Excerpt for The Story of a 21st Century 'Somebody': Independent Culture Creation in the 2000s & 2010s by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Story of a 21st Century 'Somebody': Independent Culture Creation in the 2000s & 2010s

Copyright (c) TaraElla 2017. All rights reserved.

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This book is based upon the personal experience of the author. Events are described as the author experienced them, and as she remembers them. The actual accuracy of events and dates in the book are not guaranteed in any way. However, if there is any error, it is unintended.

Chapter 1

1.1 The World As It Was

Let me start from the beginning. We must remember how things were, once upon a time, or really not that long ago, if we are to appreciate where we are now, and what happened to bring us here.

As human beings, most of us would like to think that we are special, in some way. Most of us would like to think that we have something unique, to contribute to the world. My mother, Nancy, taught me from a young age that I should aim to not 'live and die anonymously'. However, for most of humanity, most people were destined to live and die very much anonymously, as just one small part of a large system, indistinguishable from the next small part. To be 'somebody' in this world, a somebody whose opinions would be heard in any way beyond close friends, was a privilege very few had enjoyed.

Part of why the world had long been the way it was, was because of the limitations of the way people 'communicated' back then. For newspapers, radio stations and television channels to be profitable, there can only be a very limited number of each. In fact, regarding radio and TV, governments only issue a very limited number of licences to begin with, meaning that most people only had access to a dozen or so radio stations and a handful of TV stations. This situation only changed slightly in recent years, with the rise firstly of cable television in the 1980s and 90s, and then the replacement of analog TV with digital TV, which allowed more stations to be broadcasted. But still, the opportunity to 'broadcast' was very limited, and it was rationed out only to people whom the elite deemed worthy.

For example, in the old media, for a musician to gain audience, they had to have access to radio air time. This access is generally 'locked up' completely by big record labels, so no matter how good your stuff was, you could only play it at pubs, if the big labels gave you no time. It was also quite difficult to build a loyal following or show your 'uniqueness' adequately. Whilst 'celebrities' promoted by big media had the required avenues to impress upon others their carefully crafted 'images', most independent artists simply had no such chance to even be understood properly at all, when all they could do is to perform at shows randomly across their region, to audiences who mostly haven't heard of them before and will not hear about them again. Similarly, the only people whose political opinions could be widely shared were those published in newspapers and magazines, and you would have to first impress the editor if you were to even get a 'letter to the editor' published. Besides, there was no way for most people to have an ongoing 'opinion column' that can be read by the public of any kind, unless they were contracted to do so by a media organisation. You just can't build a following, let alone a cultural or political movement, by random letters to the editor.

In this environment, there would eventually be no point for most people to continue to think of themselves as a 'unique individual'. There was a very clear divide between celebrities, established journalists and opinion leaders on one hand, and the rest of the population on the other hand. The former were clearly distinguishable 'somebodies', the latter were indistinguishable 'nobodies'.

I literally think that not having a voice in this world counts as oppression, and hence most of humanity had been technically oppressed, though they did not know it. Just like how most people in history would not have even dreamed of much of what we take for granted as 'human rights' nowadays. It's the way human history has always been.

And beyond the selfish need to tell the world about yourself, the old world order had wider societal implications too. Whoever holds the power to get heard by the public also holds to key to control culture itself, ultimately. Hence in that old world, very few elites and their agenda would control the thinking of much of the population. Their views would be broadcasted via a variety of media and would dominate what people would here. The media may change over time, from newspapers to radio to television, but in essence, it's the same model of an elite few having the chance to speak up, and the majority having the chance to only listen. No wonder the culture of decades and centuries gone by were so conformist, and minority groups and views had so little (essentially no) representation. In such an environment, it was also no wonder that only the mainstream, conventional and privileged were represented in culture, and the rest were disenfranchised.

This situation didn't just exist long ago. It was still so during my childhood, and indeed it was largely still so during my teenage years, as the world moved into a new century. My 2006 short novel Eastlands Dreaming was about imagining a future where culture creation was completely democratised. Are we there yet? I can't say for sure, I think we still have some way to go, but at least we've made great steps forward. When I first started a blog in 2003, most people hadn't even heard of blogs. It surely looks amazing in hindsight, how far we have come in less than two decades.

Throughout this book, I will be telling my own story so far, as a cultural voice in this rapidly changing world. But I will also be illustrating the wider story of how profoundly the world changed, in these first two decades of the 21st century. The technology changed first, and that was groundbreaking enough, but I think that the greatest change was in the culture. See if you agree with me.

1.2 It All Started With Technology

Technology had always played an important role in changing the world, fundamentally. It has changed the way people communicate, the way people understand things, the way people see the world, even the way wars are fought (read about how World War I was mostly fought if you are interested). It is also a source of hope, hope for a better future. For example, I would like to hope that, one day in the distant future, the cultural changes gradually brought on by technological development will end all wars once and for all.

