MySpace: A Revolutionary Link Between the People and the Cultural Industries (2/2)

What makes MySpace unique, along with other sites based on the same concept, such as, is their unique and revolutionary service of popular culture broadcaster (so far, mainly music) relying on the technology of the Web 2.0. They link social networking and self-representation, and the prominent place of popular culture in identity formation and social interaction. However, these new services greatly destabilize the traditional grounds on which the cultural industries are organized, especially in terms copyright and licenses. This is a phase of transition for the cultural industries and while very few people contest the interest of social networks for the creative industries, intense debates are going on to try to reach a point of equilibrium between the different actors. MySpace in particular has the function of the aggregator of cultural products but also encourages the publishing of user-generated content, of which legal status is not very clear (public/private domain). Also, users now have the technologies to easily express their creativity by editing and remixing pieces of popular culture, a practice which poses its own set of legal issues (Lilley. 2006).

However, the emergence of this new type of media poses other, maybe more crucial questions. As other Information and Communication Technologies, the web 2.0 has a more and more important place in the socialization process, especially for children and teenagers. Although MySpace is a virtual space, real and meaningful social relationships take place within it. If a 12 years-old girl can’t log onto MySpace for material reason (she does not have access to a computer, neither at home nor at school), she is prevented from participating in the social life from which her other friends benefits and is likely to be quickly somehow excluded from the group. Plus, as Henry Jenkins and others point out in a recent White Paper (2007), engaging in the web 2.0 allows the acquisition of technical and mental skills that are valued in today’s workplace and that are of great importance for a full conception of citizenship in the modern age. Denouncing a widening “participation gap”, they propose that the educational system embrace these new opportunities to make young people both aware and critical of the impact of media on their lives, but also equipped with the appropriate tools to express their subjectivity in meaningful ways in the “participatory culture”.

MySpace and the like are part of a revolution; a revolution that brings new ways of thinking about ourselves, new ways of communicating with each other, and new ways to consume popular culture. So far, most of these ventures have been a commercial success, in spite of the many criticisms that have been addressed to these endeavors. As with every revolution still in process, it is unsure what the final consequences of the development of online social networks will be. Still, as citizens, we must recall that any technology is only as good as the use that is made of it. While being aware of the ethical problems that MySpace and its consorts might bring, we must try to influence the current reshaping of certain social and legal relations that they originate so as to make them beneficial for the whole society. We should try to promote richer ways of identity expression and possibly more authentic relationship with artists and creators.

Photo on Flickr by Joits under Creative Commons License.

MySpace: A Revolutionary Link Between the People and the Cultural Industries (1/2)

The following article is an excerpt from a research paper I wrote in June 07 at Middlebury College.

Most online-social networks were developed with technical means in mind. In that respect, MySpace is first and foremost a commercial company that seeks to maximize its benefits through advertising. This commercial aspect has been proven even more central since the media multinational News Corporation, company of the Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch, bought Intermix, the group MySpace belongs to, in the summer of 2005. MySpace value was then estimated to US$ 327m. Why such a success?
By encouraging users to refer to popular culture, and by creating strong networks between the producers of pop culture and the consumers, MySpace is able to offer a segmented social space extremely convenient for advertisers, who massively invest in the social network: only in the categories “Fan clubs”, “Music” and “Entertainment”, there are more than 1 million users groups. The prominent place of popular culture on MySpace is facilitated by the technologies it proposes (streaming of music and videos) and the general organization of a profile page: user’s digital identities are performed through the extensive quoting of popular culture, and can easily be reduced to some aspect attached to it. In the same way Google developed a technology that enables advertisers to reach people with certain specific interests, MySpace can offer precious information about the sociological background of its users to advertising companies, since communities are organized around shared characteristics (demographics, educational background, socio-economical position but first and foremost cultural tastes).

In addition, by providing the cultural industries, and more specifically the music industry, with an exchange platform with consumers, it stimulates among the network social buzzes about this or that artist. Today, almost every music band has an official MySpace page. Through their pages, artists can easily make people discover their music and communicate with their own fan base to give information about new releases and tours. It is also very simple for an artist ‘x’ who considers an audience to be close to that of the band ‘y’ to get in touch with the fans of the latter. It is especially useful for small and amateur bands, which can use the networks of more notorious bands to expand their audience. And of course, there is always the possibility for horizontal interactions between users who are likely to discuss about their favorite singer, or to share music of a new band by playing their music on their profiles (their friend can click on a link and directly access the given band’s page). On this online network, popular culture fuels all kinds of social interactions.

