the '70s and beyond.
                But I doubt anybody would have bet money on Woot, Homestar Runner or
                The Sartorialist.

                Presumably, if what you're making now is interesting to someone, it
                may be interesting to more someones in the future. Controlling that
                is almost impossible; better to invest in creating content YOU find
                interesting, and build out from there. (Because if YOU aren't pleased
                with what you're creating, it's a lot harder to get anyone else to
                care, either.)

Richard Lynch · May 11, 2010 at 7:44 am

Sorry, no.

I do not get the same value from the trailer as the full movie, nor the dust jacket from the full book.

I just don't buy your (his, really) premise.

We don't need gatekeepers at all – just content reasonably well categorized / keyed / indexed with meta-data.

Because, obviously, your idea of “quality” and my idea of “quality” don't match up. (See second sentence. :-))

I would suggest that the sites that do extremely well (youtube, facebook, myspace, cdbaby) are doing so not because of quality of content, but because they leverage meta-data to categorize content so I can find what I think of as quality (or, rather, weed out the “90% of everything is crap”) by MY standards, while you can do the same by your standards.

I believe that if you examine the “almost made it” sites similar to those that flopped, you'll find that their categorization was flawed, not that they had any better/worse content.

    Justin Kownacki · May 11, 2010 at 8:11 am

    So, instead of the whims of tastemakers, you now believe the world
    revolves around keywords, metatags and other SEO-friendly descriptors?

    This basically recasts the argument not as one of gatekeepers but one
    of organizers — and it explains categorization as just another way to
    limit what people can see. It's gatekeeping from a procedural
    standpoint, rather than an overt influence of opinion. The difference
    in your framing is that this time the public stands a fighting chance
    at cracking the categorization code.

    Will they bother? Perhaps. But if not, they're essentially handing
    the keys to their information intake to those who WILL master the art
    of organization — and crowning them their gatekeepers in the process.

Dana Bacon · May 10, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Thanks for another great blog post, Justin. As much as I enjoy learning new things, it's not until I put them to use that real satisfaction occurs. Now that I think about it, part of the problem isn't having the time to absorb the good idea – it's taking that good idea and using it to practical ends. When I figure out the solution to this one, I'll be sure to post it. ;)

Barry Dewar · May 10, 2010 at 5:05 am

Loved this. Drfited off before the end…

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