Technological changes also affect the way we live and experience the world, and the ongoing story of technological progress can often be interwoven with anecdotes from people living through these changes, providing the human side to this otherwise very technical story. For example, my father recalls of a time when, to watch a football match, one would have to go to the local park and sit in front of its giant screen, as there were no televisions at home. I myself have always watched the world cup on TV, as it was more convenient, and nowadays my father and grandfather also do the same. Similarly, my mother recalls the first few months of getting a black and white TV set back in the 1960s, she would stay glued to the screen until they ceased broadcast around midnight every day (TV stations didn't broadcast in the middle of the night until the 1990s, I can still remember TV Guides having the listing 'Close' back when I was very young). Surely, kids today have much more to look forward to than the TV. It just shows how life changes, and the most exciting things often become boring in a few decades' time.

Computer technology, the internet, and associated developments must be the most groundbreaking developments of all, in our times. Previous generations had different groundbreaking technology, but I believe none matches up to this. And it's interwoven with our own stories too, just like the generations who came before. For example, when I was recently doing my PhD, I reflected on the fact that we are so lucky to have access to almost any academic journal we want online, and read any article from any issue with several clicks of the mouse.

Convenience surely is a major benefit of recent technological changes, and it's the dimension many people have focussed on thus far. But in my view, the ability of anyone to start having a cultural voice is the true revolution. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. There's still a whole story to tell, before we reach that conclusion.


Before any of that convenience and cultural change became reality, technology was simply either scary or exciting, in and of itself. Yes, there was a time when computers were indeed scary to many people. The 2006 hit I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker actually contained the line 'when computers were still scary', referring to an earlier time. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the average computer would have a black-and-white (or black-and-green) screen, and the user interface consisted of line after line of text appearing on the screen. The only way to control it would be via typed in commands, and you had to memorise those commands and get them exactly right, or the computer will refuse to perform the function. In those days, not all kids would learn how to use a computer, although I practically demanded my father to teach me back when I was seven. Whilst I can understand why the aforementioned type of computer would be scary to many people (I tried to teach my mother who never understood any of it), for me, as a kid, it was better than any toy they had in the 90s.

But then it was about to get even better. In 1995 my family got a new computer with a coloured screen, which was also controlled by a mouse. For the first time you could actually draw pictures with the computer, and print out the resulting 'artwork' in colour. And in 1998, just before I started high school, we got the internet. Back then, internet speeds were really slow, and the narrow bandwidth also meant that web pages had very basic designs with minimal graphics, and almost never had video content. But for 12-year-old me, it was amazing enough that I was reading what everyday people halfway across the world were saying. If I added something to a discussion, someone halfway across the world might read it while I was sleeping, and reply to it. Just this thought made the world seem like a less lonely place. The internet meant that the world had truly 'become one'.

And the computers themselves were now getting very exciting, simply because they kept developing at such a rapid pace. When I started high school, the average speed of a computer was 300MHz and they came with 32 or 64MB of memory, by the time I graduated (1.5 years early, keep in mind, so only about 4 years later), the best computers had more than 3GHz (i.e. 3000MHz) of speed and often had more than 1GB (i.e. 1024MB) of memory. That's more than 10 times in both measures! When I was in high school, exciting computer related news was almost an every week thing. Sad to say that, in the 14 years since, the computers themselves had improved much more slowly, but then, it would be in this period that the 'real' revolution would begin. The rapid development of computer technology coincided with the beginning of a 'new millennium', around the year 2000. Even when I was younger, there was much anticipation about what life beyond the year 2000 would look like. But with the rapid technological advances in the late 90s and talk of internet speeds going up 30 times or more with 'broadband internet' coming soon to every household (it surely didn't disappoint when it did come to pass), this 'future anticipation' grew hotter and hotter. The year 2000 was the year of the '.com boom', where many people invested in technology stocks, almost certain that they would get huge returns one day. Of course that ended in the '.com bust' as any stock market bubble would have, but much of that investment actually did power future internet-based developments in hindsight.

With so much new technology, the next question was how we could use it. Unlike the television or cheap long-distance phone calls (the exciting things of my parents' generation), there was not ONE use for computers and the internet, but potentially MANY uses. One emerging use, the most groundbreaking in my opinion, was the ability to build a cultural platform, communicate with people, gain an audience, and do all of that independent of big media corporations' approval. Independent musicians were one of the first groups to embrace this idea, sometimes by simply informing people where they would play at shows next, and sometimes even sharing their music via the internet, although the slow speeds meant this was usually of poor quality. It allowed them to connect with their fans and build a following, in a way that mainstream media had denied them. Blogs, or weblogs, regularly updated webpages, were another phenomenon that raised its head around the turn of the century, and gradually spread from the geeks to the mainstream. It allowed people to have what is essentially a regular opinion column, something previously limited to cultural elites.

As a teenager I decided to be an independent musician, and as a semi-geek also saw the great opportunities the internet could provide in that regard. But I wasn't ready to make music yet, so that was still somewhere in the future. However, a blog could be easily set up in under an hour, and blog posts would only take an hour or less out of each week, so it was a thing that you could start doing anytime you wanted. Besides, I figured out that as a musician I would like people to really get to know me, as the artist behind the music is an important part of the music, so the blog would fit into my musical plans neatly in the future. With that in mind, I started my blog in August 2003. It had a very basic design, and I posted every now and then, about everything from world affairs to celebrities to politics (that was how most personal blogs were back then, and it might still be this way today actually). Of course, my blog is more sophisticated today. But those few posts did mark the start of a long term habit.

