Quality control, part 3: the arts

Art done the old-fashioned way.

Art done the old-fashioned way.

This is final post in my series on quality control. Click the links to see part 1 and part 2.

The Internet gives everyone a voice. It either has become or is becoming our library, our newspaper, our encyclopedia, our television, our social circle, and our classroom. And it is not so much professionals as much as the world’s 2.7 billion Internet users who are doing it. (Follow that trend line, and practically everyone who wants to be online will be within 10 years.)

But giving everyone a voice has a dark side. There’s an old saying in science fiction called Sturgeon’s Law, and it says, “90% of everything is crud.” When everyone has a voice–when everyone can publish anything they want on a global scale–when even the 10% is enormous–how to we make sure the most deserving work gets the most attention? There are few places where quality control is a more difficult problem than in the arts, where so many people are so passionate about getting noticed and becoming famous.

The old quality control system was the one-to-many media. Traditional publishers were the gatekeepers for the books that were worth publishing. Hollywood was the gatekeeper for movies that were worth producing. Music producers and radio stations were the gatekeepers for music that was worth hearing.

I say “were” for all of these things, even though these are still very powerful companies, because the times have changed. Today, it’s very easy to publish your own writing online, play your own music online, release your movie online, or even publish your own magazine online (or else how are you reading this?) It sounds great, but the thing is, so can everybody else.

The old system of gatekeepers, where a few powerful people who knew what they were doing controlled what people would see, was always an imperfect one. As the money in the various industries grew, it got worse, at least in creative terms. For example, Hollywood has become notorious for the fact that it’s too risky to put huge amounts of money into anything that doesn’t already have a following. The result is an endless string of sequels, remakes, adaptations, and derivative comedies and horror flicks. Some very good movies have come out of this trend, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a creative desert with few bold, original ideas.

But what can we replace it with? The closest thing we have to a new quality control system is social media’s viral distribution, where a bunch of people promote what they happen to see and like. Some great stuff comes out of this as well, but is it really working as well as it could? One example: the list of the 30 most-watched YouTube videos contains 29 professional music videos and 1 home movie. Does that mean that “going viral” is not the best system or that indie music isn’t ready for prime time? Or both?

I don’t know. I’m a writer much more than I’m a musician, and I don’t even know where that’s going. The whole industry has been freaking out about it for years now. Maybe we’ll find a more useful viral “rating” system for self-published books. Maybe the arts will come up with a peer rating system more like the sciences. Maybe it’ll be something we can’t even imagine yet. The important thing is to watch out because the Times Are still a-Changin’, and no field is going to look the same when it’s over.

As for me? Well, I’m old-fashioned. For now, I’m still looking at traditional publishing, but I’m definitely keeping an open mind.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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