If a tree falls in a forest and no one tweets about it, how can it trend? If no one follows you, are you virtually dead? Is it acceptable to use hash-tags in conversation?
Enter the likes of mixtape.co.nz. The brainchild of broadcaster James Coleman, Mixtape lets you discover and share music. It's an extension of that same sense of High Fidelity-type community, but its reach is hugely greater. The premise behind Mixtape ("Browse. Create. You") is nothing new.
Sites such as iTunes' Ping, Rara, Spotify and Audioboo perform much the same function, effectively letting you turn your mobile devices into personal radios, either free and perhaps with advertising, or paid for by subscriptions. The difference is that Mixtape was made here, and it attracted public funding. Coleman's proposal received support from NZ On Air to the tune of more than $330,000. And it means TV3 personality Jaquie Brown can load a 12-song "dance mix to play when you are naked and alone, thinking about being a pop star" for all to enjoy.
"It's about extending our services," says NZOA chief executive Jane Wrightson, a self- confessed "non-digital native" who nonetheless raves about how the Apple iPad has revolutionised NZ On Air board meetings. "We were looking for original ideas for new content or services that had potential to find a decent audience."
The public support for Mixtape reflects the new clout of what has been termed convergence culture. Increased access to wireless internet, and the rise of web- capable mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers, means the internet is no longer a static accompaniment to offline trends and media: it's actually changing the way culture is produced, consumed and shared.
Many of us already make international calls via Skype, tweet from our cellphones, find our news by routing around paywalls or finding ways through the porous ones like the New York Times'. Applications on our iPads or iPhones help us navigate foreign cities - even wake us at optimum points during our sleep cycles.
The internet is changing how we find, enjoy and even fund our arts and entertainment. Here's a quick rundown of some of what's on offer.
BOOKS, MUSIC, VIDEO
Creative industries are still struggling to adapt to the digital age. The internet might have increased our access to new music, movies and television series, but it's also enabled us to download them illegally. Referring to the arrest of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, the US Justice Department claimed the use of such file-hosting services has cost copyright holders more than US$500 million ($617m) in lost revenue. A 2010 study identified Kiwis as among the worst illegal movie downloaders in the Asia-Pacific region, with an average of 158,000 infringements a month, and government intervention in the form of the controversial Copyright (Infringement File Sharing) Amendment Act appears to have had little impact. Most recording artists now depend on the sale of gig tickets and merchandise. The New Zealand Federation Against Copyright reported two years ago that the downloading of illegal digital content was costing the Kiwi film industry $70m each year.
The truth is, the real impact of piracy is difficult to determine, and creative industries' insistence on clinging to outdated business models is at least partly to blame for the regularity of the practice. Many argue that piracy is as prevalent as it seems because distributors, publishers and retailers have failed to respond to consumers' needs by making creative content cheap and easy to obtain legally. Dotcom himself told TV host John Campbell that the considerable delay between US and NZ release dates encourages people to stream films and television episodes online. Although the iTunes Store and Amazon have served to make a wide range of music affordable online (Top 40 albums retail for between $10 and $20, while individual tracks are around $1.80 each), prices could come down further if internet users are to be discouraged from using person- to-person networks altogether. We don't have access to the likes of streaming service Netflix, Hulu or Vudu or the forthcoming UK YouView.
The issue is further compounded by New Zealand's low internet data caps and poor quality network, which has deterred above-board video streaming services such as Netflix from launching here. Until our national infrastructure is upgraded (and this process is already under way with the roll- out of ultra-fast broadband), we're likely to miss out on developments that require large amounts of data, such as Google's own Smart TV platform, Google TV, which is tipped to be the next big thing in the digital world. But the widespread use of TVNZ On Demand is a step in the right direction: the more we make use of existing online services, the more likely it is that similar initiatives will be prioritised in future. Whether NZ rights will interest these media giants remains to be seen.
Web technologies such as Grooveshark, SoundCloud and The Hype Machine for music, and Shelfari for books, have however served to make the creative industries more social. Last.fm, another of the music sharing sites which connects users with similar tastes and offers recommends on new artists, is so popular that it has resulted in a lively community. Using its own "scrobbling" software, Last.fm records users' musical preferences in detailed listening charts that can be synced to social media, enabling Twitter users and Facebook friends to share in each others' favourite musicians. One of the most recent additions to the proliferation of such online sharing services is This Is My Jam, developed by two former employees of Last.fm. Similar in both look and function to Mixtape, it provides people with an easy way to share what song's "been stuck on repeat" on their iTunes library or mobile device. Founder Matthew Ogle said that his time at Last.fm taught him that music is "first and foremost a social phenomenon", and that the best tips come from friends, not machines - an exchange of information that the internet enabled.
