Monday, January 4, 2010

Labors of Love and Those Darn Poppies

About a year and a half ago, I read Frank Smith’s Understanding Reading, and ate it up. As Smith explained his theories on how we, as readers, use our past experiences and the information stored in our heads to try to interpret new ideas as we read them, I gained a better understanding of how as a writer I can help guide my readers to comprehending what they need to out of what I write. I’m not doing that very well with that last sentence, however. Basically, I learned that if as a writer I apply Smith’s theories of how we comprehend what we read, I can alter what I write to make comprehension easier by doing more of what the reader anticipates.

Clay Shirky does the same thing for writers and readers and communicators as we transition from print to the Web in his book Here Comes Everybody. I’m still reading the book – one of just a few I requested for Christmas – but it’s fascinating. A bit of it I’ve heard before, especially as he uses to discuss the idea of publishing and having conversations about published material outside the traditional realm of publishing – without the editors, agents, and printing presses. But he’s really getting into some interesting insights in how our current technological tools are a great boon in making publishing and distribution as cheap as possible, while opening the floodgates for masses of material, some good, most of it hopelessly bad. Like this blog.

The Internet is helping many more people enter arenas where they can actively participate in labors of love:
People now have access to myriad tools that let them share writing, images, video – any form of expressive content, in fact – and use that sharing as an anchor for community and cooperation. The twentieth century, with the spread of radio and television, was the broadcast century. The normal pattern for media was that they were created by a small group of professionals and then delivered to a large group of consumers. But media, in the word’s literal sense as the middle layer between people, have always been a three-part affair. People like to consume media, of course, but they also like to produce it (“Look what I made”) and they like to share it (“Look what I found!”). Because we now have media that support both making and sharing, as well as consuming, those capabilities are reappearing, after a century mainly given over to consumption. We are used to a world where little things happen for love and big things happen for money. Love motivates people to bake a cake and money motivates people to make an encyclopedia. Now, though, we can do big things for love.
We are either on the cusp of a very liberating era, in which artists and writers and photographers and videographers and others come from the rank and file, not from the trained professions. This could be the Age of the Amateur, the age of Leonardos in Every City. Or we could be on the cusp of an era which could lead to a denigration of society as we concentrate in our own cliques and marginalize, poke fun at, or dismiss entirely other groups that don’t fit our labors of love, or the labors of love in which we express interest. We could be heading into 1984 or, more likely, Snow Crash.

We see both extremes on the Internet today. It’ll be interesting to see what comes of all of this. Probably a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

This is grounded on a base assumption, however, that is friable. The labors of love that Shirky describes in his text are borne of people who have the drive, the intuition, the energy, and the money to support their labors of love while also supporting themselves, families, et cetera. In other words, those who are most likely to succeed at their labors of love are likely those who would have succeeded whether the Internet were there to help them along or not. Yes, the Internet has a long tail, as Shirky describes. But those whose labors of love truthfully extend beyond the “Internet fame will have their fifteen people” cliché won’t be the masses. Does that mean the masses labors of love aren’t important to those small audiences? No. But as the world measures success today, a mere audience of fifteen won’t cut it. So there’s the promise of the Emerald City, but one has to cross that poppy field first.

Fortunately, there are lots of Pollyannas in that poppy field. That’s where I’m at, chatting away with this blog while I work on other Labors of Love with the Big L. And maybe I’m under the influence of those poppies. Twain said it’s a dangerous thing for a writer to see his name in print regularly, as it lulls him away from accomplishing something more difficult – a novel, say. The Internet is dangerous in that way. My brother-in-law, for example, has given up blogging, at least until an undetermined time in 2010, so he can finish his doctoral dissertation. He enjoys blogging as a labor of love. But he admitted blogging, which he enjoyed much more than working on the dissertation, was a distraction that was keeping him from completing that important paper. So he’s given up that labor of love. Which I understand. I applaud him for his bravery, while I cower here with the Hermit of Iapetus, while a novel I started seven years ago languishes.

I’m off now. On to that other labor of love.

No comments: