Network Neutrality: The Path Of Least Resistance To The Lowest Common Denominator

Network Neutrality, as a topic, has a reputation for being simultaneously important and ignored. It sounds great: everyone has equal ability to share their ideas; large media companies and “citizen journalists/content creators” compete directly with one another, allowing consumers to decide who does a better job on a case by case basis. In theory this allows content to bypass the “propaganda model” that filters away stories that are deemed unprofitable to advertisers; individuals will break the story, it goes viral, is verified, and information makes its way around the globe, as afforded that ability by a neutral and indiscriminant network. The model works for amateur content creators, too: armed with a relatively cheap camera and laptop, just about anyone can shoot and edit an HD movie that is technically superior to the output of costly and labor-intensive film production for just about the history of the entire industry. That’s the dream, anyway.

The reality, I think, is pretty far from the mark: people don’t want high quality, (and in the case of media, accurate) content; they just want to be entertained. What’s more, the threshold for entertainment is frighteningly low. Even before the YouTube revolution, “Reality TV” was gaining ground and prime-time space with each new season, and Fox News/CNN were reporting on trivialities (on good days) — exactly the problem that crowdsourced media was supposed to remedy.

Unfortunately, look at the content that does really well online: stoned children, rude celebrities, general failure, and of course, cats — none of which requires any editorial effort, and generally reflects poorly on our collective taste. If we have network neutrality, and this is the content that really thrives, where then is the drive for media companies (or individuals) to make high-quality content when they can just as easily monetize the equivalent of the Springfield film festival winner? Instead, media becomes a race to the bottom with media companies competing with Joe-Sixpack to see who can first discover the one true lowest common denominator.

This mirrors the old saying about democracy: “it’s the form of government where the people get what they deserve” — we’ve now got democratic media, and people are going to get what they deserve there too. It seems to me that if we’re going to collectively demand network neutrality, and the power and responsibility that comes with it, we’re going to have to raise the bar in terms of what we expect and demand in terms of quality content — and “Twitter journalism” (and the like) shouldn’t make the cut.

Even if there isn’t a collective intellectual awakening, there will always be people online who want premium, high quality content. However, under this new model, in order to make the delivery of that content sustainable (let alone profitable), we’re going to have to pay for it, and it certainly won’t be cheap.