用户注册 登录
珍珠湾全球网 返回首页

MingHao的个人空间 http://ohaiwan.com/?15580 [收藏] [复制] [分享] [RSS]

日志

The Rise of the Internet’s Creative Middle Class

已有 838 次阅读2022-6-16 04:54 |个人分类:US|系统分类:转帖-知识

Culture Desk

The Rise of the Internet’s Creative Middle Class

Fourteen years ago, Kevin Kelly famously proposed that an artist could make a living online with a thousand true fans. Has time proved him correct?

By Cal Newport

June 15, 2022

Podcaster cheered by a crowd of pixelated fans.

Illustration by Franco Zacharzewski

 

 

 

 

 

Earlier this spring, I made my way to a modest broadcast studio, situated on the second floor of a polished office building in downtown Washington, D.C., to watch a taping of an Internet news program called “Breaking Points.” The show’s producer, a young man named James Lynch, met me in the lobby and led me to a crowded control room. Three experienced-looking, middle-aged engineer types staffed the video boards. The scene reminded me of any number of studios that I’ve passed through for television appearances. Unlike those traditional shows, however, this control room also contained a much younger engineer, hunched over a computer screen, furiously editing the video streaming in from the studio. “We’ll post the show on YouTube by eleven,” Lynch explained. It was already close to ten.

Everything about the production of “Breaking Points” is fast. The show, which stars Krystal Ball, a former MSNBC host, and Saagar Enjeti, a former White House correspondent for The Daily Caller, produces three full episodes a week, sometimes adding extra “mini” shows responding to current events. The episodes are released in both audio and video formats almost immediately after they’re filmed. This speed is necessary because “Breaking Points” is attempting to approximate, using the tools of Internet publishing, the immediacy of live news broadcasting. A segment filmed in the morning might be out of date by the afternoon.

To meet this production schedule, the hosts attempt to record each block using as few takes as possible. When I arrived at the studio, Ball was recording a monologue about Ukraine in which she inveighed against “the baked-in pro-war bias” of cable news. A control-room engineer who was working the show’s video TriCaster console threw up a graphic a beat too soon. Ball stopped: “Can we do this again? Why was that so early?” This is the only reshoot that I witnessed during my visit. A little later, there was a lull as Lynch attempted to track down a former professional baseball player who was scheduled to be interviewed about the status of Major League Baseball’s labor negotiations. Ball and Enjeti stayed at their broadcast desk during the delay, using the time to write headlines for the short YouTube Clips that would be made of the segments they had just finished filming.

“MSNBC caught ‘floating’ . . . No, caught ‘platforming’ fake Ghost of Kyiv war news,” Ball offered.

“That’s good, that’s good,” Enjeti replied.

“That’s not too long?”

The headlines for the YouTube Clips, Enjeti explained, are very important for driving views, and little things like capitalizing emotive words can make a difference. The eventual Ghost of Kyiv headline was worded as “MSNBC CAUGHT Platforming FAKE ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ War News.” Ball told me that hyperbolic headlines help bring viewers to the straight-news content that’s contained in the clips. “We promise desserts, but serve up vegetables,” she said. (When I checked a few days later, the Ghost of Kyiv clip had already had more than a hundred thousand views.) Lynch eventually located the former baseball player, and I was ushered back to the control room. The young engineer continued to furiously edit and post clips. By 11:30 a.m., the filming was done: the content had all been uploaded, the control room had emptied, Enjeti was on his way to the gym, and Ball was headed home to relieve her babysitter.

Prior to going independent, Ball and Enjeti co-hosted a show called “Rising,” produced in a more traditional manner by The Hill, the D.C.-based political newspaper and media company. Enjeti estimates that “Rising” required a full-time staff of thirty. “Breaking Points,” by contrast, gets by with a rented studio and the part-time efforts of eight hourly contractors, yet its viewership metrics are already outpacing the hosts’ former show. These numbers provide an interesting case study of the evolving news industry, but my interest in “Breaking Points” is deeper. I see the show as part of a more important trend, one in which a dismissed prophecy about the potential of the Internet to support creative work might be making a triumphant return.