Hence, MySpace locates itself at the intersection of both the cultural industries and the audience by proposing an innovative way of broadcasting popular culture. It surely serves the cultural industries in many ways since it has become a fundamental tool for promotion and communication. However, promotion is not purely organized top-down: the high degree of interactivity and the gratuity of access allow non-signed bands and amateur artists to find an audience. By a sort of boomerang effect, MySpace nourishes the cultural and entertainment industries. The evident example is that of the Arctic Monkeys, a British rock band whose fans posted some of their songs on MySpace, a move which helped the band to gain popularity worldwide. MySpace offers a form of cultural democratization in the sense that small non-signed band have basically the same means as rock stars, that independent filmmakers don’t need a big distribution company to find their audiences. This even has been the original use of MySpace ever since when it was launched, the first users were Californian indie Rock bands and their fans (Boyd, 2007). Indeed, this online social space, there seems to be much less discrimination than on physical markets where distribution of cultural products is more and more complicated in a sector very concentrated (in the music business, the “big four” major companies sells more than 80% of music worldwide which give them a significant power on distributors). As a matter of fact, MySpace recently announced an agreement with the new independent labels licensing agency to sell their music online, thus showing its will to encourage independent and emergent artists.

In the end, the fact that simple users have such an influence on promotion and eventually the commercial success of the artists represented on MySpace brings questions about the traditional role of cultural media as critics and selectors of popular culture. This might not be surprising for who has observed discourses of fan web communities about popular culture, in that they have long contested traditional cultural practices and mainstream aesthetics (Jenkins, 1992). However, social networking websites such as MySpace have completely shattered the structures of the earliest versions of web-based social interactions and the phenomenon is different in that, often times, a very wide audience can praise a particular artist before the “traditional critics” have had a single word to say about it.

Photo on Flickr by m-c under Creative Commons License.

Why the French 3-Strikes Law Might Be Unconstitutional

The French Government just finished writing a bill that would aim at controlling internet traffic in order to punish web users guilty of copyright infringement. The law, highly anticipated by right holders, would create a new public body in charge of sanctioning people guilty of illegal downloading. It would first warn them by sending emails and letters, and could eventually order internet service providers to suspend their internet access. The Council of State, a court of senior jurists that advises the government on legislative bills and also acts as France’s supreme court for administrative law, has reportedly modified the bill quite significantly. It sought to respond to a number of judicial requirements, such as the constitutional principle of individualization of penalties (see previous post).

However, it is also likely that the Constitutional Council could declare the upcoming law unconstitutional. One of the many reasons it might do so has to do with the statute of this new public body, called HADOPI for “High Authority for the Distribution of Works and the Protection of Rights on the Internet”. This new agency would be an Independent Administrative Authority (IAA), a qualification similar to the British Non-Departmental Public Bodies.
Such qualification will normally have significant implications regarding its competencies. Indeed, the Constitutional Council’s jurisprudence has slowly built a coherent judicial framework for IAAs. Most notably, in its decision on January 17th 1989 concerning the CSA, another IAA in charge of regulating the audiovisual sector, the Council imposed three conditions to the constitutional validity of the sanctioning power of IAAs:

1. that these IAAs are in actual fact independent from the administration;
2. that their sanctioning power are restricted by “appropriate safeguards to ensure the rights and freedoms that are constitutionally guaranteed” (idea of a fair trial);
3. that the sanctions they adopt do not constitute a privation of liberty.

If the Council of State seems to have paid enough attention to the second point, it is very possible that the Constitutional Council will declare the three strikes law to be contrary to the Constitution on the ground of the third one. According to the 66th article of the French Constitution, the judiciary authority is the “guardian of individual liberty” and is the only one constitutionally authorized to pronounce sentences infringing on fundamental liberties. Therefore, an administrative authority, even independent, cannot be given the power to order such measures. This is precisely what the 1989 ruling reaffirmed. Yet, the suspension of internet access is clearly a privation of communication freedom and it is consequently dubious that the Hadopi is even lawful.

I asked my public law professor about it and she thinks that it is a constitutional dead end too. What I can’t really figure out is why the Government would engage in this fight knowing it too…
Wait and see.

Pictures by Jastrow, retrieved on Wikimedia Commons.