If everyone’s a creator, who watches?

The way the hype has been growing around vlogging, video podcasting, consumer/user/viewer generated media, some people have extrapolated that we’ll all end up producing video. I don’t think that will be the case.

Many years ago, at least 5 but probably closer to 7 or 8, I promulgated the idea of “Video production as another form of literacy.” I wouldn’t say the general acceptance of my idea was strong – in fact my colleagues in the production community were only too happy to explain to me why I was wrong.

Not surprisingly, I think I was right then and that I’ve been proven so by the above-mentioned consumer/user/viewer generated media.

Literacy, in the sense of “reading and writing” has not been an almost-universal skill for that long in history.

For most of human history, the vast majority of people in every society were illiterate. In 1879 in this country, 20% of the population was illiterate and more than 70% of the black population was illiterate. Yet by 1980 – in a few generations — nearly all adults in the US had achieved basic literacy. Regrettably, 860 million adults worldwide remain illiterate.
Presented by Dean Debra Friedman on November 18, 2005, as part of the “Downtown and Gown” lecture series at ASU’s Downtown Center.

In human history, literacy is recent. Before the printing press very few read – it was an elite skill akin to the ability to drive the complex machineries that produced video and television throughout most of last century. Pre-Gutenberg there weren’t the available books to teach more than a small number of people. Manuscripts were a scarce resource, few needed them so the limited resource was restricted by the high cost of entry. Just like television and video production throughout the last 75 or so years.

What has literacy achieved? Well, most people read and write at some times in their personal or work lives. But there is no one way of “using literacy”. Very few people are employed because of their writing ability (and fewer employed for their reading ability) alone. Of those that are the professional uses are incredibly varied: from the successful Novelist to the Textbook writer, to those that write ad copy, to business reports, to magazine articles, to notes about the call-you-missed. It’s all writing but few are professional writers.

But even if your writing ability isn’t key to your job, everyone needs to fill in a timesheet/work order/sick leave application and needs to be able to read warning labels.

You don’t have to make your living from reading or writing to be literate. You don’t have to be a full time professional “video person” to produce video occasionally. The parallels are very strong between the two forms of literacy.

That’s why I don’t think everyone will be producing content for the 7,684* video sharing websites out there, just like I don’t see the average literate American producing novels, short stories or other written entertainment or educational material for their associates. Some do, most don’t.

Oh, and there’s the evolving 1% rule.

It’s an emerging rule of thumb that suggests that if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will “interact” with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it. The Guardian, July 2000

Either way you want to consider it, it’s highly unlikely that this near-universal infatuation with a new-found literacy will lead to more producers than consumers.

*In February 2007, that’s a pretty extreme exaggeration. However, there’s a chance this blog will stay online long enough for it to be true if the current rate of YouTube cloners all keep trying for a googlicious deal.

3 thoughts on “If everyone’s a creator, who watches?”

  1. There’s definitively a greater saturation these days of user-generated content. I don’t think I’d compare it to literacy though. Literacy is essential in order to function in society. User generated content is very different in that regard – it’s art.

    So while I think this kind of art is now more accessible to people, and therefore more prominent – I don’t ever think it’ll engulf the entire populace.

  2. Another useful analogy for the proliferation of inexpensive video production tools, and the concommitent explosion of content, is the democratization of print design tools twenty years ago.

    When print design tools became affordable, there was a flurry of printed material that was ineffective visually. It was cute to design your own newsletter, but the truth was, most people knew the product was homemade. You were given credit for your effort, but not for your taste.

    So, although there was very little literacy for creating with this visual language, there was an unexpected amount of consumptive literacy.

    Creative literacy = Writing/Designing/Producing with coherence and skill

    Consumptive literacy = Reading/Viewing critically and with understanding

    Before long, the novelty wore off, some new talent emerged, and the world moved on.

    People knew how to read graphic design, but they did not know how to create it. Their attempts at design made them more astute consumers of design. They were able to read design more deeply because they had experience with trying to create it.

    Everyone who has tried to write a short story because they love reading fiction will recognize this revelation. Nothing is as easy as it looks, and the best way to appreciate this is to try it yourself.

    I think we will see video production pass through the same phase change. The consumptive literacy will go up, new talent will emerge because the tools are available, and the general population will move on to the next cool thing they could never do before.

    The 1% rule is likely to be a powerful predictor for how each type of media evolves.

    Tom

  3. the sheer volume of video that is competing for viewers attention forces us as producers to get far smarter about the way we present and distribute. New media is not just old media on the net. The internet is a non-linear interactive medium. The nature of video is linear and non-interactive. This presents a profound dichotomy. Resolving this is key to our future success.

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