In 2008, a lot of attention was centered on the shift toward Web 2.0, a more participatory version of the Internet in which users could post information just as easily as they could consume it. We’re used to online participation today, but back then so-called user-generated content was seen as both cutting-edge and the key to unlocking the Internet’s full potential to improve the world. At that year’s Web 2.0 Summit, a splashy annual conference founded by Tim O’Reilly, the roster of speakers included Mark Zuckerberg but also Al Gore and Gavin Newsom. It was in this atmosphere of possibility that Kevin Kelly, a respected prophet of the West Coast techno-optimism scene and the founding executive editor of Wiredpublished an essay on his personal Web site making a case that the Internet was about to transform the world of creative work in a profound and positive manner. He titled it “1,000 True Fans.”

The essay opens by responding to an idea that was enjoying a peak of cultural influence: the long tail. The concept was introduced in a Wired article written by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, who described the ability of Internet-based consumer companies, such as Amazon and Netflix, to use online interfaces and smart-search capabilities to offer rarer and less popular products—those that exist in the “long tail” of traditional sale charts. These new markets could be sizable. Owing to space constraints, a physical Barnes & Noble bookstore at the time could carry a hundred and thirty thousand titles. Amazon, free from the limits of retail real estate, found that more than half of its sales came from books outside their hundred and thirty thousand most popular sellers.

In his “1,000 True Fans” essay, Kelly explains that he wasn’t as excited about this new economic model as others seemed to be. “The long tail is famously good news for two classes of people: a few lucky aggregators, such as Amazon and Netflix, and 6 billion consumers,” he writes. “But the long tail is a decidedly mixed blessing for creators.” If your work lives in the long tail, the introduction of Internet-based markets might mean that you go from selling zero units of your creations to selling a handful of units a month, but this makes little difference to your livelihood. “The long tail offers no path out of the quiet doldrums of minuscule sales,” Kelly writes. “Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artists do to escape the long tail?”

This question might seem fatalistic, but Kelly had a solution. If your creative work exists in the long tail, generating a small but consistent number of sales, then it’s probably sufficiently good to support a small but serious fan base, assuming you’re willing to put in the work required to cultivate this community. In an earlier age, a creative professional might be limited to fans who lived nearby. But by using the tools of the Internet, Kelly argued, it was now possible for creative types to both find and interact with supporters all around the world. The same Internet that allows Netflix to help a small number of cinephiles discover an obscure documentary might also allow that filmmaker to be in touch with these same people directly, perhaps converting what Kelly termed “Lesser Fans” into “True Fans,” defined as those “who will purchase anything and everything you produce,” who “will drive 200 miles to see you sing,” and “buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat.” According to Kelly, the cultivation of True Fan communities is about more than just ego or the celebration of art: they can become the foundation for an artist to make a living. Kelly’s back-of-the-envelope math is both simple and compelling: if you can recruit, over time, a thousand such loyal supporters, each of whom is willing to spend a hundred dollars a year to support you and your creations, you’re suddenly making a good middle-class salary doing creative work as your full-time job.

VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER

Surfing on Kelly Slater’s Machine-Made Wave

 

The 1,000 True Fans theory is classic Kevin Kelly. He took something potentially dark—in this case, a long-tail economic model that mashes creatives like a digital-age ore crusher—and found an aspirational alternative narrative. The new tools that allow Amazon to dominate Barnes & Noble might also allow more creative types than ever before to make a living off their work. When placed against the context of the global financial crisis, which was hitting its full stride when Kelly’s essay was published, the appeal of this promise was amplified. Unemployment was soaring while the value of retirement investments was plummeting, but perhaps you could respond to the disruption by finally pursuing the creative career about which you’ve been daydreaming. You didn’t need a functional global economy to find happiness and economic security, just a thousand other people who love what you do—and the Internet would help you find and connect with them. Not surprisingly, the essay was a sensation. “This is Kevin Kelly’s best riff of the year, and that’s saying an enormous amount,” the Internet-marketing guru Seth Godin wrote, on the same day the essay appeared online. “Go read it!”

