Audience Creation

I have made a video about the contribution of audiences to the value and meaning of creative works, contrasting with the myth that the romantic author is solely responsible.

Here is a transcript (added 2012-06-17):

Audiences make an essential contribution to the value and even the meaning of artistic works.

In a previous video, I explained the idea of the romantic author which shapes our understanding of creativity, and in fact has served as a guideline for copyright and patent law. According to this view the author is a genius who expresses something unique and personal when he or she creates a work of art. But that’s not the end of the creative process. What I’m going to talk about now is the contribution that the audience makes.

Consider artistic talent. Talent as a human characteristic, so like height or I.Q. it follows a bell curve or a normal distribution. That means that a few people have very little talent, say for drawing, a few people have exceptional talent, but most of us are somewhere in the middle.

Now if talent were the main factor affecting the success of artworks, then we would expect that artworks would follow the same pattern. In other words, say for films, we would expect that there would be a few films that were ignored, that were not popular at all, say most cat videos on YouTube; a few were exceptionally successful, say Star Wars; but most of them would achieve some degree of success without being exceptional.

In fact, what we have are lots and lots of movies that are not very popular, and a few that are exceptionally popular. We’re not talking five or ten times more popular than your average movie: we’re talking hundreds or hundreds of thousands of times more popular.

This can be represented not by normal curve but by a power law distribution. Most movies, as I say, are not very popular, and that’s represented by them being on the left of this curve. A few are somewhat successful. And an exceedingly small number are tremendously successful: way off the scale. And sometimes that includes cat videos.

This is true of many social phenomena. It is true of the success of music; of books; of computer operating systems – there are only a few operating systems that people even know about, although there are many others out there; websites – Google and Facebook have many, many, many more hits than you average blog. It’s also true of personal wealth.

Why? One might naively suggest that this has to do with advertising: that companies advertise and that makes the difference. Yet advertising often fails, and sleeper hits often succeed. One might also suggest it’s because producers choose to only produce or publish the good stuff. But that doesn’t explain the huge disparity in success between the hits and the average.

Audiences are the key factor, and they do two things. The first thing they do is they communicate and spread the word. If I watch a movie that I enjoy, I am likely to tell my friends – and they’re likely to tell more people, and so on: so the success of a film compounds. Even if I don’t talk to people I can see what’s getting attention, and that means that I notice it. There many more films out there than I can see, many more songs than I can listen to – and the mere fact of being aware of something makes a big difference.

This is something like the expression that says it takes money to make money. It takes success to make success.

This was demonstrated in an experiment by Salganik, Dodds and Watts. What they did was they took fourteen hundred something volunteers and forty-eight little-known songs. They wanted to see how these
volunteers would rate these songs. The study participants didn’t have time to listen to everything, so they had to pick some of the songs to listen to. They were divided into several groups. Members of the first group saw a random list of all the songs. They could click on some of them, and after they listened to a song they could rate it on a scale of one to five.

Members of the other study groups, however, saw something a little bit
different. They still saw the list of songs, but now the next each song was a download count showing how many other people in the same group as them had downloaded the song. The songs were sorted from most downloaded to least downloaded.

The results were stunning. The group whose members could not see download counts rated a particular song – Lockdown by the group 52metro – around the middle of the pack, about twenty four out of forty eight. One of the other groups, whose members could see download counts however, ranked it number one: and a third group, whose members could also see download counts, ranked it forty.

In other words, the assessment of this song’s quality was determined not by something intrinsic in the song, but simply by its popularity: not even by its assessment of quality by other people, but just the fact that other people were listening to it.

The other thing that audiences do is they make meetings, which I will illustrate with the song Happy Birthday to You. I’m not going to show you the lyrics because Happy Birthday to You is under copyright, and I don’t think that copyright expires until 2032 in the U.S. I don’t want to get my video taken down. Happy Birthday to You actually takes its tune, however, from an earlier song called Good Morning to You composed by school teacher in 1893.

Happy Birthday has become an institution. It is sung at every child’s birthday party that I can remember when the cake comes out. The thing is, the copyright is owned by Warner Music, and Warner makes two million dollars a year licensing and for use in movies. This is why restaurants usually won’t sing it: they want to pay the licensing fee, and they want to get sued.

I can guarantee to you that Happy Birthday to You was not worth two million dollars a year when it was first composed. That two million dollars is the result of the meanings that the audience has created around the song: not only the popularity that they’ve built up, but the association with children’s birthday parties.

It’s not only true of that, it’s true of art in general: that we associate art with feelings that we have, we build up our own personal meanings for it. This has been studied extensively in
academia.

For example, when I fell in love the first time perhaps I heard a piece of music. So I care about that piece of music: it means something special to me. Or maybe when I was a child and I saw Star Wars the first time it made me feel a sense of wonder, and so I watch the movie again: not because I’m so impressed, but because I want to recover the sense of wonder I had when I was a child.

Take the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was not a great success when it was first released. But it later turned into a cult favorite, and movie-goers now go to the theater dressed up, throwing toilet paper rolls and playing cards at certain times in the movie.

This is true in general about art. The meanings that people give to it, the reason they care about it is always something that they construct themselves.

All of this poses a problem for media companies. What are they to do They’re notoriously bad at predicting what will succeed. By now it should be clear why: ultimately it’s the audience that decides that. Not only success: the audience also determines quality. Whether we consider the mass audience or the audience of critics, the same principles apply.

Media companies want to make money, so they need to predict. In fact, what they want to do is they want to capture the work that the audience does – popularizing works and making meanings around them – and they want to transfer those to subsequent works that they produce.

The star system is one way of doing that. If I watch Humphrey Bogart in
Casablanca and I love the movie, then I think perhaps I’d like to see him also in Key Largo. So I transfer some of the feelings i have about Casablanca to Key Largo.

Another technique is to just take the same characters and the same settings and make other stories with them; and so we end up with a lot of sequels.

We also have what Star Wars innovated, or what George Lucas innovated with Star Wars, which is taking the brand and applying it to other kinds of goods like TV shows, action figures, novelizations, knick-knacks, and so on. If a kid goes and sees Star Wars and is enthusiastic about it, his imagination of what happens in the movie can then be projected into the toys as well.

The result has been that companies are focusing less and less on individual artworks and more and more on what in some industries have been called “IPs” or intellectual properties: not just a single movie, but the whole thing that surrounds it; not just Star Wars the film, but all the films, and the TV shows, and the toys, and so forth.

Now we’re a long way from the idea of the romantic author. Because IPs are owned by corporations. If you want to work on an IP as an artist, you’re going to have to work under the conditions that the corporation sets. Corporations often sell IPs or transfer them. They may decide that a different artist should be working on Batman this year, and the audience goes with the IP, not with the artist.

So the value of this is quite detached from the unique vision or genius of individuals at this point. And that genius is mediated through what companies want to do in order to maximize their profits. Meanwhile, we the audience are producing much of that value.

But there’s a downside to that, which i’m going to talk about in another video.

2011-08-05

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