Here’s a little story about a day my world shifted, and how it may be shifting again.
Years ago, I was a bit of a Deadhead. Okay, maybe more than a bit. I usually caught somewhere between six and ten shows a year. Maybe 50 to 60 shows when it was all said and done. I did it for the music — partly. To paraphrase Bill Graham, the Grateful Dead weren’t the best at what they did. They were the only ones who did what they did.
But I also did it for the crowd. Back then, it felt like belonging to a tribe. A tribe of misfits, maybe, but a tribe nonetheless, with its own code of conduct. Over time, as the tribe got larger (and the band became more popular) things started to change, and you could no longer count on the code holding up. The whole scene was more widely accepted, but its standards were not more widely shared. A lot of the newcomers had different ideas about what was okay and what was not.
And then one day, in a mall in middle America, I stumbled upon a Grateful Dead tee shirt in a tacky gift shop — you know, the kind that sell the ersatz lava lamps and blacklight posters. That’s when I knew it was over for me.
You see, part of the appeal of the whole experience was that I could feel securely outside the mainstream and still operate within the comfort of a set of shared values and assumptions. Now that the scene had so clearly become mainstream, it had taken on those mainstream values and I didn’t really want much to do with it. (In fact, it wasn’t long afterward that the scene pretty much collapsed of its own weight, but that’s a different story.)
For some reason, this is what I thought of when I read this Newsweek piece about some trends in the blogosphere.
Look, I’m as aware as the next person that an obscene number of people are blogging, so it’s not as though I imagine it as anything but mainstream these days. But still, one of the reasons I’m drawn to both reading them and writing one is that the medium manages to carry a sense of personal connection despite its broadcast delivery. This paradox — a personal touch in a broadcast medium — is, I think, at the heart of the success of all social media. Even if I’m one of a million followers of Pete Cashmore’s smart smart Twitter feed for Mashable, I still feel like he’s talking to me.
But when I’m confronted with evidence that forces me to acknowledge that what I’m reading is not so personal after all, I’m left feeling a little skittish. What if the review I’m reading isn’t a true review, but the work of a corporate shill? What if the advice I’m seeking to resolve a computer problem is simply an effort to guide me to a particular product? What if choosy blogging mothers don’t actually choose Jif, but are paid to say so in their endearing mommy blogs? Blech.
The web is democratized, and that’s a good thing. But democracies don’t guarantee fairness, only access. Those who know best how to game the system, win. (And if you don’t believe that, then explain our political system to me.) Maybe we — legitimate users — will find a way to preserve what’s good about the medium, or maybe we’ll simply move on to the next thing that satisfies our need for personal connection in an increasingly disconnected world.
Either way, I’ll be looking at certain Twitter feeds, blogs, and websites with an even more cynical set of eyes. And no one paid me to say that.