Kelly’s optimism, however, didn’t convince everyone. Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and virtual-reality pioneer who had known Kelly for a long time, had doubts. Lanier had once been a fellow techno-optimist, but by 2008, as he explained in an interview with the technology-news outlet The Verge, he was going through a period of “great personal pain” caused by the reconsideration of his utopian digital ideology. “I [had been] writing fire-breathing essays like, ‘Piracy is your friend’ and ‘Open everything up and it’ll work out,’ ” Lanier explained. “Then, when I started looking at the numbers of people who were benefitting, I realized that what was actually happening was the loss of the middle hump of outcomes; we were concentrating people into winners and losers, which is the worse outcome.”

Lanier, who had spent some time as a struggling musician, wanted Kelly’s theory to be true. “I didn’t want to jinx it,” he later wrote. But he couldn’t shake the insistent reality that he personally didn’t know any artists who were making a living from an online group of dedicated supporters. If the 1,000 True Fans model was valid, its impact should be more visible. Lanier brought his concern to Kelly. In response, Kelly posted a follow-up essay that summarized Lanier’s skepticism and asked his large readership to help assuage Lanier’s fears. “To prove Jaron wrong,” Kelly wrote, “simply submit a candidate in the comments: a musician with no ties to old media models, now making 100% of their living in the open media environment.” As Lanier describes in his book “You Are Not a Gadget,” Kelly’s readers struggled to identify more than a “handful” of artists who seemed to prove his theory. “This is astonishing to me,” Lanier writes. “By now, a decade and a half into the web era . . . shouldn’t there at least be a few thousand initial pioneers of a new kind of musical career who can survive in our utopia? Maybe more will appear soon, but the current situation is discouraging.”

Kelly offered a pragmatic explanation for why his model faltered. “It takes a lot of time to find, nurture, manage, and service True Fans yourself,” he wrote. “And, many artists don’t have the skills or inclination to do so.” Lanier, however, proposed a more fundamental obstacle: the structure of the Web itself. As he elaborates in “You Are Not a Gadget,” the initial emergence of the Internet, in the nineteen-nineties, was a halcyon period. “The early waves of web activity were remarkably energetic and had a personal quality,” he writes. “People created personal ‘homepages,’ and each of them was different, and often strange. The web had a flavor.”

In Lanier’s telling, this digital landscape shifted once the success of Google’s ad program revealed that you could make a lot of money on user-generated creative output, which led to the rise of social-media companies such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Initially, these companies emphasized their simple, elegant-looking interfaces and their sales pitches about online expression and connection, but really they were hijacking the Web 2.0 revolution by concentrating much of its new energetic user activity onto their own proprietary platforms, where it could be efficiently monetized. Lanier argued that, in order for these platforms to justify making so much money off voluntary productivity, user content needed to be separated from the unique, interesting, diverse, flesh-and-blood individuals who’d created it. To accomplish this goal, the “proud extroversion” of the early Web soon gave way to a much more homogenized experience: hundred-and-forty-character text boxes, uniformly sized photos accompanied by short captions, Like buttons, retweet counts, and, ultimately, a shift away from chronological time lines and profile pages and toward statistically optimized feeds. The user-generated Web became an infinite stream of disembodied images and quips, curated by algorithms, optimized to distract.

