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.
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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