Tuesday, November 4, 2008

mise-en-scènes: Most Of The Web's Are A Mess

We're all McLuhanistas now.

We take it for granted that the contents of each new medium, the world wide web, for example, is the media that preceded it. In the case of the world wide web, television, film, photography, music, radio, books and magazines of all kinds make up a substantial part of its content.

The web started out where the media that preceded it ended up, as a mass distribution network. The content of the web, a photograph or a film, for instance, may be transformed by being published in the context of the web, where it collides, lickety-split, at random, with other data, but the photo or film is not altered on purpose to make it "webic" in the way books and plays are altered to make them "filmic," by breaking them down and putting them together again as screenplays and films. (Or, for that matter, the way film, created for televison, is made "episodic.")

There is no art form yet the object of which is the creation of exciting web collisions, juxtapositions or chains of hyperlinks. Nor, for that matter, is it possible to imagine what the medium that may someday subsume the web will look like -- unless it is an all-seeing artificial intelligence that imagines the ephemeral events of the web and real life as, essentially, one and the same -- much less, what the "art" of that medium might be.

Generally, art is degraded as it makes its way through the media food chain. Novel to film to cable television to YouTube snippet, inserted into an article about an article, is a downhill trip. But only the last stage of that journey, the web, was designed from the get-go to abstract, distill, decontextualize and repackage -- usually without adding value -- to transmit, or, when not simply transmitting, to transform, by reducing content to pap. When it is not just moving content from one point to another, the world wide web has managed, on purpose, to dumb down its content --print, film, television and the other media -- to an extent previously unimagined. Even more than television, the web is -- with a few notable exceptions  -- a vast graveyard where ideas and creative energy go to die.

The history of television is instructive.  Film has been kinder to books than television -- the medium the web resembles most -- has been to films. In some ways, television has advanced the art of film. Certainly, the extended time of series like The Sopranos, Rome, and Angels in America have given audiences more time with the characters and mise-en-scènes of those films than movie-going audiences ordinarily get. And mise-en-scène -- a stage term applied to film by the French critic André Bazin that refers to everything about a film except its script -- takes time to appreciate. It's mise-en-scène that makes it necessary to actually see a film before we can talk about it as film. But, at the same time that television gives audiences an extended look at the mise-en-scènes of some films, it alters the film experience by degrading a film's mise-en-scène, making it smaller, flatter and more frontal, an effect that favors montage over extended scenes whose blocking and cinematography develop the illusion of depth on the screen and recreate the real world.

Television was not conceived as a distribution medium for films any more than film was conceived as a distribution medium for books. Films may end up -- along with made for TV movies -- feeding the practically insatiable maw of cable television -- just as novels may end up as films -- but television itself was envisioned, like radio before it, as a live medium. That aspect of television is in decline, too.

The fact that television news and opinion has degenerated until even raw video of breaking events is edited, explained and commented on in search of memorable and persuasive phrases, designed to lead viewers to preconceived points of view, is not the result of television's intention, so much as it is the result of the corruption of television's original intention to reveal, inform and transport.

The web, on the other hand, has adhered to its original intention. It remains as it began, a network of people, separated in space, each identified by a unique address on the web, coalescing into temporary communities around points of common interest where data is exchanged. Some of that data is information. It actually adds to the representation of something. Most of it is redundant, simply repeating something already known, and a lot of it is noise, data that adds to the representation of nothing.

Apart from the content they pass back and forth, the world wide web and the sites on it, are not very interesting. Most sites lack the kind of structure that narrative gives to novels, plays, films and television. (Even so-called reality television is structured by formulaic plots that include some element of suspense.)

The web has not found a way to adapt content -- to transform a subject -- without copying it on the one hand, or destroying it on the other. Even when sites manage a sort of transient narrative, usually around some great and scandalous event -- a favorite of muckraking sites and tabloids -- their mise-en-scènes are, frankly, a mess. They quickly turn into echo chambers, some of the most boring sites on the web. But, I might add, some of the most popular and profitable, too.


Quinn the Eskimo said...

Too harsh, I'd say. What with the graveyard, degraded, no art, no future, dumbed down, etc.

Reminds me a bit of looking at the book, c. Gutenberg & decades thereafter, and deciding it was domed to be limited to the mass production of indulgences. Or to TV in the 30's and 40's.

Let's face it, a lot of this is generational. But just for me, as a oldster/latecomer, it's changed.... everything. I prefer e-mail to the phone or the letter. I prefer Google and Yahoo to the stacks. I prefer Wikipedia to Britannica. I vastly prefer the ability to get "news" not just from one local paper or the networks, but from 1001 sources - aggregated at Pulse, Vibe or whereever. I prefer Facebook for staying in touch with extended families, as compared to the phone tree. I'll take Amazon over any bookstore, and Kindle over a hardback. I like YouTube over the video store. Online banking beats bricks and mortar ones. eBay beats yardsales. Skype beats phone. StumbleUpon beats my weird friend Harold. MapQuest and GoogleMaps beat the foldable kind. iTunes and Torrents beat video and record stores. TED beats Economics 101. Video games beat board games. All that software that let's us do it ourselves, all the ability to track and detect stuff, all that beats what came before. Even the world of Wikileaks beats the world of no Wikileaks.

