Indeed, the Web 2.0 has introduced the possibility of both genuinely creative, meaningful work on the one hand, and really trivial work (or worse) on the other. I think a good example of the latter is the “People of Walmart” video we watched in class last week. Professor Bielecki pointed out that this video must have taken a significant amount of time to produce. The young women who created the video had to compose the song’s melody and words to fit with dozens of photos of “Walmart people.” Then she had to shoot some original footage of herself in Walmart and in the green screen space around which she and her alter egos dance. Finally she had to intersperse the video footage and stills and edit the entire video to fit with the music.
And yet despite the effort and time that went into the video, or rather because of it, I find myself dumbfounded. What was the point of the video? What insight or facet of experience has this video meaningfully highlighted? None that I can see. And was it even entertaining? I personally couldn’t find anything amusing about it after the first 5 pictures or so. In fact, it seemed rather mean-spirited to me, making fun of people simply because they dress in a way that does not reflect the standard sartorial range.
This video to me seems symptomatic of much of the content being created on the internet today. Young people in particular may spend hours working on a technically excellent video, but one whose content is trivial or worse simply insensitive.
This predicament brings to mind the exhortations of the philosophers throughout the ages who have stressed the importance of determining which actions and ideas have value and which don’t. Just because something can be said doesn’t necessarily imply it should be said. And the fact that a great deal of energy and time might be put into it also doesn’t change the fundamental question concerning the value of a given pursuit. “So with a hundred ‘modern improvements’; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance…Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.” This is a quote from Thoreau’s Walden, written in the 19th century. Here, Thoreau is criticizing the proliferation of the railroad in the mid 1800s. In an argument that is directly relevant to our own time, Thoreau draws our attention to the fact that a new medium does not necessarily imply a new meaning, a new goal worth pursuing. His next lines, written 160 years ago, remain for me the most on-point criticism of the “new” Web 2.0 YouTube/Twitter culture as embodied by the “People of Walmart” video: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough…As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly….”