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Business, Op-ed - Written by on Friday, October 9, 2009 13:27 - 6 Comments

Jeff DeChambeau
Network neutrality: the path of least resistance to the lowest common denominator

Network Neutrality, as a topic, has a reputation for being simultaneously important and ignored. It sounds great: everyone has equal ability to share their ideas; large media companies and “citizen journalists/content creators” compete directly with one another, allowing consumers to decide who does a better job on a case by case basis. In theory this allows content to bypass the “propaganda model” that filters away stories that are deemed unprofitable to advertisers; individuals will break the story, it goes viral, is verified, and information makes its way around the globe, as afforded that ability by a neutral and indiscriminant network. The model works for amateur content creators, too: armed with a relatively cheap camera and laptop, just about anyone can shoot and edit an HD movie that is technically superior to the output of costly and labor-intensive film production for just about the history of the entire industry. That’s the dream, anyway.

The reality, I think, is pretty far from the mark: people don’t want high quality, (and in the case of media, accurate) content; they just want to be entertained. What’s more, the threshold for entertainment is frighteningly low. Even before the YouTube revolution, “Reality TV” was gaining ground and prime-time space with each new season, and Fox News/CNN were reporting on trivialities (on good days) — exactly the problem that crowdsourced media was supposed to remedy.

Unfortunately, look at the content that does really well online: stoned children, rude celebrities, general failure, and of course, cats — none of which requires any editorial effort, and generally reflects poorly on our collective taste. If we have network neutrality, and this is the content that really thrives, where then is the drive for media companies (or individuals) to make high-quality content when they can just as easily monetize the equivalent of the Springfield film festival winner? Instead, media becomes a race to the bottom with media companies competing with Joe-Sixpack to see who can first discover the one true lowest common denominator.

This mirrors the old saying about democracy: “it’s the form of government where the people get what they deserve” — we’ve now got democratic media, and people are going to get what they deserve there too. It seems to me that if we’re going to collectively demand network neutrality, and the power and responsibility that comes with it, we’re going to have to raise the bar in terms of what we expect and demand in terms of quality content — and “Twitter journalism” (and the like) shouldn’t make the cut.

Even if there isn’t a collective intellectual awakening, there will always be people online who want premium, high quality content. However, under this new model, in order to make the delivery of that content sustainable (let alone profitable), we’re going to have to pay for it, and it certainly won’t be cheap.



6 Comments

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Markus Laumann
Oct 9, 2009 16:26

I’ve been trying to come up with a good response to your post for over an hour now, but I don’t know where to start. This rant is all over the place! I’ll respond by paragraph…

- Network Neutrality is a dream, just like freedom of speech. The main purpose, as I see it, is to reduce the chance of artificial barriers between producers and viewers. Why? To keep Comcast from deciding bandwidth priority: G4 over Mevio, Hulu over Youtube, Comcast’s moneymaking subsidiaries over MSNBC, NYT over Joe’s new blog “SIX-PACKINOMICS”.

- “…exactly the problem that crowdsourced media was supposed to remedy.” When CNN makes a boardroom decision to cover trivial crap, they make that decision for everyone that turns to that channel. Youtube has as many channels as there are videos. Frat boys want to see nut shots, grandma wants to see kittens. Popularity on youtube is tied to view count, therefore, a chain-mailing Aunt is influencing youtube’s home page more than the tasteful, discerning viewer.

- Theodore Sturgeon had it right, “90% of everything is crap”. Same goes for entertainment. That 10% doesn’t have to cost a fortune, just be relevant to the niche. While the front page of youtube is filled with crap (don’t mistake view-count as , quality podcasts, convention speeches, and educational lectures are under the surface (but only come up if you’re looking for them). It’s possible right now to recreate the television channels from Idiocracy with youtube keywords. It’s also possible to create a great distance learning course. I think our “collective taste” has always looked bad. Prime entertainment during the French revolution included public be-headings.

- “”it’s the form of government where the people get what they deserve” — we’ve now got democratic media, and people are going to get what they deserve”. In a democracy, the general rule is a vote per person on a rule that applies to all. Not so with the internet. At CNN, a boardroom decided what to put on their limited channels. On Youtube, each video is a channel to the viewer, you find what you want, for good or ill. True, we are much more responsible to ourselves to filter out the crap, but whether you watch it or not, nut shot vids will still be uploaded as long as alcohol exists.

- “we’re going to have to pay for it, and it certainly won’t be cheap”. I think that depends on what you want. Just like a video games can look great but the game play suck, compelling content doesn’t have to be professionally produced.

Jeff DeChambeau
Oct 9, 2009 16:55

Hey Markus, thanks for the comments. I fully conceded that my post is in rant-territory, but the Friday afternoon post-slot seemed like as good a place as any for it B-).

It seems that by and large you and I are in agreement: there’s crap everywhere, and (generally) people love it.

I think your objection about my likening democratic media to democracies is a fair one: in a democracy the many get to choose what viewpoint guides the collective, whereas with neutral media, even if garbage content is endlessly popular, the good stuff can still make it’s voice heard. Point taken. However, having so much dumb content makes it that much harder to find the good stuff — though this is made easier by collaborative filtering and the like.

With regards to payment and cost, my point of view is that in order to make good looking media, it’s not hard, and can be done with off the shelf tools by just about anyone in an afternoon (a point I think you agree with, as per the games example). In order to really skillfully shoot and edit a movie, or research a topic and write about it, it takes time and energy. For the typical amateur, to really do a good job is probably outside the scope of what they could do in addition to their day job/life.

Therefore to have high quality content means that making that content will be the focus of what they do, so they need to support themselves doing it. By extension, we have to pay them for that service. This expense would be split over their number of fans, who would each have to shoulder a hefty part of the cost if people who actually care about high quality content are very very scarce.

Tel
Oct 9, 2009 23:39

If you think Democratic government is bad, have a try of the alternatives for a while and see how that goes. I believe that Winston Churchill may have already mentioned this.

The real problem with Internet in the USA is lack of competition, especially in regional areas. Handing the decision making power over to the FCC will not create neutrality, it will not create more competition, it will move business decisions to the political arena so the rules get rapidly so complex that open competition will no longer be possible, ever.

Here’s a hint: if you see a politician trying to regulate communications, they are doing it for their own benefit (propaganda / hold onto power) and not for your benefit. This rule is guaranteed to apply in all situations.

steve-o
Oct 21, 2009 11:51

“regional areas,” Tel? What about non-regional areas? Non-areatic regions?

Tel
Oct 24, 2009 9:51

“Regional areas” is common Australian idiom for any place that is a medium to long distance away from urban development. From a literal point of view it may sound silly, but then again “country areas” is just as silly if you ask yourself which areas are outside the country; and saying “outback” sounds too much like a tourism promotion.

Soitu para las rotativas | kikealonso
Oct 27, 2009 19:04

[...] a corto plazo. Yo, antes de perder la fe en mi mismo, prefiero quedarme con esta reflexión de Jeff DeChambeau (traducción libre): Desafortunadamente, mira que tipo de contenido es el que lo hace bien en [...]

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