Chapter 2

2.1 The Golden Age of Reality TV

The early years of the new millennium were the golden years for reality TV. The concept of reality television, in which every day, real life people are the stars of television shows rather than the same old cultural elites, was probably nothing new, but had only become a genre in and of itself during this period. Its impact on culture was massive. The popular novel series The Hunger Games was partially inspired by the genre. Even national elections have been compared to reality TV, although usually unflatteringly. Looking back, it appears this was a transitional phase, between a past when selected cultural elites dominated the cultural conversation, and a future where the culture and its creation are more thoroughly democratised. Reality television bridged that gap, and therefore deserves a special place in our cultural history, even though it did have many critiques who essentially labelled it as rubbish.

Reality TV was big business at the turn of the millennium, and its appeal was two-fold: firstly, everyday people, not polished by the cultural elite, people with backgrounds similar to most of us, were the stars of the show. With every season of these shows, you get a brand new batch of these people, people who had never been on TV before. Shows like American Idol (2002-2016) showcased their contestants' background and life extensively, and it was undoubtedly part of the appeal, for many people who had become sick and tired of the fakeness of the cultural elites. Secondly, reality TV also sometimes included characters who were more 'special' than the cultural elite's conservative attitudes would embrace, for example people who were geeks, people who had unique beliefs, and people who were transgendered. As a fan of many reality shows including the Idol franchise (Pop Idol, American Idol, Canadian Idol and Australian Idol), Big Brother and Amazing Race amongst others, this dual appeal of both 'more ordinary' and 'less ordinary', both 'more relatable' and 'more interesting', was definitely a big factor in the interest.

While the internet became popular in the late 1990s and blogs were in widespread use by the mid 2000s, in reality, TV was still king during this period. There were two reasons for this: firstly, internet speeds were slow to begin with, and the situation only improved when 'broadband internet', which was typically 5-30 times faster than 'dial-up internet', became available. Broadband internet was first available in the late 1990s, but it was very expensive back then, and even in well developed cities in developed countries, most people only gradually signed up to broadband in the following decade. For rural areas it was even slower. It was this uneven coverage that prompted Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to start the plan for a National Broadband Network in 2007, but almost a decade later, as of this writing, the project is only rolling out slowly. Whilst music and videos can be 'streamed' over dial-up connections, it was generally of very poor quality. For example, with music videos, the sound may not be clear and crisp, and you may not even see the singer's face clearly. The popular video sharing site YouTube was not launched until 2005. In reality, there wouldn't be much point before that time anyway, when only relatively few people had broadband internet. Secondly, old habits die hard. To this day (2016) my parents still prefer to receive the news from the TV. Even as technology had enabled it, the sharing and viewing of multimedia content on the internet had to gradually grow year-by-year, until the point where many people would spend more time on the internet than in front of the TV (we only reached this point quite recently). For these two reasons, TV was still king until very recently.

But while TV was still king, the emerging internet technology had already begun changing things. Definitely not fast enough for people like myself, who were hoping to gain an audience solely using the internet. And of course it was an uphill battle. My website and blog had no multimedia content in the mid 2000s, as having such content would make it unable to show for non-broadband users (i.e. the majority). It only had text and a few photos, like most websites back then. Certainly inadequate for introducing someone to the world. Today, the internet is an important, and sometimes the main, avenue of acquiring and connecting with audiences, for many artists, writers, musicians and culture creators, myself included. But back then, most websites had a more 'facilitating' purpose. In many cases, people who already knew about a certain show or a certain person would be able to find out more about them on their website, perhaps join a discussion on their 'message board'. Most audiences were not acquired via the internet, but the internet provided an opportunity for further information and connection, like finding out when a band would play near you.

While this wasn't the revolution people like myself were hoping for, it did change culture, and more than what I felt at the time, looking back in hindsight. People began demanding that they be able to connect with their favourite shows, musicians, celebrities and journalists like never before. Reality TV would benefit uniquely from this, due to both its characters being real, and its course being unscripted. The people discussing in the internet forums were a representation of the people who were going to vote to save or eliminate contestants, and thus shape the course of the show. To get an idea of how things are likely to proceed, the forums were where you went. With shows like Idol and Big Brother, forum discussions were not just sources for speculation about the future, they were sources for educated guesses, which mostly turn out to be spot on. Moreover, contestants were often able to gain an internet following from the 'fan clubs' that develop on the shows' website forums, some of which may transfer to their own websites once the show ends. In ways like these, reality TV was already showing the way of future culture creation: involving characters which are real and approachable, and where the future can be interactively shaped by the audience.

In conclusion, in an age where TV was still King, reality TV was at least the first step towards democratisation of culture, and it was for this reason that I and many others found it appealing. It was still imperfect in that the only 'cultural creators' that could participate were the dozen or so people the producers selected every year for each show, but that was at least better than having only celebrities approved by the cultural elites to select from. The future would be even more exciting, but we should be able to say that this was how the revolution started.