Now, you'd probably argue that none of those are new art forms, or even art re-designed for the Internet.

What amuses me about this, is that you'd use the Internet, and write a "Blog," to argue your point. Blogs being - IMO - an early form of something which never really existed before. A something which, at times, come near enough to being "art" that I'd have to let it in.

That is, we can love the old forms, but TV and film and books were pretty much one-way pipes, with >99% of us on the receiving end. But what to do with this maniacal world of TENS OF MILLIONS of people with their blogs devoted to sports, art, craft, animals, heroes, spirits, villains, porn and everything else fascinating...? There's nothing like it before, other than Circus sideshows and oddball conventions. Yes, we had diaries and newspaper columns and specialty magazines... but 1,000 people writing on something is a lot different than 100,000,000. Plus, this is free. Plus, it updates within seconds. Plus, it's global. Plus, you can link to anything in the world. Plus, it's more visual. etc.

So.... your complaint then becomes the somewhat narrower one of, that most/all of the sites here have no narrative. Interesting. You really saying that all these "diaries" have no narrative? Maybe not. But that's perhaps more a comment on our lives than on the sites, and I'm not sure I'm down with that. If it's just that there's crap on here, and redundancy, yeah. That.

But if I was looking for new art forms on the web, I might not go far amiss than to point people to, say, the Blog called "Annals of the Hive."

Some might even think it had an interesting narrative.

Billy Glad said...

I mention a few exceptions, and I know there are more. I began to think about this when I re-read the Annals a while back. That and, of course, experiencing a lot of sites that are pretty crappy over the last few years. The thing about the Annals is the original posts never rise to the level that the posts plus comment threads do. Proof to me that the collective narrative is more interesting than any individual narrative. I've also come to appreciate the importance of funding. At its peak, the Hive had as good a team of writers as any site on the web. If I could have funded it properly so that everyone could work on the Annals full time, I think it would have been something. But we have to deal with the web as we find it now. And I hear blogs are on the way out. People are moving to twitter and face book now, or as Mansky suggests, to their own "professional" sites.

Everything you say about the technology and usefulness of the web is true. But, to me, that doesn't make it very interesting to talk about.

Here's what's interesting to me right now. If you go to Firedoglake's front page and click on the sitemeter, you see that they get 86,000 visits a day -- but it took them 3 or 4 days to get 500 members to sign-up to support them at $45 per year. Average visit length is 12 fucking seconds!

Quinn the Eskimo said...

Agreed on the collective narrative.

I'm interested in this as an historical phenomenon. It happens, from time to time, that collective stories come forward, and individual heroes recede. I've been shocked as - since the late 1960's/early 1970's - the individual hero has pretty much fallen over and died. In music. The novel. Politics. Social movements.

I think what happened is that we HAD a collective story, led by our heroes, and then "our generation" (which I think is our collective) basically... abandoned its story. Its youthful dreams. Entered its "wilderness years," if you will.

And what we're faced with now is a collective coming to terms with that. Either dying as 100 million assholes who resent that they abandoned their youthful dreams, or... by attempting to redeem the damn things.

Yup, we had great writers. Really. It makes me laugh, to tell the truth. I've been part of some great groups over the years, really smart people, really good writers. The Hive was as good as any. If only the rest of you weren't such pricks.

Yeah, people are gonna move to Twitter. I'm fine with that. At 157,641,999 blogs, I don't mind a bit of winnowing. Besides, there've been 80,081 new blogs created in the last 24 hours... And 1,303,763 blog posts put up. [I don't feel so bad about not putting one up today now.] Seriously, let some of the froth move to Twitter. We have to get to where there are lots and lots of blogs which go from hundreds of readers to thousands, I think. And so on.

As for FDL and such... Alexa says they're the 3,819th most popular blog in the US. Not bad. (TPM is 820.) People spend about 4 minutes there on average, per visit. So maybe there're are people who just visit to check their blog and comments a lot, I donno.

But it has 2,492 sites linking in. So, my guess is you've got 2,500-25,000 dedicated readers there. And I'll bet >50% of them have their own blogs, each of which have... 10-100 readers. And so on. So if you write something great, something that sticks - thousands of people will pick it up, at some stage along the chain.

Will you get credit? Hell no.

Will you make money? No chance. But I wasn't planning on it. Methods for doing that are years out, I think.

Will you change things? Possibly. And that's where it gets interesting.