The sharing that goes on on such sites as This Is My Jam has also served to empower undiscovered artists, who can use social media to promote themselves, rather than waiting to be "discovered". Singer- songwriter Lana Del Rey and rapper Azealia Banks are the most recent names in a string of musicians that have used YouTube as a means of launching their careers. And it's not just music: in 2009, publishing giant HarperCollins established its own online community, Authonomy.com, as a means of unearthing new talent. Evidence of the way the ebook movement has taken off since then is the achievement of self-published British author Kerry Wilson, named the bestselling ebook author on Amazon.co.uk for the last three months of 2011, ahead of mainstream competition such as Lee Child and Stieg Larsson; he has since secured a six-book deal with publisher Pan Macmillan.
For all of the novelty of sites such as Mixtape, they remain just that: a novelty. The most valuable services are those that ease our interactions online or off.
The release of Apple's iCloud service last year is an indication that remote technology will soon see the majority of external storage go the way of the floppy disk. iCloud stores your music, photos and documents on a remote server, and wirelessly pushes them to all your devices. It even allows you access to your entire iTunes purchase history, so you can re-download albums you bought using your MacBook to your iPhone or iPad. Services like Dropbox or Microsoft's SkyDrive, file hosting services that eliminate the need for a USB drive (easy to lose) or to email oneself files (easy to forget to do), likewise allow us to stores gigabytes of data. Most have free options, some allow for syncing with your PC files, and you pay for premium services. This is the future of file storage: the delivery of your digital lifestyle as an integrated service, rather than a set of separate products.
Most commercial software has free alternatives. LibreOffice, a free alternative to Microsoft Office, to Photoshop (Gimp), and there are media players (VLC), sound or video editing (Audacity, Avidemux), spyware detectors (Malwarebytes), antivirus (Ad- Aware, Avast!) and even a free operating system (Linux) if you're slightly technical.
As for services - some free and others paid - that make our "real" lives easier, smartphone applications are the most visible and immediate.
Want the lyrics to the song? There are apps (TuneWiki, Lyrical) for that. Don't know the song? There's one for that, too (Soundhound). Want to get fit? Download Couch to 5k, pedometers and calorie counters. Lost? Combine Google Maps and the GPS technology built into your smartphone or tablet. There are even apps to tune instruments, find studs in a wall, serve as a spirit level, and monitor your sleep cycles. Like watching TV but want more? Gomiso.com or Zeebox.com. Haven't got time to read that long article now? Instapaper or Read It Later. Want to replicate the experience of reading print? Newsstand. Need to remember "everything"? Evernote. And we can't forget Pinterest.com, the online pinboard for the stuff that you like.
More significant, though, is the the rise of crowd-sourcing for creative projects. Since the e-business blowouts of the late 90s, online initiatives have not generally been considered a practical way of making money: now, thanks to platforms such as Kickstarter.com ("a new form of commerce and patronage") and its Kiwi equivalent, PledgeMe.co.nz, entrepreneurs and artists can gather the cold, hard cash they need to fund their dreams. Last month, filmmaker Taika Waititi raised the US$100,000 needed to enable the distribution of Boy in America with the help of 1826 individual backers on Kickstarter, 335 of whom contributed $100 or more. In exchange for a pledge of up to $20, Waititi wrote on his project's page, he would "say your name quietly to myself at night", and that was all 393 people needed to hear.
Crowdsourcing is entering the world of books, through sites such as Unbound (unbound.co.uk) which leave decisions about which books get published to the crowd. And they can help pay for content too. Many of us already have blogs via Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, Movable Type and Posterous.com. But if you feel like paying for what you read on blogs or getting paid for what you write, check out flattr.com.
The widespread use of news aggregators such as Google Reader and Pulse for Android and iOS (the set of software driving the iPhone and iPad), which gather selected, syndicated web content in one location for easy viewing - effectively enabling users to avoid content from anything other than their most preferred sources. Many news sites and blogs have Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds so you don't have to go trawling to get your news and culture. Simple tools like topheadlin.es let you sort your favourite news sites. News.me uses the links shared by your friends to provide to your mobile or desktop what it determines are the most important stories. Software such as TweetDeck and Reeder lets you sort all your Twitter feeds. To tap into the growing nostalgia software market, Timehop lets you check where you were and what you were tweeting a year ago.
This is just the tip of an internet iceberg.
What it all boils down to is the end of an era of passive consumption; convergence culture, coupled with the prevalence of web-capable mobile devices, has turned us into active participants and producers online. We just need now to find the time.
- Sunday Star Times