Perhaps the Barriers to Entry for Creative Work Have Become Too Low
I remember when the video-sharing network Vimeo first debuted, or at least when the Vimeo brand was really developed. It was sold, in my recollection, as the auteur’s YouTube - where the latter at that time was filled with SNL clips of dubious legality and low-effort sketches and vacation videos, Vimeo was designed to serve as a place for people who were passionate about making video and wanted to invest in making high-quality stuff. It was an exciting prospect for me. And yet in the ensuing 15ish years, I have perhaps watched a few dozen videos on the platform. I made a real effort, at one point, to find the gems, but most of what I found was just boring. The site must be at least somewhat financially successful to still exist, but it’s hard to name any must-watch videos that are hosted there.
It’s hard to compete against YouTube, and I’m sure part of the problem Vimeo has is that their best content probably ends up on YouTube anyway. But I suspect that the problem is more fundamental than that: it’s hard to make good, artistic, serious video content. Some of that is no doubt technological, although the price of making really good-looking and well-edited video, even with visual effects, has never been lower. The bigger problem is that most people probably just don’t have what it takes to make good video art. I’m hardly the first to point this out, but while the digital era has democratized a lot of the systems and technologies that make creative work possible, what hasn’t been democratized is talent. Talent, skill, vision, creativity, inventiveness - these things can’t be made egalitarian in the same way that blogs made sharing written arguments egalitarian. There’s plenty of people trying to make “serious content” on YouTube, much of it terrible, but the network’s bread and butter remains stuff in the vein of Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial clips, “reviews” of smartphones that are really just reworded marketing materials, videos of someone else playing video games, footage of great white sharks, highlights from last nights NBA games…. The quality bar is much lower because most of this stuff has zero real artistic ambition at all. “The auteur’s YouTube” sounds great until you realize that there just aren’t a lot of people out there with the skills to be an auteur.
But there’s another dimension of this that I’ve thought about for awhile now: I fear that because it’s so easy to make something, now, people feel no pressure to make anything particularly ambitious. I worry that, now that the urge to create can be scratched by making a half-assed video in 10 minutes or by playing video games on Twitch for a couple hours, there’s no particular reason for people to dream bigger and invest more time, energy, and emotion into their work. Once upon a time, if you wanted to make a film that would be viewed by more than a few dozen people, you had little choice but to go through the process of getting that film released in at least some theaters - maybe at a festival or in arthouses or college screening rooms or something, but shown in theaters one way or another. And that was hard. There were barriers to entry. Those barriers in and of themselves weren’t good, but that reality meant that if you had a burning desire to reach others through that medium you had to really invest yourself. You didn’t half-ass making a movie when you had to get your hands on a hard-to-acquire camera and use expensive film and employ a crew and work hard to somehow get it in front of an audience.
Now, you can just make some lame YouTube video, and though everyone who watches it will forget it within a few days, you might well scratch the itch that in another era would compel you to do great work. It’s the same with writing (you could print something out and hand it out on the street, at best, without institutional support) or music (you could perform your work live, but even then you’d have to beat the bushes for opportunities, and pressing your albums was expensive), even visual arts (without some amount of gallery access and ability to generate publicity you’re pretty much confined to showing your work on the street). Hell, I’m sure there are people who would have gotten into standup comedy had it not been possible for them to spend all their free time telling shitty jokes on Twitter. But where do those shitty jokes ever go, other than being pushed further and further down the feed? Who have they ever inspired?
Of course there were intermediary stages; a band making a tape and passing it around to build buzz was once a rite of passage, for example, and I don’t think much is lost by moving that function to Bandcamp or Soundcloud. But the technological affordances of the digital era mean that you can create something and share it with a huge audience with zero gatekeeping and no hustle. Theoretically, you could film a two-hour movie, write a 400-page novel, or record a double album on your own and simply share them online, and there have been some limited success stories, most prominently in the self-published ebook space. But those are small potatoes compared to the continuing (and ever-growing, though now less remunerative) establishment film, music, and publishing industries. Again, it’s a question of personal investment: you can potentially make good money crowdfunding or selling your work directly to your audience online, but in general if you’re going to the great effort to make good creative work you want the greater financial certainty and prestige that come from established channels. But if you can just fart something out online and get money and notoriety from doing so, doesn’t that inevitably dull the drive to create something of lasting value? And if all of your peers are investing themselves in Instagram and Twitch instead of in writing books and songs, isn’t it likely that you’ll never feel the internal push to really create in a more durable but harder form?
I think there’s potentially a broader element to the dynamic I’m describing here - the internet’s structures create incentives for us all to try and be mildly popular with a large group of people, to gently amuse a bunch of strangers who will never really care about us, and that’s contrary to my basic definition of human flourishing. But setting that aside, I really worry that we’re being deprived of a new generation of artists by the easier and less ambitious substitute of making TikToks, telling jokes on Twitter, photographing your lunch for Instagram, and making ponderous and unconvincing video essays for YouTube. I of course recognize that there have been unnaturally high barriers to entry in creative fields that have prevented us from enjoying the work of people who never got a fair shot, and I also understand that there have been unjust dynamics of race and gender and class at hand there. I certainly don’t think that increased accessibility of creative tools or forums has been bad in and of themselves. I just worry for a generation of young people with creative impulses when it’s so easy to satisfy them, at least to some degree and temporarily, by doing shoddy and ephemeral work. Michelangelo had to paint a ceiling in the Vatican to ensure his art would be seen by generations. But what if he could have just shared his tossed-off drawings on Facebook and said, eh, good enough?
Edit: I should have mentioned - this might seem hypocritical, given that I started out as a blogger and have done most of my writing in this format. And I don’t have a lot of regrets about how it’s all gone down. The question that occurs to me, though, is whether I would have published my first book at 29 instead of 39 if I had never had the opportunity to blog? Would I have been more discipline and stable and better edited if the only way to reach an audience was to work my way up the latter of traditional media? I don’t know.