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Now That We Are Unemployed, We Can Look Forward To More Funny Cats

April 27, 2009


Disclosure: this concept is something I’ve been blahblahing about at events for awhile (and the commentary of David and Ethan from the Berkman Center lunch are definitely worth reading). But, in any case, the idea’s developed a bit since so I’m taking to converting it to an extended text form and hoping that getting harangued by randos on the internet will be good for it.

Ok, so, here’s the idea:

The crashing global economy is hella great for internet culture.

This should strike you as weird, if not absolutely wrong as an intuition. What does a crumbling banking structure, mass unemployment, and world financial jitters have to do with the production of lipdubs on Youtube or the repetitive watching of the Susan Boyle video (there’s a psychological explanation that’s been kicked around — but really it seems pretty hand-wavy to me). If anything, you might think that money troubles should take attention away from funny cats and countless hours of reading FML and towards other things, like, you know, finding a new job or making sure your kids have something to eat.

What’s interesting though, is that as we meet people through ROFLCon and related events, this isn’t the case at all. There hasn’t been any noticeable dip among people participating or contributions to the messy ridiculous universe of internet culture. And better yet, people creating content and hanging out online are thriving.


I’ve been thinking that the easiest way to break down the argument is to deploy the tired metaphor about internet culture (and, I guess, culture in general) as marketplaces. Culture’s a product of supply on one side (that is, people creating content), and demand on the other (that is, people supporting the content not only with dollars but also just raw attention/participation). On both sides of the game, the wrecked state of the economy is great.

The supply side is simple. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports:

Since the recession began in December 2007, 5.1 million jobs have been lost, with almost two-thirds (3.3 million) of the decrease occurring in the last 5 months. In March, job losses were large and widespread across the major industry sectors…The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) rose to 3.2 million over the month and has increased by about 1.9 million since the start of the recession in December 2007.

In such an environment, the question you’ve really got to ask is — what happens when a large segment of all these jobless people are sitting in front of their computers all day with nothing to do but hang around on the internet? The history of web culture is clear — people with too much time on their hands and cheap tools are the fertile soil of Awesome Stuff.

And the numbers are surprising: even taking the overly harsh assumption that only one percent of those unemployed since the recession began both have a computer connected to the internet and are want to produce content in some form (33,000), and only spend one extra hour a day for a month on it (~30 hours) — we’re talking about a torrent of close to a million man hours of production (990,000) barfing up content online.

And that’s the conservative estimate. It fails to account for the fact that beyond goofing around online, unemployed people are also way more likely to use participating in online communities, regularly blogging, and uploading portfolios of work online as a way of finding new jobs and signaling that they are credible go-getter candidates for employment.

This isn’t a new idea: Clay Shirky’s talked a great deal in the past about this in high falutin’ terms of “cognitive surplus.” But we know we he really means, and what he means is this: people have lots of free time on their hands that could potentially be put to some kind of enjoyable, productive activity. We used to soak this up using TV, but now we have more easy tools for participation and creation on the internet. From his talks, I take it that he’s envisioning something like Wikipedia or something, but the liberating, big hole of 9-5 ripped open for people to do whatever it is they want to do probably mean we’re going to see an explosion of all kinds of activity — from more haphazard personal videos to selfless-good-deedery alike.

The demand side also shows strong in times of economic trouble:

If you’re a big media business that’s hard up for money and facing trouble with weak advertisers or poor sales, where do you go to continue to produce content? On one hand, you could continue taking on the cost of contracting with expensive productions and maintaining a large staff, as well as the costs of dealing with the legal barriers of negotiating with celebrities demanding huge advances or compensation. Or, you could look for cheaper solutions.

The old solution to this was to fill time with cheap reality shows, something that exploded during the writers strike last year. But there’s still big costs associated with this — you have to do major promotion, bring on famous people to host and otherwise. And even cheaper solution is to bring on notables from the internet, who usually demand less, are directly contactable (and comparatively easier to contract with), and come with their own huge prebuilt audiences. We’ve seen this happen recently — certainly the Gary V book deal, and the recent appearance of CollegeHumor on MTV suggest some of this pattern.

This demand effect isn’t only on the business side, but the individual as well: if you’re an unemployed mope looking for entertainment — where’s the best place to go? You could go to the movies, out to a bar, or something else that bleeds money from your pocket — or better yet, you could sit around at home on the cheap and screw around online. There’s endless hours of video for the watching on Youtube, Hulu, and whathaveyou — and tons of message boards/blogs to comment on to your hearts delight. All these activites stimulate internet culture on a fundamental level, like the small-time blogger that gets sweaty palms for one comment on a post, visible responses to content is a good motivation to continue.

And, if you’re looking to buy things, why drive out to the mall, buy yourself something expensive and take on the extra cost of transit? When instead, you might be able to buy some swag at relatively cheaper prices from your friendly neighborhood webcomic artist? Etsy’s kind of the standout example here — but there’s an endless array of small-time online retailers who can offer custom services and cheaper, hand-made products that you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

This confluence of helpful supply-and-demand forces point to another interesting potential conclusion — that is, do economic crises tend to stimulate activity on the long tail? It’s worth noting here that the contributions on the supply-side and the demand-side are “lumpy.” People out of work creating content certainly opens the door for unexpected blockbuster hits on the web — but most of those 990,000 hours of work are likely to generate the non-hits and small-following content that typifies long-tail production.

Same with the two parts of the demand side, mainstream media businesses aren’t looking for websites or communities that are already mega-huge: they’re likely to command the same huge cost as their “old media” counterparts. Media businesses are looking for deals — and they’re looking for quickly upcoming mini-hit players to bring on. The effect is more diffuse with individuals, though it seems unlikely that the participation and dollars of the unemployment will flow exclusively to the most popular spaces on the web.

The toughest part of this problem is agreeably evidence — how do we measure this?

The case study method might be the most interesting handle on it — Ethan’s linked me to a remarkable piece about the connection between the economic crisis in Argentina and the emergence of a strong DIY/Maker culture there. It definitely captures some of the dynamic that’s here. I’ve also been thinking there’s some potential gems hidden in the history of the first web crash: that the unemployment of tons of techies into the Silicon Valley area was a good primordial soup for the next wave of web startups and 2.0ing that came forth a few years later.

In the very least, I’d also love to tie some of this to the hard numbers of participation — though statistically it’ll be hella difficult to get at. Would love to see the rate of comment contributions or video contributions to something like YouTube over the past 6-8 months or the rate of sales over Etsy and see if the participation has jumped in any way since the economy started to decline.

But thoughts on how to approach this? Other situations/case studies that might fit well? Thoughts?

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 27, 2009 4:23 pm

    Timely release of a TED talk on a similar vein, but with ideas in science:

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