2.2 The Rise of Everyday People and Changing Attitudes to Fame

Reality TV was also an important cultural game-changer for another reason: it showed that everyday people could acquire some of the 'characteristics' previously reserved for elite celebrities. People could look up to them, they could gain a following, and they could even participate in the cultural conversation. Many more traditional commentators lamented the loss of distinction between celebrities and everyday people, complaining how people were 'becoming famous for nothing'. But this is not true, because even in the past, celebrity was often unearned and undeserved, and in my (and many others') opinion, many reality 'stars' were more deserving of recognition than their contemporary celebrities. Celebrities were like overlords because only they could have the aforementioned characteristics and nobody else could, but it was never really the case that they were the only ones who deserved to have those characteristics. It was more like that the elites only wanted to grant the scarce opportunity (under the old media) to have those characteristics to people with the right connections (and perhaps the right amount of money). It was only now that people began to realise that it was not only the rich, glamorous and famous that deserved to be looked up to. That it was not only the musicians who received huge airplay who had the greatest talent. That it was not only talk show hosts who had the most interesting opinions on world issues. And so on.

Of course, all this also meant that an increasing number of young people believed that had what it takes to 'become famous', whatever it may mean (I hate using that term because it is ultimately vague and meaningless). Again, many traditionalists complained that reality TV made young people delusional about taking the quick path to getting rich via being a reality TV star, avoiding hard work. But I did not, and still do not believe this is the case at all. Aside from the fact that most reality TV stars don't make it rich (typically only the winner gets prize money), who said it was all about money anyway? Maybe the older generations really don't get us, but many people in my generation (myself included) do lots of things not for the money. In fact, we often actively do hard work, not seeking money in return, like how I did two masters degrees and a PhD not expecting that it would increase my lifetime earnings, or like how all my other work, like this book (as well as all my other books, all my music, and my blogs), isn't aimed at making money at all either. We do things because we want to, because we have a passion about things. And I believe these young people were the same. They probably just wanted to contribute to our culture, to be a somebody rather than a nobody, to having a unique voice rather than to be taken for granted, and in that era where TV was still king and bloggers like myself often felt like they were screaming into thin air, reality TV surely sounded like a great opportunity (especially for those who didn't properly calculate the odds of getting selected by the producers, but that's another matter).

In fact, I believe it is in many people's nature that they want to be a 'somebody' with 'something to say to the world', rather than just another anonymous being. It was just that there wasn't much opportunity for your average citizen to pursue this dream until recently. Many people therefore decided to put their energies to pursuits that would make them special in some other way, for example in my mother's case being one of the quite few Asian women who completed a university degree in her generation. But back in the 2000s reality TV seemed to offer an opening, and many young people understandably looked forward to it. Fast forward another ten years, the desire to compete in reality TV among young people seem to have declined substantially, because there appear to be much better prospects of achieving what they want via their independent efforts using the internet. And further proving my theory that it's not just about the money, today (in 2016) there are many great blogs and video channels out there, whose owners are putting lots of efforts into, without making lots of money (it's hard to even make half an average income using blogs and videos in most cases).

The complaint that people were 'becoming famous for nothing' was probably, in some cases, related to the fact that some reality TV characters who didn't have the best talent nevertheless acquired huge followings. In the most extreme cases, this included for example Idol rejects who were shown the door at their audition, those who the judges didn't even let pass the first gate. This infuriated many people time and again, for reasons I probably will never understand. Personally, I admire great talent, especially in music. Even though I must admit that my singing probably isn't the best, in music I often actively seek out the best talent to listen to, rather than just taking whatever comes my way. But this doesn't mean that anything other than the best singing doesn't deserve popularity. People look up to others for different reasons, courage, uniqueness, and just being 'real' being several important reasons. People can be valuable for different reasons, and if you don't understand it, at least it's not your place to judge. I personally have cheered on many 'underdogs' in Idol over time, and whilst I recognised that there were probably other better singers, personality and other values also counted in my book. The fact that many others cheered for the same 'underdogs', often getting them into the top four, showed that many people saw the same things.

Overall, I think that the changed attitudes to fame brought on by reality TV were not only a healthy change for our culture, but also paved way for the revolutions that were to come. This really deserves recognition in our cultural history.

2.3 Lessons from Reality TV: The Importance of Profile, and of Being Real

Is a piece of art (including literature, visual art, music and performance art) more valuable in and of itself, or in connection with the artist? I think that, while each piece of art has value in and of itself, most art would definitely be more valuable when viewed with a knowledge of its context. And to understand its context, you must first understand the artist, because ultimately, the context of the art is the context of the artist.

All of this appear to be far removed from the concept of reality TV, often described by self-appointed intellectuals as shallow and appealing to the 'lowest common denominator', in their own words. However, shallow or not, every piece of art or performance is ultimately a way to connect with the artist behind it. And that's why, even in popular culture, people are more likely to appreciate music, books, TV shows and movies made by people they already know and appreciate. Each previous 'connection' makes the next one easier, and more appealing. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why works from established artists are much more popular than works from previously unheard of artists. In fact, it has been estimated that it takes on average 1.5 million dollars to break a new musician into the market, per country. That's about 30 times the average annual personal income! No wonder independent artists have it tough.

