In the Internet age, all art is now “live”

There’s a piece in the New York Times today about online fan culture — and how it’s started to actually affect how TV is made. It profiles, a site that where TV producers regularly, and rather nervously, check what their audience has to say — and then often adapt their shows to the critiques. (My girlfriend Emily Nussbaum also had an excellent piece about this on Slate.) This is, as the Times points out, a rather new relationship between TV and its audience:

J.J. Abrams, show runner of the very Net-friendly spy show ”Alias,” sees the boards as a real measure of the audience’s pulse and rates their members as nothing less than ”an integral part of the process.” That could never have been said five years ago.

”If the Internet is your audience, TV is quite like a play,” Abrams says. ”Movies are a done deal — there’s no give and take — but in a play, you listen to the applause, the missing laughs, the boos. It’s the same with the Internet. If you ignore that sort of response, you probably shouldn’t be working in TV right now.”

Precisely. What digital culture is doing is turning all art into live art: You throw out a riff, see what the response is like, and respond accordingly. TV producers are going to have to start operating more like DJs, whose entire act consists of running small Skinnerian experiments on the audience — tossing out a beat for a few seconds, seeing if it gets any action, then either discarding it or mixing in.

Indeed, this whole cybernetic loop is becoming more and more powerful online. Anyone who’s done culture online — blogs, online columns, games, animation — has known for years what the folks in TV, movies and other sealed-off art are just now slowly finding out. Back when I wrote a column for Shift online in 1997, I covered anti-spam activists; at one point, when they mistakenly thought the magazine itself was issuing spam, they complained to our ISP and nearly got our T1 line shut down. How’s that for a flame war? Today’s Internet technologies — from Google’s Pagerank (ranking sites by popularity) to Trackback in Movable Type (which instantly alerts me when someone links to my blog) to Ebay’s reputation rankings — are moving increasingly in this direction. You can’t avoid scrutiny, and you shouldn’t want to; in the online world, the scrutiny is partly why you do things. Rep is everything.

Indeed, this idea is the governing metaphor in Corey Doctorow’s extremely cool sci-fi novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In his book, citizens have constant, head-chip-implanted Net connections, and they each have a ranking of “Whuffie” — a sort of Trackback-like or Google-like score that rises or falls based on whether other people admire or despise them. Everyone is constantly pinging everyone else’s Whuffie, and there are the inevitable amplication effects: People who are really admired become more admirable because, well, people admire them.

For good or ill, that’s precisely what happens these days with Google, and with the neatly incestuous interlinking of blogs. So it’s probably no surprise that Doctorow, a blogger extraordinaire, hit upon this terrific and thought-provoking metaphor. The book is, among other things, a fantastic meditation on the pros and cons of constant reputation scrutiny — which is beginning to happen all around us.

TV better get used to it.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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