ADVERTISEMENT

The 1,000 True Fans model was destined to struggle in the context of this dehumanized Web. Kelly’s vision depends on an evolution of the Internet in which the vast tangle of possible one-on-one connections partition into countless small cliques—each one a fandom or a mini community revelling in the discovery of others who share their quirks. Instead, the social-media giants effectively rerouted these connections through a small number of hulking algorithmic hubs, around which the collective creative output on the Web now ebbs and flows. If you’re a niche-genre book writer, or an avant-garde musician, or a collage artist, the logic of this system makes it difficult for you to find and cultivate a dedicated group of fans. You can submit your creations into the stream, but, once there, they will be chopped up and commoditized. If you’re lucky, perhaps something you post will temporarily spark a surge of engagement, but those same spectators, exhausted by the onslaught, will soon shift their weary attentions to the next recommended item flowing close behind. This relentless pace rewards passive consumption, not active interaction with individual creators. The winner-take-all dynamics of this algorithmically optimized stream will generate a few winners—superstar influencers whose every post will be served to millions of users. But these unicorns, in addition to being exceedingly rare, are not at all what Kevin Kelly had in mind. The TikTok influencer Loren Gray, with her more than fifty million followers, is much closer to an old-fashioned mass-market Hollywood star than to someone involved in Kelly’s democratic vision: large numbers of niche artists making a living through close interactions with small groups of dedicated followers.

Lanier’s explanation for the death of the 1,000 True Fans model has become a classic tale of a paradise lost. The Web of the nineteen-nineties held great potential for creative types. Then, when the Web collapsed into the walled gardens of platform monopolies, this potential vanished—and left an opening for the numerous new afflictions poisoning both our cultural and civic lives to rise in its place. Lanier’s pessimism proved influential: the Times book critic Michiko Kakutani named “You Are Not a Gadget” one of her Top Ten books of 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle called it “a necessary corrective,” and Time named Lanier to its 100 Most Influential People list. A certain grimness soon became de rigueur in most reporting about the Internet—including much of my own—while optimism became correspondingly rare. I visited the “Breaking Points” studio earlier this spring because it seemed to represent a notable break from the pessimism of Lanier’s corporatized Web. Indeed, if we look closer at this show’s operation, it becomes clear that we were perhaps too quick to dismiss Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans theory. It faltered in 2008, but, fourteen years later, it might be making a comeback.

Ball and Enjeti are not immensely popular influencers earning many millions of dollars from a vast audience of followers. But they’re also not toiling away on a show that’s effectively a nonprofitable side hustle. They instead fall into a middle ground that Lanier despaired didn’t exist for creative professionals. The total budget for “Breaking Points”—including all equipment, rental fees, and contractor costs—is around a million dollars a year. From this budget, Ball and Enjeti pay themselves individual incomes that are somewhat higher than what The Hill paid them for their old show, but not extravagantly so. They make, in other words, a solid and stable upper-middle-class living doing creative work, and they do so in exactly the manner that Kelly had proposed: asking for serious support from a small but loyal fan base.

The business model for “Breaking Points” is straightforward. Its staff releases a condensed version of their show as a free podcast. They also post clips of many—but not all—of the segments from each episode on YouTube. Though “Breaking Points” makes some money from podcast and YouTube ads, the bulk of the revenue comes from a premium-subscription model. If you subscribe at a cost of ten dollars a month, or a hundred dollars for a full year, you gain access to an uncut version of each episode, free of ads, in both audio and video formats. When I visited the studio, Enjeti showed me the expensive camera system that the show had recently bought, so that they could release the subscriber videos in 4K resolution. Some fans, it turned out, like to watch “Breaking Points” on their smart TVs like a standard cable-news channel.

There are a few other perks offered to subscribers, including access to weekly Q. & A. sessions and some bonus segments. The marketing copy for “Breaking Points,” however, makes it clear that the subscription model is as much about supporting Ball and Enjeti’s mission as it is about gaining access to specific benefits: “Join at any level to say SCREW YOU to CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.” The loyalty of their audience is perhaps best captured by their show’s origin story. When Ball and Enjeti made the decision to leave “Rising” to go independent, they needed capital to lease the studio and pay the contractors. They came up with the idea of offering fifteen-hundred-dollar lifetime memberships to their audience to help finance the shift. Anticipating that they would have only a small number of takers, they promised to carve the names of every lifetime subscriber into a plaque that would be displayed on the “Breaking Points” set. In just one month, sales of lifetime memberships generated enough money to fund the show for its entire first year. “It was absolutely incredible,” Enjeti said. “Breaking Points” is currently supported by around ten thousand paying subscribers spread over the various payment tiers. This is a factor of ten more than in the 1,000 True Fans model proposed by Kelly, but it remains a good case study of his model in action: a strong but modest-sized community, discovered and served by using the Internet, directly supporting creative professionals making a full-time living producing original work.

