The Failure of Web 2.0 (with regards to science fiction)

Jonathan McCalmont @ 15-10-2008

This month in Blasphemous Geometries: has the ‘Web 2.0′ phenomenon been a boon to science fiction fandom?

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

Or, asks Jonathan McCalmont, has it simply accentuated its slide from intelligent discussion into naked commercialism? And if so, how can we reverse the trend?

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In 2004, a conference popularised the term ‘Web 2.0′ and we have been suffering the consequences ever since. While tens of thousands of pages have been written about the Web 2.0 phenomenon, the central intuition behind the name was the idea that the internet had become a platform; a platform that allowed everyone to not only produce and publish their own content but also draw freely upon the content created by others. As someone rather inelegantly put it :

“…the philosophy of mutually maximizing collective intelligence and added value for each participant by formalized and dynamic information sharing and creation”.

It would not be over-stating things to suggest that the science-fiction community have taken this principle to heart when you consider how many SF-related sites, blogs, forums, Facebook communities and social networks have sprung up over the years. However, rather than ‘mutually maximizing collective intelligence’, the SF blogosphere has become a venue for crassly commercial interests far more concerned with selling things than encouraging intelligent discussion. In this instalment of Blasphemous Geometries, I shall attempt to explain this development and offer some suggestions as to how things could be changed for the better.

One of the most important books written about literary criticism is Terry Eagleton‘s The Function of Criticism (1984). Unlike many other grand works of criticism — valued for their contribution to the critic’s theoretical arsenal — Eagleton has comparatively little to say about actual literature and rather a lot to say about the history of criticism and how its function has evolved over the years. When criticism first emerged, it allowed the freshly minted bourgeoisie to create a cultural space for themselves that was separate from and different to the back-biting self-advancement and arbitrary fashions that dominated courtly life (brilliantly depicted in Patrice Leconte’s 1996 film Ridicule). Early critics enforced the public sphere by praising the works that mirrored its values whilst castigating those works that failed to meet them. In so doing, the critic upheld public values and served ‘the public’, earning not only a degree of fame but also a good deal of authority in the process. When Dr Johnson spoke, people listened.

As Eagleton points out, this state of grace could not last long. The socio-economic forces that created a cultural space for people to discuss books ensured that, before long, people would be looking to make money out of what was ultimately an emerging market. As the philosopher and sociologist Jurgen Habermass says :

“When the laws of the market which govern the sphere of commodity exchange and social labour also penetrate the sphere reserved for private people as public, [...] critical judgement transforms itself tendentially into consumption”

In other words, whenever commercial interests enter into a public space, they change the focus of discussion from what is good or interesting, to what is worth buying. We can see this effect in the fondness of the SF blogosphere for book covers, give-aways, recycled press releases and interviews that are far more interested in what an author has to sell than in the subtleties of their writing or world-view. By contrast, actual substantial reviews are few and far between (especially outside of specialised review sites) and when they do appear they are seldom discussed, seldom linked to and seldom responded to.

In fact, people who try to engage with works of science fiction are frequently met with indifferent silence. An alien taking its cultural cues from the SF blogosphere would see art galleries as nothing more than advertising space for the gallery’s poster shop. However, this is not a problem that is limited to the SF blogosphere. It is close to endemic in western media both old and new.

According to Nick James’ “Who Needs Critics?” in the October 2008 issue of Sight & Sound Magazine, a total of 31 film critics have been shown the door as newspapers across America ‘restructure’ themselves to face the threat of the internet. These changes have not only caused reviews to disappear from many newspapers, it has also seen analytical coverage of serious news stories give way to an increasing amount of sensationalist and ‘human interest’ content.

Indeed, while serious analysis is disappearing from newspapers across the western world, it is being replaced by ‘Lifestyle Journalism’ or, as it is frequently called, ‘Infotainment‘. Lifestyle journalism covers subjects such as films, books and music but, rather than discussing these works in any detail, its coverage comes from a commercial point of view, uncritically presenting art as ‘product’ that affluent readers might want to purchase… or get excited about purchasing, should the product not yet be available. For proof of this look no further than Britain’s best-selling genre periodical SFX, a magazine so breathtakingly sycophantic that one can, without a hint of irony, say that it has raised toadying for junket invitations to the status of an art form.

