Hollywood Still Doesn’t Realize That The Internet Drives Popular Culture Now

Stewart Baker, the former DHS official whose warnings about how SOPA would wreak havoc on online security were instrumental in convincing many of our elected officials that SOPA and PIPA were half-baked legislative disasters, now has a fascinating writeup for The Hollywood Reporter, trying to explain why the Republican Party turned strongly against SOPA/PIPA. We’ve pointed out a few times, that the different reactions by the Democrats and Republicans to the online protests threaten to cost the Democrats a generation of voters who had previously looked to them as the party that “got” the internet.

Of course, where it gets even more insightful is Baker’s analysis not just of how the Democratic Party appears to have miscalculated badly the reaction to these bills, but how truly and spectacularly Hollywood has failed to understand what happened — in part because Hollywood still thinks that it drives pop culture. The truth, however, as Baker points out, is that the internet drives popular culture these days… and on the internet, Hollywood is a big bully:
The [entertainment] industry still doesn’t understand its adversary. From the start, studios saw the fight over SOPA as a struggle with a bunch of other companies — Google and Internet service providers among them — that were hoping to profit from the Internet travails of the entertainment industry.

That turned out to be wrong. In fact, the industry is fighting what amounts to a new popular culture.

Unlike the old pop culture Hollywood dominated, this one is largely independent of the music, movie and broadcast industries. In fact, people who spend hours online instead of watching TV or going to movies will probably encounter the entertainment industry only when YouTube videos of their kids dancing to Prince or spoofing Star Wars are pulled down by Hollywood’s bots, or when the RIAA threatens to sue them for their college savings, or when digital rights software makes it hard to move their stuff to a new tablet or phone.

To the entertainment industry, these episodes might seem like collateral damage in the fight to stop piracy. To the new pop culture, though, collateral damage and misuse of enforcement tools are everywhere, and they threaten everyone. The content industry has made itself into the villain. Increasingly, it looks like an occupying power, obeyed at gunpoint, despised for its ham-handed excesses and resisted from every dark corner. Unfortunately for Hollywood, as its customers migrate to the Internet, it is losing not just their money but their hearts and minds as well.
There’s a lot more in Baker’s article about the political implications of all of this, which are worth thinking about as well, but I wanted to focus on this key point. Last week, at the Midem music industry conference, I was amazed at how many people from the legacy music business believe, 100%, that the reason SOPA/PIPA were stopped was because Google stepped up its lobbying efforts. I can’t even begin to count how many conversations I had with people trying to explain to them that Google only played a small role in what happened, really jumping on the bandwagon pretty late in the game. It was a widespread group of internet users who spoke up, and that really has changed the equation. And Hollywood still can’t seem to wrap its mind around that.

That may be because Hollywood was popular culture for so long. It seems to just assume that this is still the case, when there’s an awful lot of evidence suggesting otherwise. And really, that explains both Hollywood’s confusion in how to deal with all of this, as well as one of the reasons it’s lashing out. When Hollywood no longer drives pop culture, it loses its influence, and as it loses its influence, that’s going to spell trouble for its business model. The biggest threat to Hollywood’s dominance isn’t piracy. It’s that people no longer view Hollywood as the main source of pop culture any more. Art forms often lose their popularity over time. A few years back, we pointed to a quote from Paul Oskar Kristeller that seems worth highlighting again:
There were important periods in cultural history when the novel, instrumental music, or canvas painting did not exist or have any importance. On the other hand, the sonnet and the epic poem, stained glass and mosaic, fresco painting and book illumination, vase painting and tapestry, bas relief and pottery have all been “major” arts at various times and in a way they no longer are now. Gardening has lost its standing as a fine art since the eighteenth century. On the other hand, the moving picture is a good example of how new techniques may lead to modes of artistic expression for which the aestheticians of the eighteenth and nineteenth century had no place in their systems. The branches of the arts all have their rise and decline, and even their birth and death.
Perhaps it’s not piracy that Hollywood is fighting here. Maybe it’s the industry’s own cultural relevance.