When I’m out and about these days, I usually introduce myself to people by way of my work. I tell them that I help to run a news and information website that is by and for young people in Cardiff.
Often the people I’m speaking to are my age themselves, or a bit younger if they’re students. Most of them are eligible to contribute to the site in some way, but very few consider it. As I’m not “at work” at the time most of these conversations happen, I don’t push it. If they want to contribute to The Sprout at some later date, well, at least they know it’s there when they’re ready.
Too often, we don’t stop to think about the “for and by”, and just why that is important.
It Takes Effort To Take Part
So let me start you off with two pieces of recent material from around the web. The first is a blog post by the Burning Man team about how the rich are ruining their (non) festival. It’s making headlines. And here’s another: an article on QZ.com all about what went “wrong” with the internet.
In her blog post, Burning Man head Maria Goodell says:
The invitation to participate is more than an invitation to have an amazing experience. It’s about CREATING that experience for yourself and those around you.
She’s talking about Instagram influencers coming into the famous American “festival” (she doesn’t like to call it a festival) to use it as a backdrop to advertise products- clothes, bikes, RVs, anything that works in the desert. They breeze in and don’t really interact with the famous “Black Rock City”, the desert location of Burning Man which is put up and taken down in its entirety by the “Burners” every year. Two of the biggest goals of the Burning Man team are to avoid the consumerism of the wider world and to foster an intense community in the desert- even if it physically only lasts the week or so, the relationships and the plans for next year are all maintained online in the meantime. The influencers and what they call “turnkey camps” apparently, are ruining it. Of course, it costs thousands to get to Burning Man however much personal effort you personally put in, but apparently the new breed of Instagram loving Burners hardly put in anything except their money and minimal presence.
So many things in our modern world require either no effort from us or something else instead- as in the case of the rich Burners, where money talks and their camp is arranged for them. But people are increasingly disillusioned with low-effort activities. You got some other poor sap to ride through the rain to bring you your takeaway on Deliveroo (other takeaway apps are available). You didn’t have to put in the effort, you just had to spend a bit more money. Will you really enjoy your food as much, now, and will you ever understand the skill that went into making it, or the graft that went into delivering it?
The traditional “Burner” is an artist, or else someone who seeks reprieve from the humdrum and the norm. American society is heavily based around the car; it must be nice to have a few days biking in the desert, where the only cars are parked up, completely stationary, as makeshift tents. Photography isn’t really encouraged, and there seems to be a general vibe of whatever goes on here, stays here- even more than the ethos of the nearby Las Vegas, or really any ordinary festival. Don’t worry about how the next few days will impact on the rest of your life- just try something new today. Maybe it’s great and you do it again next year, maybe it’s a failure and you can forget about it. Some people try on all sorts of things they never do in their uptight normal lives- crazy styles of dress, crazy stunts, mind-altering substance misuse and sexual experimentation. They just hope no-one posts it on Instagram and they have to kiss goodbye to a promising career.
(As a side note, we spoke about “drifting” through the “void” of a city, not really taking it in, in the latest episode of the Strangetown podcast. In that case, we were talking about Cardiff rather than the temporary desert city in the Nevada desert. Listen to Episode 4: Psychogeography here.)
An Idea Shared Is An Idea Multiplied
In Avery’s article on the internet, meanwhile, he talks about the earlier Internet (not the early, pre-Web internet, which was basically just for nerds). Many people reading this website in 2019 likely do not remember the pre-social media internet, but like many of my age I can just about remember it. It wasn’t all consuming, not everyone you knew was on it, it was yet to mix with our real lives much. People messed about with MySpace and Bebo a bit, but they weren’t as sophisticated as Facebook and the others that have come since. He talks about the turn from “true” interaction into the more mediated interaction of social media here:
The internet starts feeling shallower than it used to. You don’t talk to strangers anymore about why lefty’s are better and what you’ll do during your first 100 days as president. You just surf faces. There’s a new widget now that lets you click a button and “Like” something.
Here Avery talks about a classic “shortcut” which can be seen a million times over throughout history. Whenever a target is introduced to measure something, inevitably systems rise up to game the target, and soon everyone forgets to tend to the original purpose of the thing. “Capitalist realism”, a term used by the late author and music blogger Mark Fisher, describes this well. Though we know that happiness is probably the number one thing to strive for- sustainable contentment, in fact- all the governments, laws, companies, economies and people of the world ultimately toil day-in, day-out to raise one thing in favour of lowering that thing in rival companies or rival countries. That thing, of course, is GDP, Gross Domestic Product, which measures how productive a country’s workforce is in relation to the total population of the country.