And in watching reality TV, this lesson applies too. In the first few episodes of each season, the show generally focusses on letting the audience learn about the characters. They can do this in a number of ways, for example showing pre-recorded interviews with every character, special short videos introducing a certain aspect of a contestant's life, or just via the free-flowing conversation between participants. In the beginning, the audience essentially watches a dozen or so people they know nothing much about, and it's not that interesting, to be frank. But once you have learnt about the characters, the show starts to get interesting. It's also why most reality shows are only interesting if you start watching from the beginning, and there is generally no point to start watching in week five, unlike world cup football or the Olympics.

Many political commentators in the 2000s pointed out a similarity between politics and reality TV: that campaigns for presidential or prime ministerial elections have become like reality shows, where the candidates' every move is captured on TV for a few months, and many people simply vote for the person they 'like' best, based on what they see. Many intellectuals have despaired at the emphasis on 'likeability' rather than policies. Surely, the 2004 US elections, the first to be widely described like this, produced a result that neither the aforementioned commentators or myself liked. But my thinking is more like this: if this is the way the world is, we better learn how to survive, rather than just sit and complain. Maybe it's just that first, you need to connect with the people, so they know what you are all about, in the big picture sense. Then we can start talking about policies.

For independent artists and culture creators like myself, this lesson also applies: you need to let people know who you are, exactly, before they can decide to like (or hate) you (you can try to do your best, but the choice is ultimately theirs), before they can really connect with what you say. With this in mind, I changed the direction of my blogging. Rather than just talking about random things, I decided that each blog post needed to tell my audience something about who I am, and what I am about (well, not strictly each and every post, but at least it should generally be this way). And unlike on television, many visitors to blogs are first time arrivals, so you don't want people to get the wrong impression based on the first thing they see. Therefore, blog posts can't just be random. They have to represent the person behind the post. This is actually often trickier than it looks, easier said than done. The hot and angry culture wars of the early 21st century, in particular, makes things even more difficult in this aspect. There will be plenty of times I revisit this concept in following chapters, which will serve to illustrate this point.

Furthermore, reality TV highlighted the appeal of the 'real' over the 'fake', more so than any previous mass media phenomenon. As previously discussed, many people like and indeed sort of look up to reality TV characters because they are 'real'. Many celebrities like to say that they are 'real', but in fact, due to them being part of the mass media money making machine, and their need to bring monetary value to their financial backers if they want to keep their career going, they are often anything but real. While there are indeed reality stars who also 'play the game' and do what they think people want to see them do, the nature of reality TV means that most such people are soon caught out by the audience. Unlike in the world of celebrities, there is nobody to cover for them. On the other hand, the 'real' people, who are often unglamorous, a bit unworldly, and often may not have the best talent, end up being among the most well liked.

Independent artists and cultural creators are in a similar situation to reality show contestants here. They can have the unique appeal of being 'real' that mass media celebrities cannot practically have, or they can be fake, and without a mass media machine to cover for them, they will soon be exposed for being fake. Due to reality shows only lasting for months but independent cultural careers (hopefully) lasting for decades, there really is even less scope to be fake than with reality shows. It is for this reason that, I believe, we must present ourselves as our real selves, and not what we think others' want us to be, if we want to earn respect in the long run. It is for this reasons that I have said some unpopular things, even knowing that they may be unpopular (the following chapters will visit some examples). If you truly believe in something, you can't hide it for too long. Again, the culture war dynamics of the early 21st century means that saying unpopular things will almost certainly lose you fans and gain you critics, something I have experienced again and again personally. There's no denying the pain when people who once liked you decide to turn on you. But this has not reduced my resolve to stay real, because anything else just won't work.

2.4 Lessons from Reality TV: Personal Stories can Change the World

If all you see is a limited picture of the world, then your opinions of the world aren't going to reflect what's really going on.

Most young people today, at least in most of the Western world, do not see being gay as a lifestyle choice. For most of us, this notion is ridiculous, and many of us indeed find it offensive. Why? Because we can see for ourselves, that this is clearly not the case. However, people who lived 100 years ago are much more likely to have believed that being gay was a lifestyle choice. Why? Were they stupid? No. Most of them just didn't know any gay people, as it was very dangerous to be openly gay. "The truth liberates us, so say it and embrace it," I like to say.

Mass media has tended to favour the conventional, both in terms of personalities and content. Television has long been criticised as having unnaturally low representation of ethnic minorities, for example. The reason is clear: mass media needs to appeal to the biggest group of audiences to make money, and that means appealing to their desire to see people like them reflected in culture. Furthermore, the mass media machine will only create 'celebrities' they think they can reap financial rewards from, and therefore any celebrities they 'create' will be similarly catered exclusively to the majority. Therefore, in a world where mass media dominates and dictates culture, minority lives and voices are ignored.