Ball and Enjeti are not alone in their reanimation of Kelly’s prophecy. Consider Hilton Carter, a houseplant guru who has cultivated a loyal online following that celebrates his over-the-top commitment to domesticated greenery. Carter attracts converts in large part through the lush photos that he posts on Instagram. Although his five-hundred-thousand-follower count on the platform is respectable, it’s still far from the numbers boasted by élite social-media influencers. The key to Carter’s career, however, is that, like Ball and Enjeti, he transacts directly with his fans outside of social media, offering live online courses on plant care and running a highly curated online storefront called Things by HC, which sells plant cradles, signed copies of his books, and an impressive-looking gardener’s apron. (When I last visited the site, a note warned visitors to expect processing and shipping delays, “due to an unprecedented volume of orders.”)

Some creative professionals can get by without even having to sell anything in particular to their 1,000 True Fans. Maria Popova, for example, makes a living publishing essays on literature, art, and science on her site, the Marginalian. Most of Popova’s income comes from asking fans to help support her work directly, without expecting anything extra in return. “If this labor has made your life more livable in the past year (or the past decade),” she writes, “please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation.”

A shining example of the 1,000 True Fans model is the podcasting boom. There are more than eight hundred and fifty thousand active podcasts available right now. Although most of these shows are small and don’t generate much money, the number of people making a full-time living off original audio content is substantial. The key to a financially viable podcast is to cultivate a group of True Fans eager to listen to every episode. The value of each such fan, willing to stream hours and hours of a creator’s content, is surprisingly large; if sufficiently committed, even a modest-sized audience can generate significant income for a creator. According to an advertising agency I consulted, for example, a weekly podcast that generates thirty thousand downloads per episode should be able to reach Kelly’s target of generating a hundred thousand dollars a year in income. Earning a middle-class salary by talking through a digital microphone to a fiercely loyal band of supporters around the world, who are connected by the magic of the Internet, is about as pure a distillation of Kelly’s vision as you’re likely to find.

There’s currently a lot of buzz among Silicon Valley types around the potential of the so-called Web 3.0 revolution—a partly thrilling, partly cynical, partly incoherent collection of ideas about how emerging blockchain technologies, such as smart contracts and N.F.T.s, are going to liberate the Internet from centralized control. Some Web 3.0 boosters have connected these new tools to Kelly’s vision. Last winter, for example, Chris Dixon, a major Web 3.0 proponent and a general partner at the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, published an essay titled “NFTs and a Thousand True Fans.” In it, Dixon argues that creators will “increasingly rely” on N.F.T.s to make money outside the social-media ecosystem, because they provide trustworthy documentation about the ownership of digital media.

Perhaps Dixon is right that Web 3.0 will play a role in the future of online creative careers, but it’s also clear that Ball and Enjeti, Hilton Carter, Maria Popova, and any number of successful podcasters didn’t depend on a technological breakthrough of this magnitude to put Kelly’s theory into practice right now. The key to their success seems instead to be the willingness of their audiences to step outside of the algorithmically controlled streams and interact with creators directly, using more varied and independent tools. If you subscribe to “Breaking Points,” for example, your payments are processed through a small company called SuperCast, which will install a plug-in for your podcast player to give you easy access to premium episodes. The show’s videos are posted unlisted on YouTube, and the hidden link needed to access it is e-mailed directly to you using Mailchimp. Similarly, Carter conducts his classes using plain old Zoom. Popova simply dropped a PayPal widget onto her independently hosted Web site.

