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Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft

Posted: November 30, 2010 06:54 AM

The unstoppable epidemic of crowd wisdom, the relentless American Idolization of the land, claimed another victory when Amazon announced it is getting into the movie production business.

The vehicle for this is their new Amazon Studios, which is a wide-open platform where would-be auteurs can submit a script or even a full-length test film; it's also a crowd-sourced forum where participants can edit and otherwise contribute to these efforts. To bring some Hollywood buzz to the proceedings, Amazon has made a first-look deal with Warner Brothers.

As Wired puts it, Amazon wants to "democratize movie making, both by letting anyone have a go at it, and letting thousands of fans collaborate on scripts and films with mountains of feed."

A quick visit to the Amazon Studios website reveals their chipper and cheery marketing pitch: "Win Money. Get Noticed. Get your movie made." It's as simple as that in the land of Web 2.0, where there are no evil gatekeepers keeping talent from getting realized. This is no different than the trickster promise of lottery advertising, in a buzzy, culturally-irresistible, consumer-driven package.

The site then proceeds to elaborate on the narrative by positioning Amazon Studios as a structural innovation designed to crush the old restrictive system:

Movies have been developed pretty much the same way since talkies were considered cutting-edge. But here at Amazon Studios, we believe 21st-century technology creates opportunities to make and share movies and scripts more easily than ever.

Amazon Studios is merely the latest -- and perhaps most highfalutin -- example of a trend which was given its first big cultural starring moment in 2007 when Doritos decided to bypass its traditional ad agencies and turn to the public for its "Crash the Superbowl" crowd-sourcing TV commercial competition.

These open-sourcing initiatives work for marketers on a bunch of levels, including economic efficiency, but what really motivates them is the grand flattery that lies at their essence. Any brand that invites us into the "creation" process -- whether it's to name a product, choose a flavor, or tell the company what's wrong with their espresso maker -- is bonding with consumers over the fundamental "democratic" precept that the best ideas and genuine innovation reside outside the corporate walls. Indeed there are entire websites, like www.poptent.net, that have systematized this ideology. And the New York Times is playing the game as well; a recent interactive feature invited users to solve the federal budget deficit by making their own cuts.

It's no wonder that consumers have come to expect this. A study released by American Express noted that:

Consumers are looking for greater creative input and personalization by co-creating with brands. In exchange, they expect rewards and benefits for their contribution of designing new product ideas and helping to market those products.

This is a seductive, anti-elitist appeal, especially now. Writing in a different context -- describing the connection that Sarah Palin makes with voters -- Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times that "In an angry time when America's experts and elites all seem to have failed, her amateurism and liabilities are badges of honor."

It matters not whether Amazon or Doritos or any other brand that's lowered the drawbridge over the corporate moat and invites the hordes in, actually believes that their expensive educations and MBAs are worthless. And of course, they don't. It's a pose. Thus there is something totally Machiavellian about this rush to create a mass perception that the Brand Prince is listening to its subjects; what better way to secure loyalty and maintain (marketplace) power?

Nor is it elitist to say that there is something truly troubling in this adulation of easily obtained, or completely un-obtained, authority. I don't want to sound too much like Tom Friedman, who recently pointed out that "America's youth are now tied for ninth in the world in college attainment" -- but we're simply not going to be competitive in the 21st century if we keep creating students who don't believe they need to work hard to succeed, because expertise is merely an elitist construction.

Of course, the power of immanent wisdom is tempting to all of us. Americans are culturally programmed to the seduction of immediate gratification and shortcuts; we are a nation that doesn't read instruction books, and has little patience for even the Quik-Start guide. So we're all going to be in trouble if our young people are constantly reinforced in the notion that achievement is as simple as "Win Money. Get Noticed. Get your movie made."

And it's not just about the future; there are millions of jobs open, and millions of unemployed Americans, but because of a mismatch of skills, employers are having trouble finding enough suitably prepared applicants.

This isn't to say that there aren't wonderful benefits that come from crowdsourcing ideas and the connections that grow out of them. Websites like www.brightidea.com allow companies to expand beyond their internal R&D capabilities and find ideas from outside their four walls. That's terrific. And places like http://www.patientslikeme.com are an emotionally invaluable resource for lifting people out of the loneliness of illness, into a shared and supportive experience.

It's easy to draw all sorts of over-stated social implications from something like Amazon Studios, it's the columnist's easy trick. But in this case, I don't think it's hard to argue with the conclusion that from self-directed stock trading (when E-Trade says "Investing Unleashed" they are talking about the individual's inherent, untaught financial genius) to self-diagnosis on WebMD, to your inner Orson Welles, we are being flattered into a false comfort with our own extraordinary abilities.

That's a lovely illusion -- until we're confronted with millions in China and India and Brazil and Indonesia who have real abilities -- hard-earned skills, not the fabricated accolades of smart marketers. Back in 1985, Neil Postman wrote a prescient book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. Today, that amusement takes on additional levels of meaning, and of distress. American was once the land of over-ambition; now, we've become the land of over-praise, a far more fatal condition.

 

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