In the reality TV genre, however, things were a bit different (though not totally opposite): while most participants were of the conventional type, they often include one or two less conventional characters, to make the viewing a bit more special. For example, the Big Brother franchise was often described by critics as a 'freak show'. However, the fact that a trans woman won British Big Brother 2004 did lead to at least some discussion and awareness around transgender issues, about ten years before this issue gained widespread recognition. I also believe that the inclusion of geeks, politically involved people, dedicated feminists and environmentalists, socially shy people and ethnic minorities who still embraced their own culture in reality shows also changed the widespread perception that these people were somehow 'less cool', which I can say was definitely the case around the turn of the century.

Reality TV showed the world for the first time that it's not the case that people are not interested in minorities and their lives; it was just that they had no way of getting to know and understand these lives. While mass media tended to be conservative in this regard, fearing financial loss otherwise, the people out there (especially young people) have shown the world that they are better than the elites thought of them. What's even more important is the ability of this gradually increasing awareness in changing attitudes. Unlike when I was in high school, it is nowadays cool to be a geek, to be obsessed with social justice, and to be different and unique. Of course it took more than reality TV, but it was still personal stories and examples that changed attitudes. Knowing this has inspired my blogs and cultural commentary to include discussion on news and other stories relating to minority lives. It is a crucial part of fighting against racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry.

Chapter 3

3.1 A More Social Internet Comes of Age

As previously discussed, in the 1990s, technology was mostly exciting in and of itself, due to the rapid release of new hardware and software. It was also exciting in that the rapid advancements and expected upcoming technology like broadband internet held the promise of a very different life compared to what we had back then. In the early 2000s, this began to materialise, although still slowly initially. But in the later half of the 2000s, the internet developed many new capabilities, and this opened up many great new opportunities.

Even in the 1990s, many people liked to create 'personal webpages'. Many websites, GeoCities being the most famous, provided an easy way for even computer novices to do so. Most of these websites went out of business by 2010, but they were an important part of internet history, and I would say, our collective cultural histories. When GeoCities finally shut down, there were even multiple attempts to create archives of the site, so what was on it would not be forever lost. Most 'personal webpages' were very simple, and looked rather ugly and bare by today's standards. They typically had a single-coloured background, a dozen or so low resolution photos, and text introducing the person in question to the world. Many were updated only sporadically, and often after a while their owners would simply get tired of updating and the page would remain the same for years. By the early 2000s, it had become more popular to create 'blogs', or weblogs instead. The central difference was that a blog was designed to be updated with new posts regularly, and blogging sites made adding new posts easy. Most early blogs also looked similarly simple as personal webpages, and many such blogs also doubled as personal webpages. But at least, they are more likely to be updated regularly (although many owners still got tired of them eventually.)

But the advent of widespread broadband internet changed things. Sharing multimedia content like photos, music and videos had become much easier. The use of social networking sites, where people can connect with friends, share their 'status' and share multimedia content, reflected this new dynamic. Early personal webpages and blogs typically only had few photos, because uploading them was time consuming, and for the readers, pages with many photos also took very long to load. But with broadband internet, whole photo albums can be both uploaded and downloaded within minutes. This became, arguably, the central activity of social networking sites like Friendster, MySpace and Facebook, all which came of age in the 2000s. The increased bandwidth also meant that website design could be more complex, employing more graphics, thus showing more differentiation and 'personality'. Particularly in the case of MySpace, a social networking site which was the most popular such site during its peak in the mid-2000s, it was popular to decorate your profile page with 'themes' and other graphics that were freely offered at third party sites, making each profile look unique. At the time, many sites sprung up to offer such graphics specifically for use on MySpace, often making a handsome profit from the large number of visitors.

MySpace was also a popular place for independent musicians and artists to collect fans. As an independent musician just starting out back then, I appreciated the ease of just uploading my songs onto my MySpace profile, which made it available for both streaming and downloading to all my friends and anyone else who visited the profile. This may not seem like 'magic' anymore nowadays, but just a few years earlier, if you wanted to share your music on the internet, you had to find a site to host it, add the right players to your site, and fiddle with lots of code so that the players could find the right stuff to stream, all of which sounded really daunting even to this semi-geek. In contrast, MySpace offered a place where your music, your photos, and any band news could be easily accessed in one place, and it could be all set up in under an hour. Your fans could also send you messages or leave you comments through the MySpace page, saving even the need for a message board for some. Independent artists, who often do not have access to huge sums of money to get a professional website created, now had a much more level playing field, when it comes to internet presence.

Social networking sites also allowed independent artists to get exposure they would not otherwise get. Recall earlier discussion where I reflected upon the fact that people generally had to learn about a TV show, a movie or a musician in traditional media before they would use the internet to find out more? Social networking changed this dynamic. Even if an independent artist had an official site, people who don't know them are not likely to visit that site. It is unlikely that people will stumble upon websites of people they don't know about randomly. An official website is therefore not a great tool to collect new audience. Your social networking profile, however, could be accessed by people visiting the site for other reasons, for example via a general search of new friends or new music on the site. I know this because, during the era of MySpace for example, I got several times more hits to my MySpace profile than my official website. Some bands also liked to send random and unsolicited 'friend requests' to people, in order to get their attention and 'friendship'. This was a controversial practice, something that many other artists like myself didn't do, both because it was officially banned, and because most people find such requests an annoyance leading to a bad first impression. I also promptly deleted any such requests that came my way, as did many other people. The social networking site Facebook, which had overtaken MySpace to be the biggest such site by 2010, prevented such behaviour by actively prohibiting bulk, unsolicited friend requests. Instead, they provided an opportunity to advertise on the site to gain fans, or 'likes', at a cost which was relatively affordable. Thus Facebook turned out to be an even better opportunity for many independent artists. Another social networking site that I did not first appreciate but have since found very useful is Twitter, a website that allows people to post updates, 140 characters at a time, and allows users to follow other users' updates. I originally found the 140 character limit frustrating, but it turned out to be a good way to keep fans and followers updated in a concise way.

