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User-Created Media on the Internet

According to TIME Magazine’s Lev Grossman, the 2006 marked a unique year story in that the real mover and shaker for that annum was not a single individual, traditionally marked in their person of the year feature, but rather, a vast and nameless, yet unspecific, collective of individuals known as “You. ” Grossman argues that the relationship between society and the Internet has reached a tipping point, as exemplified by websites such as YouTube and Wikipedia, in which media and other forms of content are built by communities.

Although Grossman acknowledges much of the sheer frivolity that permeates this culture, he also declares, with euphoric breathlessness, that this vastly unchecked culture of participation is the foundation of a digital democracy. However, not everyone sees the rise of user-created content as the broad social revolution which Grossman proclaims it to be. Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson of John Hopkins University notes that concurrent with the new digital democracy is a new cultural malaise that manifests itself in students as an inability to apply concentration on the tasks before them.

Simpson concedes that while a technologically literate generation of individuals manages to absorb and manipulate large amounts of data with remarkable ease, they find difficulty in long-term planning or in cutting down the extent to which their attention is divided at all given moments of a day. In effect, students are uncomfortable when they aren’t distracted. Furthermore, Simpson is concerned that students are unable to live in the moment, unable to purge multitasking from their minds rather than using it as a means to get things done. As such, learning and communication are, to some extent, eroding one another.

Still, this does not mean that the perspectives of Simpson and Grossman regarding new media are somehow mutually irreconcilable. New York University new media professor Clay Shirky opines that the positive implications of the participatory culture and the socio-cultural struggle to come to grips with being perpetually encapsulated with new media applications and devices are merely two sides of the same coin. The emergence of the participatory culture, argues Shirky is simply the emergence of a brand new way to harness the social and cognitive surplus that defines the transition from pre-digital societies to post-digital ones.

In effect, the cultural malaise of attention deficit gadget savvy multitaskers is a symptom of that transition, where as Simpson opines, individuals are unable to multitask responsibly to the extent that there is space in the mind to manage tasks efficiently and absorb lessons meaningfully: “The generation coming into school now grew up with this technology, and they don’t know how to live without it,” [says Ben Locke, an expert in technology on college campuses and assistant director at Penn State University’s counseling center.

] “Technology [is] on a person all day long. […] Multitasking used to be a way of getting things done. Now it’s a state of mind. ” (Simpson 2006) Still, Shirky maintains that this transition is a meaningful one because it abdicates the passive relationship with cultural consumption and a status quo in which individuals are excluded from the process of cultural production, whether or not that culture is in trivial forms, such a pictures of cute kittens with funny captions, or in meaningful ones such as peer-generated databases and user-constructed encyclopedias.

While much content on user video sites like YouTube and Blip. tv are full of videos cannibalized from television and home video, a meaningful (though admittedly statistically insignificant) percentage of it is user-created content such as music videos, user-captured footage of events and video journals. On sites like Indaba Music and OverClocked Remix, individuals congregate to create sophisticated remixes of existing musical tracks, such as a haunting apocalyptic remix of the title theme to the videogame Max Payne or symphonic re-arrangements of K-OS’ “Astronaut”.

Also, the emergence of ‘folksonomies’ where individuals use tools to tag data and give it new meaning has lead to sites like delicious. com and Google Maps. In the former, individuals apply tags to existing web pages so that they create a academically imperfect, but practically sound index of the Internet, while in the latter, geography can be marked with various push pins to imbue meaning to the visual data of satellite imagery.

Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig has argued in many places that what we are seeing is a transition from read-only culture to a read-write culture. Granted, individuals have never been entirely discouraged from participating in cultural production. However, sites like those mentioned above decrease many of the entry barriers that had existed before in getting one’s work not only published but more importantly, disseminated among those who are interested in it in the first place.

Unless one passes the commercial criteria or editorial scrutiny of an established publisher and distributor, one would be consigned to grinding tours to get a film seen and mail order requests to get printed work read. However, a more critical point which Lessig (35-40) asks us to consider is that an active relationship with media production fosters media literacy in ways that did not exist to individuals unless they were enrolled in an expensive media studies course.

“The aim of any literacy, and this literacy in particular,” argues Lessig, “is to empower people to choose the appropriate language for what they need to create or express. It is to enable students “to communicate in the language of the twenty-first century. ” Therefore, proclaiming user-created content as the triumphant emergence of a democratic revolution in media access should not be seen solely as some sort of ideological polemic to be battered over the head of the media elite.

Rather, the more critical point to absorb from all this is that user-created content is the democratization of distribution and production itself, making it accessible and available to those who would not normally have the technical proficiency to wield media or the resources and access to organize and distribute their work, and enabling people to communicate in forms that are most relevant to the way we currently absorb knowledge and create understanding about the world.

Works Cited

Grossman, Lev. “Time’s Person of the Year: You. ” TIME Magazine. 13 December 2006. Retrieved online on April 23, 2009 from: http://www. time. com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1569514,00. html Simpson, Joanne Cavanaugh. “Multitasking State of Mind. ” John Hopkins Magazine. September 2006. Retrieved online on April 23 2009 from: http://www. jhu. edu/jhumag/0906web/ruminate. html Shirky, Clay. “Gin, Television and Social Surplus. ” Worldchanging. 7 May 2008. Retrieved online on April 22, 2009 from: http://www. worldchanging. com/archives/008009. html Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lockdown Culture and Control Creativity. Penguin Press: New York, 2004.

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