One of the reasons for the rise in Lifestyle Journalism is late-stage capitalism’s somewhat eerie obsession with positivity. Modern capitalism requires us to be positive and up-beat at all times, even when our insecurities and doubts are being preyed upon. A moment’s doubt is a lost sale. Thought and analysis are the enemies of the drives and whims that advertisers target so effectively (it is no accident that the father of Public Relations, Edward Bernays, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud). As Eagleton says :

“Once the ‘public’ has become the ‘masses’, subject to the manipulations of a commercialized culture, and ‘public opinion’ has degenerated into ‘public relations’, the classical public sphere must disintegrate, leaving in its wake a deracinated cultural intelligentsia whose plea for ‘disinterestedness’ is a dismissal of the public rather than an act of solidarity with them.”

In late-stage capitalism, the critic has become a perpetual outsider; at best a harmless egotist easily ignored (‘tl;dr’) and at worst a Negative Nelly who harshes everyone’s buzz because he “hates everything. As some would have it, critics are only useful in so far as they help sell books. However, what is interesting about Eagleton’s analysis is that he follows the language rather than the social role.

Eagleton is quite correct that what we think of as the ‘function of criticism’ has changed from that of defending public values to that of a marginalised academic, but Eagleton is forgetting that the public sphere is still in place even though it has been colonised by commercial values. Modern lifestyle journalists fill the exact same social function as early literary critics in that their job is to know public tastes and inform the population of works that they might like to spend money on. They do not challenge public opinion, they simply predict and inform. A lifestyle journalist who critiques popular opinion is ‘out of touch’ and destined for the chop; likewise a blogger who spends his time championing unpopular opinions, putting the boot into popular authors and writing long and detailed works of criticism will see his numbers tumble as most readers stay away.

It is perhaps fitting that ‘Web 2.0′, a term coined by a conference devoted to finding ways to make money out of the internet, should come to be dominated by the same patterns of commercialism that once drove people to start publishing for themselves. As quickly as new cultural spaces were erected, commercial interests in the shape of publishers and authors looking to establish their ‘brand’ made the most of them. Humans being humans, some enterprising souls have tried to take the public spheres back by encouraging discussion rather than mere consumption.

Facing a similar dilemma, mainstream litblogger Daniel Green has suggested differentiating between litblogs and critblogs. But while this is undeniably a useful distinction, it is more about retreating from the existing public sphere than it is about changing it. It also strikes me that if even one post in ten took a more intellectual footing then the SF blogosphere would be hugely improved.

So, I recommend small steps. For example, Niall Harrison has done excellent work in encouraging groups of people to discuss works such as Stephen Baxter’s Flood (2008) and Adam Roberts’ Swiftly (2008). Harrison also reviews older works, drawing his readers’ attention away from the diktats of the hype-cycle. In a similar vein, Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen has started off a book club for bloggers, encouraging them to all think about the same book at the same time. These group activities are perfectly suited to the online environment and they offer a true alternative to the rancid, empty commercialism that reduces reading to just another act of consumption. The true potential of Web 2.0 is still within our grasp, we just need to rediscover the desire to make the most of it.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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2 Responses to “The Failure of Web 2.0 (with regards to science fiction)”

  1. Nick Mamatas says:

    likewise a blogger who spends his time championing unpopular opinions, putting the boot into popular authors and writing long and detailed works of criticism will see his numbers tumble as most readers stay away.

    I doubt this.

  2. Abhishek says:

    Not totally correct, IMO.
    Like everything else, web 2.0 has to pay a price for everything good that it has collected praise for. And the price is commercialization.
    With more and more service providers / publishers (read SF websites) and much greater user involvement in web 2.0 (read lowering entry barrier for greater number of users every year), the vast array of choices available is simply staggering.
    In this battle to serve, those websites which truly foster a rich experience (read great free and genuine SF public opinion discussions) will win over the commercialized ones in the long run. Its just a matter of time.

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