Sharing music so easily was great, but sharing videos is even better. Even if you don't have an official music video, sharing your music with a lyrics video is, in my opinion, much more effective, and I always do it this way nowadays. The ability to easily share videos began with the launch of YouTube in 2005, and also other similar video sharing sites like Vimeo. Again, as with MySpace and Facebook, people can unintentionally stumble on your offerings at sites like YouTube and Vimeo, creating a further avenue to gain audience. Moreover, it has become popular to do covers of currently popular music on YouTube. This is because nowadays many people search for and view official music videos on YouTube rather than on television (which caused a global decline in video countdown shows), and some may further explore the variety of covers that also come up in the search results. I have found many great talents this way, including many instances where I believed the cover to be clearly better than the original. Sometimes I feature some of these covers on my official blog, because I believe we should encourage independent talent and help level the playing field. Mainstream media won't feature these talents, so it's up to us independent commentators to do it.

3.2 From Broadcasting to Narrowcasting

It has often been said that while traditional mass media 'broadcasts' stuff to its audience, on the internet we 'narrowcast'. This is because mass media typically feeds audiences of millions or more, all with diverse backgrounds and interests, in a one-size-fits-all manner. However, websites, blogs, internet video channels and the like are typically only viewed by people interested in them. Also, when watching television, often people would settle for watching something they just don't hate if there is nothing better on in other channels at the time. But with the internet, people surf away immediately if they lose interest. Therefore, many parts of the 'new media' are designed to actively capture the intense interest of niche populations.

Of course, this doesn't mean you cannot cater to more 'general' interests on the internet. For example, my blogs which talk about news and current affairs are designed for a 'general' audience, not for a particular niche, and I believe I have captured interest from a diverse range of people. However, large sections of the internet are dedicated to serving people of particular backgrounds or worldviews. There are news and commentary websites specifically serving conservatives, liberals, libertarians, leftists, feminists and environmentalists, for example, and nowadays a lot of people would get most of their news from such sites, something that would not have been the case even ten years ago. While the main negative effect seems to be the decline in circulation, and in some cases, the termination of many traditional printed newspapers, another effect is that many people only receive news and commentary from a point of view similar to theirs. This can potentially create an unhealthy echo-chamber effect. I will revisit this fact several times in the following chapters. Personally, I don't believe an echo-chamber effect is healthy, and I try to get my news from a diverse range of sources ideologically. As a cultural commentator and a 'citizen journalist', I believe this is the responsible thing to do, so that my commentary doesn't become part of the echo chamber.

On the other hand, the effects of a gradual move to narrowcasting are not all negative. Minority voices and concerns have historically been poorly served by mass media broadcasting, which has tended to ignore them in favour of narratives more comfortably received by the majority. The internet and the age of narrowcasting has allowed various niche minority groups to have their own voice, in a way that traditional broadcasting didn't allow. This has also allowed previously relatively isolated individuals who share something in common to come together and have a shared culture, thus empowering them. The rapid empowerment of the LGBT community over the past two decades is, in my opinion, the best example of this. Furthermore, narrowcasting has allowed light to be shined on less mainstream opinions. For example, feminists news and commentary websites have allowed serious and popular discussion of feminist ideas well beyond academic and activist circles in a way that was never envisioned before, and the same thing has happened with the libertarian community. The recent rise of both feminism and libertarianism are thus, in my opinion, greatly enabled by the age of narrowcasting.

In fact, as long as you consciously widen your news sources to include a wide variety of viewpoints and ideologies, the age of narrowcasting allows you to explore and discover a richer mix of ideas. Fifteen years ago, when we got our news and commentary mainly from newspapers and television, the content discussed was likely to be limited to issues of interest to the mainstream, and the viewpoints offered, even if the coverage was balanced, would only include mainstream views. The mix of ideas I get from my 'news' nowadays is definitely richer because of narrowcasting, and I love it. This rich mix of ideas has also been a useful inspiration in writing my own commentary for my own audience, as it provides me with an endless flow of new things to discuss and explore. The world is definitely a more interesting place than a decade ago.

