Semiotic democracy and cultural transformation (or) the transformative power of semiotic democracy
Elizabeth Stark

The massive and widespread availability of cultural works on the Internet is profoundly impacting the way that we create, view, and consume culture, proposes Elizabeth Stark. Gone are the days of the “one way” medium as king, whereby passive observers merely consume information in a unidirectional fashion. The transformative power of digital technologies has led us to embark upon an age of widespread, democratized cultural production and dissemination.

Semiotic democracy: old and new

The term semiotic democracy originated in the 1980s, initially coined by John Fiske in the context of viewers re-interpretation of television culture other than the intended meaning of the producers. It was later refined by Michael Madow, who, in his scholarship on the right of publicity, challenged the top-down approach of popular culture. Madow emphasized the potential for the consumer to “re-code” and “rework” cultural commodities in his exploration of the concept. (Although arguably if the consumer is no longer merely consuming, another term, such as “re-creator,” may be in order.) Yet even at the time of Madow’s writing in 1993, much of the culture available for consumption originated from the conventional mode of mainstream media-based production. In the subsequent years, and particularly the last five, the new forms of cultural production that have proliferated and the emergence of a digital commons have drastically increased the potential and real impact of a semiotic democracy. As a result, it has expanded beyond the mere reworking of previously available cultural entities and has emerged to embrace a whole host of creative endeavors conducted particularly by Internet users.

A broad spectrum of factors, including drastically decreased costs of technological tools, simplified and networked online services, and greater broadband connectivity, has resulted in a boom in creation. This boom has primarily, although not exclusively, manifested itself on the Internet, in forms ranging from the posting of tagged digital photos to the melding of two or more songs together to publishing articles and commentary on blogs to creating a video response to a clip posted by another user. In this sense, the Internet has provided the potential for the widespread production and dissemination of user-produced cultural goods that had not existed previously. Semiotic democracy, while still encompassing one’s ability to re-interpret and rework popular culture, has now expanded far beyond this capacity to comprise user-based cultural production on the Internet as a whole.

New forms of cultural production

While previously one may have been able to engage in creative endeavors such as writing down a story or recording a song, the ability that the Internet has provided to instantly publish a creation to the world at large will continue to greatly influence the trajectory of cultural production. Such a capability may seem mundane to the savvy Internet user by now, yet in the aggregate, it has the potential to completely disrupt the previously unidirectional forms of producing and distributing information.

The role of “amateurism” is often discussed in relation to these new forms of production. The lines between “amateur” and “professional” are becoming increasingly blurred, and semiotic democracy provides new possibilities for virtually all creators. Those who previously would not have had the opportunity to have their work heard, viewed, or read are now provided with a platform to do so. Those who would not have been selected by the tastemakers of previous eras are able to circumvent such constraints and build a constituency of their own. Amateurs, or those creating outside of a professional context, may begin to make a living off of their work, and professionals may contribute to traditionally “amateur” projects within the context of their positions.

“User-generated content” has become a popular term in the sphere of semiotic democracy. Generally, it refers to knowledge and cultural works produced by Internet users outside of a professional context. Yet the reference to “generation” in this concept detracts from the personalization of the individual users. Do users merely “generate” content, as opposed to creating it? Why should those who rely economically on their respective forms of creation be granted a higher level of deference to their production of cultural works? People create; machines generate. In fact, “user-generated content” is often referred to by the mainstream media in providing a rather condescending view of the creative works produced by “ordinary” people. Thus within a semiotic democracy, the significance of and emphasis on user creation, as opposed to generation, is key.

Remixing, reworking, recoding culture

At the same time, some may argue that the current products of semiotic democracy lack in quality or are not comparable to that produced by the more traditional media and cultural industries, and these concerns are valid ones. Wide-scale production by non-professionals may never completely overtake that of the professionals, yet we are now only at the forefront of a massive paradigm shift. While the place for professionals within the traditional media and cultural industries will not likely dissipate anytime soon, such players are already adapting to the changed conditions and demands brought about by a greater semiotic democracy. In all likelihood, new forms of media will emerge, perhaps in the “semi-professional” sphere, whereby the content produced is modifiable and users are invited to provide an increasing amount of input and feedback.

Certain obstacles also exist to the proliferation of semiotic democracy and the values embodying it. In particular, a significant proportion of creative works produced by users contain transgressive elements, particularly under current copyright regimes. For the most part, technologies devised to inhibit this kind of behavior have not yet put a halt to these forms of production, and widespread pursuit of such potential infringers is all but impractical from a legal realist standpoint. In fact, many commentators believe that the legal doctrine must change, as opposed to the widespread transgressive practices of users. This massive remixing, reworking, and recoding of culture is increasingly viewed as a positive outcome of the development of cultural production, and the law that renders these practices infringing may very well need to adjust to foster, rather than inhibit, semiotic democracy. The creative destruction resulting from this new paradigm of user-based creation on the Internet should not be prevented by those whose interests are at stake; instead, these players must be willing to adapt and embrace the future that lies ahead.

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