Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Beauty of Ugly

Ze Frank gets it right about the value of putting the means of production into the hands of the masses! His "I knows me some ugly Myspace showdown" contest prompted exchange below that was so damn good and spot-on, I just had to transcribe and post it. Rock on Ze!
S-s-s-something from the comments. Marion writes, "Having an ugly Myspace contest is like having a contest to see who can eat the most cheeseburgers in 24 hours. You're mocking people who, for the most part, have no taste or artistic training." Marion, thanks for telling me what I was doing. I didn't even know I was mocking people.

For a very long time "taste" and "artistic training" have been things that only a small number of people have been able to develop. Only a few people could afford to participate in the production of many types of media. Raw materials like pigments were expensive, same with tools like printing presses. Even as late as 1963, it cost Charles Peignot over $600,000 to create and cut a single font family.

The small number of people who had access to these tools and resources created rules about what was "good taste" or "bad taste". These designers started giving each other awards and the rules they followed became even more specific -- all sorts of stuff about grids and sizes and color combinations -- lots of stuff that the consumers of this media never consciously noticed.

Over the last 20 years, however, the cost of tools related to the authorship of media has plummeted. For very little money, anyone can create and distribute things like newsletters, or videos, or bad-ass tunes about Ugly. Suddenly, consumers are learning the language of these authorship tools. The fact that tons of people know names of fonts, like Helvetica, is weird!

And when people start learning something new, they perceive the world around them differently. If you start learning how to play the guitar, suddenly the guitar stands out in all the music you listen to. For example, throughout most of the history of movies, the audience didn't really understand what a craft editing was. Now, as more and more people have access to things like iMovie, they begin to understand the manipulative power of editing. Watching reality TV almost becomes like a game as you try to second guess how the editor is trying to manipulate you.

As people start learning and experimenting with these languages of authorship, they don't necessarily follow the rules of "good taste". This scares the shit out of designers. In Myspace, millions of people have opted-out of pre-made templates that "work" in exchange for Ugly. Ugly when compared to pre-existing notions of taste is a bummer, but Ugly as a representation of mass experimentation and learning is pretty damn cool.

Regardless of what you might think, the actions you take to make your Myspace page Ugly are pretty sophisticated. Over time, as consumer-created media engulfs the other kind, it's possible that completely new norms develop around the notions of "talent" and "artistic" ability.

Happy Ugly. This is Ze Frank thinking so you don't have to.

[Naturally, after transcribing, I found the wiki.]

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