Thursday, 7 January 2010

The Tyranny of Failure

So here's a difficult one. The internet, that Janus-faced mistress, has thrown up two completely contradictory philosophies in 2009. It won't take a lot of editorialising to work out what I'm getting at:


Apps. Crowdsourcing. Blogging. 'Beta' as a positive state. Projects like Platform. Threadless. Personal data visualisers, like ManyEyes. A Battle Of Big Thinking winner espousing 'Brand Play'. The cheap piece of content, launched into the world with dreams of viraldom. Calls from all corners of industry - many industries - that what will save us is creativity and experimentation. Lovely.


Failblog. The #fail tag. The vitriol at Publicis for their cheesy Christmas card. (Beta) get torn apart for their first campaign (the best analysis can be found here). The sheer hatred of Jedward. Susan Boyle (She's ugly and talented! What a hoot!). 500,000 downloads of a song, mainly out of the desire to bring someone else down...

So, internet, what's it to be? Can we encourage experimentation with one hand and slap down failure with the other? The very term experimentation denotes the possibility of failure - a failure we need to be ready to embrace, without the glee of schadenfreude. It's fine for everyone to be a critic - but the problem is that nowadays, the criticism takes flight and spreads far faster than the object being criticised.

(*At this point, we could become very theoretical and talk about how hypertext itself is the final word in editorialising because it allows you to frame any thing you want to share with any other title you choose, and experts in NLP will know that this framing process irrevocably calibrates your expectations and final judgements - for example, would you rather look at this tasteless filth or this masterpiece? Exactly. I know I can feel my expectations shifting by the cultural values my peer group puts on things before I see them, and it takes effort to counter it. Let's leave this be, for now.)

'Get excited' and 'Fail culture' come from the same things - the glee and sense of empowerment that the internet (along with some other forces) has brought our section of society. But each of them runs up against more human problems. Critic Culture became Fail Culture because our brains are wired to fire more intensely and negatives than positives - part of our avoidance stimuli (that's why people watch Eastenders, not "Everything-is-fine-Enders"). And this climate of Fail is going to interact with the human limitation of Get Excited - fear. The fear of being found to be shit. Anyone who's seen me on stage (real, decks, or plinth-like) knows that I have had to suppress that fear in order to do anything at all. If our culture starts to act as an incubator for the very same sense of fear, well, I don't what's going to happen.

So: should we ease up a little on the criticism to encourage more experimentation? Or, in the wilds of the web, do we need efficient quality policing to keep society out of the dregs. I'd love to know. Help me.

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