Chapter 4

4.1 What it Feels Like to Join the Cultural Conversation

In an ideal form of cultural democratisation, people should be able to just say and do what they feel like, to join the cultural conversation. The world described in my novel Eastlands Dreaming is based on such an assumption. But the real world does not really work like this. Like it or not, as of 2016, mass media still controls the culture and what people are interested in to a great extent, and if you want to participate in the cultural conversation and remain relevant, you better talk about what others are talking about. Surely there will be some audience for a blog discussing the relevance of the French Revolution to today's world, but this audience is likely to be very limited, because frankly it won't be what many people are interested in, unless some mass media cultural icons decide to embrace the topic. There is a reason why many blogs out there discuss the same things: it's the same things that are dominating the news, dominating people's conversations, and dominating people's cultural consciences. It's the same reason why so many musicians on YouTube would cover the same songs in the same month, which also always happen to be the songs in the top 5 of the charts. If they didn't do these covers, people wouldn't then listen to their originals.

But then, in a world where everyone talks about the same things, you have to have a unique angle if you want to stand out and be noticed. Taking the YouTube musician analogy a bit further, it's like how almost every cover of a song would be noticeably different from the next one in some way, and I'm not talking about just the different voices. But unlike covers of chart hits, where the worst you can do is to cook up something boring or unappealing, in offering cultural opinion, if you say the wrong things, people can get really offended. I really wish this weren't the case, but having been on the receiving side of this anger many times, I can assure you that I am not exaggerating. And while I thought the reactions I got in the mid 2000s were bad enough, I think most people would agree that the rise of so-called social justice warriorism in recent years has made things a lot worse (this will be visited in later chapters, as this book is roughly chronological). Having someone say that my worldview is of a 'naive airbrushed Disneyland fairytale' almost sounds like a compliment compared to some of the name-calling out there today.

On the other hand, there are indeed rewards for taking a brave stand, on both major and even minor issues. In my personal experience, it is always rewarding to hear that someone really agrees with what you have said, or that someone has been inspired by your cultural vision, especially after receiving many less complimentary comments. What I do (and what other writers, commentators and artists do) is ultimately for the people who will appreciate it, not for the 'haters'. Moreover, if nobody ever took a brave stand on anything, not only would the world cease to progress, it would be much more boring as well. Furthermore, taking a brave stand may attract unexpected publicity, which may be a very good or very bad thing depending on each person's view. For example, numerous bloggers and vloggers (video bloggers) have attracted much publicity in mainstream media for their very personal and heartfelt support and defence of certain celebrities or politicians, often to irrational levels according to some people's opinions. (While it wouldn't be in my personality to behave this way, I don't think we should be as judgemental as the aforementioned people, as almost everyone has something they are really passionate about.)

And then there are the haters, which you can also sometimes call bullies. Actually, the two can be different. Haters are not always bullies. Haters can legitimately hate what you say, the cultural vision that you represent, without an intent to bully you. People have hated what I said, and have told me bluntly so. This is not bullying, it's the way life just is, and I frankly prefer the world to stay this way rather than to turn into a world where everyone has to pretend to like everyone else. But there are also real 'bullies' too. There are people out there who spend their time on YouTube giving every video they see a thumbs down, for example. Some of the more extreme ones deliberately leave hurtful comments on the video page too. It is also known that there are people who would go to sites like Goodreads and deliberately give one-star ratings to independent authors, thinking it would hurt them most. In the more extreme cases, this type of bullying can even become like a group sport, where many people participate one after another, almost as if competing to see who can cause the most hurt. The most extreme case so far would have to be Rebecca Black's Friday music video (2011), which attracted probably millions of haters. There was really nothing to hate about the song or the video - you may not like it, but any hateful reaction has to be bullying. I felt so disgusted by this episode that I dedicated several blog posts to this 'phenomenon' back then.

So what should we do about bullies? I actually think that, apart from the medium used, nothing is really new. Politicians and mass media celebrities have been experiencing these things, and on much larger scale too. It's just that it was such an uncommon experience once upon a time, that our parents and teachers wouldn't have known it, and wouldn't have discussed it with us. Maybe it will be different with the next generation. Time will tell. But the thing is, nobody should care about them, because we do what we do for the people who appreciate us. I believe politicians and mass media celebrities, many of them who have more haters than fans, have actually always thought this way, and it's logical for them because no matter how many haters there are, it's only their fans that matter. It's also the logical attitude to have for any other participant in cultural creation. Haters can't hurt you if you don't let them. It's not like in everyday life, where you don't want your colleagues to hate you because it would make your life hard, after all.

So this is what it generally feels like to 'join the cultural conversation' and thus also to open up yourself to potential criticism. Is it worth it? I think it is.

4.2 Taking Cultural Stances

As was discussed in the previous section on reality TV, people are more likely to like, connect with, or even to look up to somebody when they feel they know that somebody. It's like how you often had to know your friends before you liked them. But for cultural artists, who only have a limited opportunity to connect with their audiences, this 'knowing' has to be done through several 'snapshots'. For mass media celebrities this would likely be via a combination of interviews on television, radio and magazines. In the case of reality TV participants, this would likely be via a combination of what they do in the show, plus maybe specific short interviews or 'profiles' shown during the show. In any case, all you get are a series of snapshots, from which different people may infer different things about the person in question. It is partly due to this that the mass media machine tightly controls the 'images' of their celebrities, making them even faker. No wonder many celebrities complain that people 'think they know them but don't really know them'.

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