In chasing a target, we forget about what is really important, and then have to introduce new targets- via law and politics- to correct the system’s mistakes. So in chasing the big money, in an example I like to use, we ripped up a formerly robust public transport system in favour of cars. Now, although our country is, in theory, a rich one, no one feels safe enough to cycle to work, children are getting asthma by the dozen, and no one is getting the extra exercise walking to and from the railway station. Now we have an obesity, climate change and air pollution crisis, and governments and NGOs are introducing new incentives to get people back on active and sustainable transport.
Thus, introducing a Like button to measure engagement, in fact, reduces engagement to the bare minimum of effort- one click. No longer must we spend the time to curate an opinion, write it out and make sure it is legible, then click “comment”. And if the algorithm changes to favour comments, as it has recently on Instagram? Then people will just comment “Cool!” and move on. The difference is minimal.
In a world where capitalist realism surrounds us, where the arts are being underfunded in our schools, perhaps it is hard to think outside the dull box of your ordinary existence. I feel it too. Sometimes I will do some ridiculous thing, like getting real drunk with no way of getting home, or going on a stupid long drive or bike ride til I’m in the middle of nowhere with no money to get food or get home, or going up to London for the weekend and spending hundreds of pounds even though I know it doesn’t make me happy in the long term and I really can’t afford it. Even when we do these crazy things we still feel locked into our ordinary existence, unable to make a connection with something bigger than us.
My colleague, John, at ProMo-Cymru was telling me recently about the influence the punk movement had on him as a young person in Northern Ireland (during the Troubles). The movement showed teenagers in a society broken into isolated, angry communities that there was a world beyond their decrepit, underemployed walls.
John even convinced me to watch a film, Good Vibrations (2012). Set in the same time, place and most importantly youth culture in which John grew up, it’s all about a music fan with one eye by the name of Terri Hooley, who set up a record shop and music label in the Belfast street ominously nicknamed “Bomb Alley”- right in the thick of it. All the young people in the area were swept up in the wave of sectarian violence, following what they saw older people doing- nasty stuff, of course- or otherwise just not going out, all out of fear of the violence. One of the older paramilitary types comments that the men of his generation at least remember the way things used to be- ie. peaceful- but “it’s the ones coming up behind you’ve got to look out for.” He gestures at two young lads adopting a skinhead aesthetic- and when those types of haircuts show up on film, you know it’s never going to be good. They’ve grown up in a violent place, and they’ve become ultra violent people, protecting themselves and their limited belief system.
Later in the film, Hooley holds a benefit gig for his own financially troubled record store. He invites over a thousand young people, all dressed up in crazy punk outfits further from their boring school uniform than they could probably have ever imagined. Hooley forgets to charge them for entry though- but when he finds out that there’s no money in it at all, he doesn’t care. He puts on the best gig Belfast had ever seen, and declares his true mission- to be, as ever, part of something bigger than himself, with his failing business, marriage and health. He wanted to unite the violently divided youth of the North, to show them they were all united with the same kind of youthful problems as young people have ever had. Troubles beyond The Troubles, if you will.
I give it four stars.
Sure, you won’t make any money writing for The Sprout (though getting press passes and time credits is pretty nifty). But see this as an opportunity. A decent sized platform- remember, we still have over 6,000 followers on Twitter- on a brand with a decade-long, Wales-wide precedent, where you can write basically anything you like. If you were working on a smaller project, it’d be a low traffic blog: very few eyeballs reading your stuff and certainly no pay. If you were working on a decent sized magazine, you’d probably have editors breathing down your neck asking you to change everything that you wrote, even if it came from the bottom of your heart. Here at least you have free reign, creative freedom over those most important of dominions- your own brain and the imaginations of your peers- plus a team of editors here to help scrub your work up into a quality shape without changing what you said or how you said it.
The “system” that the Sprout operates in does not worry too much about what’s posted in the News section. As long as the “Information” section is working well, and meeting its goal of providing accurate information to the young people of Cardiff, the news section is a lightly moderated free-for-all: a creative space for you to realise your wildest ideas in. It doesn’t much matter how many Likes you get, it matters that you took the time and effort to write something that’s important to you. What all that means is that no money, algorithmic or clickbait issues are interfering with your writing you can do in the News Section- no system short-circuits here.
I guess what I’m saying is that The Sprout, and other amazing projects like it; like Rife Mag if you’re in Bristol, or our buddies at Radio Platfform if you’re more audio-based, are about giving young people a voice for a reason. From young people rises the future. You’ve got no financial incentive to post here. You’ve got a much bigger one: sculpting the future in your image.
So, I ask you:
What’s our generation’s punk?