ADVERTISEMENT

The real breakthroughs that enabled the revival of the 1,000 True Fans model are better understood as cultural. The rise in both online news paywalls and subscription video-streaming services trained users to be more comfortable paying à la carte for content. When you already shell out regular subscription fees for newyorker.com, Netflix, Peacock, and Disney+, why not also pay for “Breaking Points,” or throw a monthly donation toward Maria Popova? In 2008, when Kelly published the original “1,000 True Fans” essay, it was widely assumed that it would be hard to ever persuade people to pay money for most digital content. (This likely explains why so many of Kelly’s examples focus on selling tangible goods, such as DVDs or custom prints.) This is no longer true. Opening up these marketplaces to purely digital artifacts—text, audio, video, online classes—significantly lowered the barriers to entry for creative professionals looking to make a living online.

Changing attitudes toward social media created another breakthrough for the 1,000 True Fans model. In 2008, few people seemed interested in venturing beyond the social-media ecosystem, because this was where much of the excitement about the Internet was concentrated. As I learned from personal experience, to have expressed skepticism about these platforms during this period was seen as regressive and eccentric. In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, these attitudes radically shifted. For different reasons, both sides of the political spectrum began to immensely distrust the platform monopolies. The algorithmically curated streams that had once seemed so futuristic suddenly became Orwellian. Today, it’s not only acceptable to move more of your online activities beyond the walled gardens of social media—it’s celebrated.

The recent history of the Internet, however, warns that we shouldn’t necessarily expect the endearingly homegrown nature of these 1,000 True Fans communities to persist. When viable new economic niches emerge online, venture-backed businesses, looking to extract their cut, are typically not far behind. Services such as Patreon and Kickstarter are jostling for a dominant position in this direct-to-consumer creative marketplace. A prominent recent example of such attempts to centralize the True Fan economy is Substack, which eliminates friction for writers who want to launch paid e-mail newsletters. Substack now has more than a million subscribers who pay for access to newsletters, and is currently valued at around six hundred and fifty million dollars. With this type of money at stake, it’s easy to imagine a future in which a small number of similarly optimized platforms dominate most of the mechanisms by which creative professionals interact with their 1,000 True Fans. In the optimistic scenario, this competition will lead to continued streamlining of the process of serving supporters, increasing the number of people who are able to make a good living off of their creative work: an apotheosis of sorts of Kelly’s original vision. A more pessimistic prediction is that the current True Fan revolution will eventually go the way of the original Web 2.0 revolution, with creators increasingly ground in the gears of monetization. The Substack of today makes it easy for a writer to charge fans for a newsletter. The Substack of tomorrow might move toward a flat-fee subscription model, driving users toward an algorithmically optimized collection of newsletter content, concentrating rewards within a small number of hyper-popular producers, and in turn eliminating the ability for any number of niche writers to make a living.

For now, however, it’s nice to be able to bask in this moment of potential for the dream of building a new class of digital yeomen. When I visited Ball and Enjeti at their studio, I asked if they had plans to expand “Breaking Points” into a larger media company, backed by millions in investment capital and run by dozens of full-time employees—making it, in other words, the type of acquisition property that could ultimately generate real wealth. The question made them visibly uncomfortable. Ball explained that one of the deeper joys of “Breaking Points” is that it allows them to focus on creative efforts they like—presenting and reacting to the news—without all the issues that plague larger organizations. “I don’t want to have bureaucracy or office politics,” she said. “People have shown up for us, and we want to deliver to them.” My impression leaving the studio was that Ball and Enjeti really seem to be enjoying what they’re doing at exactly the scale at which they’re doing it. Their excitement was contagious. I couldn’t help but think that this must be exactly what Kevin Kelly had in mind. ♦

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of paying Substack subscribers.

 


路过

鸡蛋

鲜花

支持

雷人

难过

搞笑
 

评论 (0 个评论)

facelist

您需要登录后才可以评论 登录 | 用户注册

Archiver|手机版|珍珠湾全球网

GMT+8, 2022-8-19 13:29 , Processed in 0.037205 second(s), 8 queries , Apc On.

Powered by Discuz! X2.5

回顶部