Democracy or Mob Rule? Buy the t-shirt!

Mob RuleI

[The Mob by Mr Shev]

I recently read a NYT Magazine article about Threadless.com, the latest manifestation of Web 2.0.  Basically, you contribute a t-shirt design and users vote on which designs they like best.  Each month the winner gets $2,000 and the design gets printed on 1,500 t-shirts and sold on the site. 

Not surprisingly, there are trends and certain designers win consistently, such as Glenn Jones from New Zealand who has won 16 times.  I got a kick out of his designs for kids’ shirts such as Defending the Kingdom and Homework Evidence.  But, what does it mean that small number of designers win most often?  That good design is hard and only a few are good at it?  Or is there a herd mentality? 

What about Wikipedia and YouTube?  Is Web 2.0 delivering on the democratic promise of the Internet? 

Which leads me to two recommendations for Fight Club topics: The Average American and The Cult of the Amateur.  Apparently, the average American lives within 20 minutes of a Wal-Mart, believes in God, can name the three stooges but not the three branches of government.  Do we really want input from a broader cross section of America? Take the Average American Quiz and find out where you are on the continuum. 

“Consider the notion that the most typical American is an adult in a traditional nuclear family – a married man or woman living with an opposite-sex spouse and offspring under eighteen years old. Census 2000 showed that the nuclear family now represents fewer than a quarter of all U.S. homes. Families consisting of a working dad, stay-at-home mom, and offspring make up only 7 percent of U.S. homes.” 

In The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture Andrew Keen argues that “what the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.” In his view Web 2.0 is changing the cultural landscape and not for the better. By undermining mainstream media and intellectual property rights, he says, it is creating a world in which we will “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising.” This is what happens, he suggests, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.” 

But our friend Lawrence Lessig points out in his blog that “Keen is our generation’s greatest self-parodist. His book is not a criticism of the Internet. Like the article in Nature comparing Wikipedia and Britannica, the real argument of Keen’s book is that traditional media and publishing is just as bad as the worst of the Internet. Here’s a book — Keen’s — that has passed through all the rigor of modern American publishing, yet which is perhaps as reliable as your average blog post: No doubt interesting, sometimes well written, lots of times ridiculously over the top — but also riddled with errors. Keen’s obvious point is to show those with a blind faith in the traditional system that it can be just as bad as the worst of the Internet. Indeed, one might say even worse, since the Internet doesn’t primp itself with the pretense that its words are promised to be true.” 

What about Broken Spines?  Are we really contributing anything?  Or are we just amusing ourselves? 

Here’s a link to the NYT Magazine article:The Way We Were: Consumed; Mass Appeal (requires NYT subscription) July 8, 2007, SundayBy BOB WALKER (NYT); Magazine ABSTRACT – From Wikipedia to ”American Idol,” shifting control from experts to the masses has never been more popular. As an example of what this can mean for consumer companies, the herd of anti-expertise experts often points to Threadless.com, which has sold millions of dollars of T-shirts by not hiring star …  

Exerpt from Average American:John Q Public. Plain Jane. The Average Joe. We think we know the type, but have we ever actually met the person? To be the perfectly average American is harder than it might seem: You must live within three miles of a McDonald’s, and two miles of a public park; you must be better off financially than your parents, but earn no more than $75,000 a year; you must believe in God and the literal truth of the Bible, yet hold some views that traditional churches have deemed sacrilegious.  

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4 Responses to “Democracy or Mob Rule? Buy the t-shirt!”


  1. 1 Steve M. September 13, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    If you’re to subscribe to Keen’s philosophy, you need a deep trust in the supremacy of the people who provide you information. Don’t forget who’s staring back at you from your Wall Street Journal. Control of information – including “art” – means interpretation. Keen’s assumption is that the best art lives in museums. And I’d just remind any doomsayers saying the internet is the harbinger of base art that Britney Spears, Ricky Martin, New Kids on the Block, New Edition, Wham!, Bay City Rollers, Abba, scores and scores of *high* quality art were fed to the general public before Web 2.0 arrived.

    The beauty of the internet, it seems to me, is choice and freedom. No longer does an industry necessarily control what we see and hear, although that option is still available according to one’s preferences. Rather than taking what is written in a book as fact, we are now able to push for truth — or at least another interpretation (in case truth is lacking in our post-structuralist world).

    Like the printing press, the internet explodes faith in established leaders while placing a heavy responsibility on consumers to validate the information they are receiving. That may be scary to erudites such as Keen, but thankfully, it’s an option for the rest of us. Choice vs. dogma. And thankfully, I don’t have to read Keen’s book. I might just visit his blog instead.

  2. 2 Matt H. September 27, 2007 at 7:18 pm

    If you are scratching your head about the wisdom of crowds and wondering what exactly is Web 2.0? Check out this video…



  3. 3 bobbyjones September 28, 2007 at 10:54 am

    From a professor of anthoropology – fantastic! I love it.


  1. 1 Hello Dave « Broken Spines Trackback on October 5, 2007 at 12:26 pm

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