On An Absence

Social networking is the reason that No School Like Old School has been on hiatus for so long. Given, not the sole reason, but it takes up a not-inconsiderable slice on the pie chart. The full reasons are long and complex; the fact that most writers, like most creative contributors particularly in online media, are expected to work for free, is a big part of this. Whilst employment is not in and of itself the number one consideration in life, providing for oneself and one’s family is a practical goal in and of itself. People volunteer and do work outside of paid employment all the time, whether to better themselves or to give back to a community or to provide a service that would otherwise be absent. You’re reading the product of this right now; although I do this of course for pleasure, it is nonetheless ‘work’. But it can’t be reasonably expected of anybody to put this ahead of paid employment. Since No School went on hiatus, I have moved to a relatively secure job and into a flat of my own; this isn’t something that any amount of writing could realistically have procured me. I could be the greatest writer in history and not be in the same position. We work to produce the optimal conditions to care for ourselves and those in our immediate moral sphere. When those conditions can or should be altered, we work to alter them. No School was originally a means of doing so. Now it can be again.

Anyway; social networking, and on to the main point I wish to make here. I began to notice that posting No School articles on my personal Facebook account produced very little feedback of any kind. Very little compared to, say, somebody’s ill-informed opinions on current affairs, three hundred and twenty seven thousand photos of their children or a ‘Luk @ dis LOLZ!!!1’ video-share. Interest in my generated content was minimal. In laments terms, nobody gave a shit. Maybe I should’ve had a thicker skin about this, but somehow it felt wrong to be trumped by a misspelt status update.

Sidling gradually around to my point, let me begin by saying that those who produce content have always been in the minority compared to those who consume content. There are of course many more records sold than there are records, many more listeners when compared to band members. And distribution of content has never been stronger. But production of content has never been so under-appreciated. None-visual, that is written content, has been the greatest loser in this. The cultural capital my chosen form of communication is being eroded, in a situation I can only liken to well-stocked library of books from which people systemically and enthusiastically borrow. Every person finds something they like in each of the books, tearing out the page to show to a friend, before returning the borrowed book to the library. Others agree or disagree, scrawling their acquiescence or dissent onto the pages before again returning the borrowed book. Patently before too long, most pages are gone, and those that remain are illegible. Even if you disagree with this analogy and prefer to think of it differently, the argument follows. Say people borrow books from the library and photocopy the pages before returning them, with annotations or sharing done via their copies. The eroding effect still occurs, and the result remains that there is no point in having the books if all that is shared is facsimile and comment. New books are produced slowly, many are of poor quality, whilst some are seized upon and disseminated throughout the community. In the act of tearing pages, producing copies of pages or annotating pages, in this analogy we are left with a devalued, decontextualised book which nobody can fully read and is not replaced.

What I’m trying to expose here is that comment is never synonymous with creation. The intellectual capital is not being put back into the processes that produced the content in the first place, which is in the first instance unsustainable and secondly culturally disastrous. Let’s not be fooled into thinking that comment can replace content. User comments are the bane, the scum of the internet. Navigate to any random, relatively widely-viewed Youtube clip and give it six comments until a user comment is an outrageously out-of-context insult, or a sickeningly earnest rebuttal from another rubbernecking user, which is debatably almost as unwelcome.  It is however just a symptom of the true problem, which is one of convenience. Ours is a culture in which we seem to have lost our collective patience, our depth of field. We seem to have come to a position where the meme is mightier than the sword. The amount of written, ‘article-based’ content has ebbed to a new low. People want convenient content which can be taken in, processed and appraised literally at a glance. They want comment because comment is quick and easy. A comment takes just a few seconds to formulate and criticises at best a small aspect and at worst the gist or general thread of an article. It agrees or disagrees in generalities with specificity. Pinterest is a prime example of the re-blogging culture which I find so damaging, in which users create and contribute little, recycling material without giving anything back to the mix. Our online culture these days, to use the P2P jargon of a decade gone by, is one of leeching. To return to the library analogy, the shelves are running bare. Or rather, they’re teeming with triviality and vacuous diversion rather than anything of substance, anything truly worthwhile.

We seemed close to saturation point a short time ago in that there were so many music blogs promoting so many new bands that none (of either) really stood out. It was difficult to tell who to believe, who to follow and it’s only relatively recently that opinions are beginning to find themselves curdling around consensus once more. We have realised the endless, endless push to find ‘the next big’ thing, to break or cover a band or performer ‘before they were cool’ is both futile and counterproductive, although it remains widespread. It’s no good if critics come to a certain conclusion precisely because nobody else has done so, and this has been recognised. But we have instead come to a different impasse now, with content being shared in greater abundance, but with increasing profligacy. Differing information exchanges have produced a different result and sharing of creative content has become an exercise in recycling by users who have no intention of ‘putting back in’.

Sustainability is a condition that we have to work towards in many areas of our society. I’m no climate scientist but it seems beneficial to seek this state of affairs, which is an end in itself, and not only in environmental affairs. But I am a writer, and therefore a content provider, and suggest that this is one of the many areas of our culture in which we must work towards sustainability. We must do this by replacing the cultural capital that we consume in our daily online lives, not just via comment but by creating content. We must be conscientious in the way we consume our content, which is unique in that, unlike media and entertainment such as music, movies and videogames, its users and producers are one and the same people. Like other avenues of sustainability, this must begin with a grassroots change in attitudes before larger organisations can have an effect. Larger organisations and websites such as Pinterest clearly remain on a trajectory opposite to that described here, an ascending rather than descending parabola. Content production had always been a DIY enterprise, and now needs to be more than ever.

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