The Means of Production

There has never been a better time to start a blog, launch your podcast, or find your voice online. Powerful forces are driving this openness and freedom. Once dominant media outlets are being unbundled, barriers are being blasted away. There is an opening of the means of distribution.

It started in 1995, when Craigslist planted seeds that would grow like weeds to choke the classified advertising departments of nearly all newspapers. It has continued with YouTube throwing off the chains of network-controlled television production, offering a pop culture audience to just about anybody with a video camera and a Millennial sense of humor. More doors were opened by social channels like Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat, and platforms like WordPress,Tumblr and Medium. Indie publishing is thriving with CreateSpace, Amazon and Lulu. The means of production and expression are wide open. There is even talk of NPR unbundling itself into a network of podcasts. Sound good to you?

Well, there is also chaos and evil.

YouTube is owned by Google, an organization questing after world domination online as much as Uber quests after domination in the streets. Tumblr is caught in Yahoo’s death spiral. Facebook wants to become the way we read all news. Amazon plays rough, undercutting book prices and sometimes freezing out authors. Small comfort that its book business only exists, according to Bezos, as a way to sell more appliances and gadgets.

Giants like Bezos, Zuckerberg and the Google guys cast long shadows. Flush with cash, huge dev staffs, lobbyists, killer instincts — they’ve got it all. The online playing field is littered with the corpses of their competitors, formerly clever-seeming news aggregators and iPhone apps. Meanwhile, doddering old mainstream media fumbles along, looking for its lost eyeglasses and trying to keep a pulse going. The New York Times newsroom is consumed with palace intrigue as editors decide how they are going to “trim” a newsroom staff of a thousand employees. Most of my friends in the business have already been laid off, entire companies have gone under, former journalists who do have jobs work hard to write clever captions for GIFs. Just today, Tribune Publishing, trying to remain relevant, renamed itself tronc. (“Whaaat?”) Facebook has tried to convince us that an algorithm selected its trending posts — as if the knowledge that an algorithm is doing that is somehow comforting — then had to backtrack and admit that flawed humans were attempting to be, what? — editors?

Your heart has to go out to editors.

For most online media, the editorial filter is broken. Editors have to let in silly stories because they will generate clicks. They must surrender reason, giving way to voted-up nonsense and the wisdom of the crowd, which often isn’t very wise. When you open the doors, ill winds can blow in. Trolls are rampant. Twitter management can’t sort the free speech from the hate speech. For fans of free speech, like me, it means we are in the awkward position of defending the likes of Gawker, a reprehensible publication that a plutocrat named Peter Thiel has tried to take down by bankrolling a multi-million dollar lawsuit or two, just because he doesn’t like what they’ve written about him.

Still … still… let’s take a deep breath. Try a downward dog. Crack open a craft brew. Listen to some old Bob Dylan if you need to. Everything will be okay.

In 1867, there was this guy who was writing a book in the reading rooms of the British Museum, because there was no Starbucks to work in back then. One of his most lasting ideas was that the people who owned the means of production would run things. Look at what we have now: We have a shot of owning the means of production. Yes, our ownership is flawed. We have to work on platforms owned by Google and Facebook and Amazon. But WordPress, Lulu and Soundcloud don’t seem evil, and they don’t want world domination. They just want to help us express ourselves. We can reach more people more easily than ever before. We can witness conversations formerly closed, like this worldwide journalist gabfest on Twitter, Medium is beautiful, and it’s amazing to see the Times work so hard to reinvent itself. I’m feeling positive.

This post was originally published on Medium.