All the studio people at the table shook their heads. “You’re crazy,” one said. “No one will turn their backs on Hollywood entertainment.”
Inside the Hollywood bubble, it’s business as usual. Outside, on the streets, much more interesting things are happening. Kids are taking up digital tools and creating movies and video shorts. Some are remixing big media television shows and movies into fan-style DVD commentaries. Others are creating new musical forms on computers in their bedrooms. While millions sharpen their digital photo techniques, many have also begun using camera phones and mobile devices to post photos or homespun wisdom to a global audience.
The world has changed since Chris Strompolos was 10. What once took seven years to pull off could likely be done in a single summer of youthful exuberance. What once required expensive, bulky equipment and professional editing studios can be done with a palmcorder and desktop computer. As the tools become cheaper and easier to use, the kind of storytelling that infuses Raiders: The Adaptation—the grit, the passion, the wide-eyed wonder—is spreading throughout our culture. Such personal works remind us that it is in our nature to tell stories and be creative—instincts that have been too often repressed during the couch potato era of force-fed mass media.
That’s not to say that Strompolos and Co. or other little islands of creativity will give MGM, Disney, or Paramount a run for their money. The motion picture studios, record labels, television networks, book publishers, and video game makers won’t be done in by camcorder-toting teens, Web journal authors, or garage musicians armed with Apple Powerbooks. Put it in bold letters: Personal media will complement, not supplant, the old order of mass media and consumer culture. Most of us will continue to watch entertainment created by professionals working at media companies. High-quality entertainment takes time, talent, effort, and money to pull off.
But that’s no longer enough. In ways large and small, individuals have begun bypassing the mass media to create or sample digital music, video diaries, film shorts, weblogs, visually arresting multimedia websites—in short, personal media. Sometimes these personal works will be an entirely original creation, borrowing techniques and ideas, perhaps, but no music, video, or photos created by others. At other times these creations will be a collage or hybrid, borrowing bits and pieces of traditional mass media mixed with content supplied by the user or remixed in interesting new ways and transformed into something new.
Something new is happening. While the pros go about their business, amateurs and hobbyists experiment with new ways to inform, entertain, and communicate with each other. Keep in mind that “amateur” is no pejorative. We should remember that the root of the word amateur is “lover.” Where the media companies create material for profit and power, creative amateurs do it out of passion.
Call it participatory culture, a worldview that young people in particular now take for granted. Participatory culture is about plugging into the larger culture in creative ways. If participatory culture is the journey, personal media is the engine.