For a lot of people who work in the media industry, 2008 is universally acknowledged as The Year When Everything Changed: economically, technologically, structurally you name it. There were a ton of major layoffs at legacy media companies, and the seeds of the digital media startup era (our Upworthies and Buzzfeeds) were being sown.
But as someone who runs a blog that’s about fan culture and fan creators, 2008 stands out for me for similar reasons. It was a year where mainstream media began to truly pay attention to fan culture and cover it as a beat. (Remember this was the height of Harry Potter mania, and the response of fans was just as much a business story as it was a cultural one.) It’s the year that a fan was sued for attempting to publish a Harry Potter Lexicon, a year where YouTube started to emerge as a distribution platform for a lot of video-based fan labor and radically changed the such content was consumed. It was a transformative time for mass media in general, but especially digital media. Generally it was a time where the assumption of early internet fan creation as a niche, primarily non-commercial activity was in its death throes.
All of this was disruptive. Not in the murky definition of startup-lingo, but in a personal, structural way: the lives and careers of many media professionals were forever altered after that year. After reading Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (Yale University Press 2014), I started thinking about what was likely lost in the midst of this transformation. The tone of the book is what one would expect from one with such a title: lamenting the death of the 20th century, post WWII cultural economy that fueled the careers of creatives. Not that it’s ever been easy to live and work full time as a creative professional, but Timberg’s argument is that the digital age has destroyed the infrastructure that made it possible. Internet distribution, the expectation of free online content, and file-sharing has destroyed the need for brick-and-mortar centers of creative life: book stores, record stores, video stores, performing arts centers, etc. an as such, the creative industries that were traditionally fueled by such centers — record/film store clerks, reviewers and critics, etc — are rapidly disappearing.
Timberg is a former arts reporter for the LA Times who saw his position eliminated in 2008, so he speaks from a decidedly fatalistic viewpoint. I thought about what Timberg’s treatise meant for fan culture and fan creators, since it’s not a topic that the book covers. Considering that YouTube, Twitter, etc. have launched the professional careers of some former fan creators, it seems appropriate to talk about the book in this context. While “film store clerk” was the low-paid culture industry job title of the past, it it fair to say that “$50-an-article TV show recapper” is its digital age equivalent? The kind of taste-making conversation that once took place in record stores can now take place on Twitter, or YouTube comment threads, are they the same? Perhaps not always. but there’s no reason why they can’t be.
Timberg, an admitted Gen-X “risk averse child of the suburbs” isn’t convinced of this, and the prevailing narrative of Culture Crash is that of skepticism about the benefits of Internet-age economy. The first chapter of the book describes the growth of post WWII creative communities and artistic subcultures in cities across the U.S: most notably the Los Angeles art criticism scene that emerged in the 60s and came of age in the 90s and the anomalous emergence of the alt-country scene Austin, TX. It’s bottom-up, urban collaborative communities like these, anchored by some level of institutional support, Timberg argues, that were the life-blood of the post-war creative class. With both community and institutional support eroded by the Internet age, such communities are floundering.
Timberg’s romanticization of the post WWII creative class glosses over the fact that even this time period was a cultural blip, enjoyed primarily by Baby Boomer aged creatives (and small communities of lucky older GenXers). Even those communities were usually pretty exclusionary about how actually got to make a “decent middle-class living” off of their cultural labor (mostly college educated middle class white guys).
Now, many fan creators in marginalized groups leverage existing fan communities to demand broader representation and to financially support original, more inclusive creative communities. I’d argue that contemporary media/sci-fi fan communities follow a parallel track to the creative communities that he describes. In these communities however, the “location” isn’t urban, it’s distributed, and the institutional support itself may be bottom-up.
Culture Crash isn’t a book about online fan culture, so I didn’t expect him to get into any of this, and Timberg is likely not familiar enough with these more traditionally niche corners of the online media economy to incorporate them into his argument, but the parallels between the two communities seemed fairly plain to me. Ultimately, though, Timberg focuses on the wrong boogey man here; technology. His overall argument is less a criticism of the erosion of the creative class, more of a criticism of the creative class’s shift away from “high culture” (visual art, classical/jazz music, performing arts) and the structures that made such creation possible. At one point in the book, Timberg writes the following about the decline of the culture class:
The price we ultimately pay is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another and the eternal human spirit.
I’m no utopianist, but this seems like a real reach. People will always have the desire to create and share their art, and the end of the post WWII creative class, as he defines it isn’t the end of creativity by any stretch. And if the argument is that the current economy hasn’t supported the creation of creative sector jobs with salaries and benefits that rival pre-2008, the same can be said of law, business, academia, medicine, you name it.
Timberg makes great pains to conflate the erosion of traditional media industry jobs with the gutting of public-supported arts and culture, which to me, is apples and oranges. If the argument is to bemoan with death of print and traditional publishing, that can’t be done without at the very least mentioning. what has emerged in its place: the rise of venture-capital funded media entities like Vox, Daily Dot, Buzzfeed, and the explosion of smaller online publications. The institutional support of the past isn’t what it used to be (higher education, government) but the erosion of that support isn’t interrogated nearly as much as the emergence of digital technology as the source of change.
The broader issue of an economy that demands more time from its workers with less pay is a global one that just happens to have an additional strain on creative economies. But even that can be countered with the argument of online culture and the explosion of podcasts, web series, web publications, etc.
So what of fan communities, in light of this? As we see more mainstream writing and academic study about the economies of fan culture and digital media, the ideas that Timberg presents here are worth revisiting. Communities of fan creators are more robust than ever before, and the semi-professionalization of fandom is more formalized than it has ever been, with clearly defined points of access and channels of distribution of creative work (cons, social media, podcasts, etc.). And if technology is the lifeblood of the creative class, allowing more rapid growth and implementation of ideas from different sources, then that doesn’t sound quite like a “killing” to me.
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