While keeping an eye on the discussion about what “Web 2.0” means over the past few weeks/months (especially Tim O’Reilly’s vision made explicit recently), I had been thinking that the basic participatory DIY ethic embodied in what some people are calling “Web 2.0” had a punk rock feel to it at its core. Without a doubt, our industry is at a tipping point of some kind, and the rhetorical battles over what Web 2.0 is are getting into issues of authenticity.
It’s hard to read Jason Fried’s latest post (“The top 10 things that aren’t Web 2.0“) and the resulting comments and not think that the “Web 2.0” discussion viewed in a certain way is a different take on the perpetual “what does it mean to be truly ‘punk’?” debates that have kept independent record store employees and only-three-chords guitarists occupied for over twenty-five years now. Like those debates, the discussion about Web 2.0 is personal and (if you look at the language in the comments on Jason’s post) political. danah’s words were certainly prescient when she wrote: “The reality is that when people talk about Web2.0, they’re talking about a political affiliation with The Next Cool Thing, even if no one has a clue what it is yet.”
This punk rock angle had been bubbling in my thoughts for a few weeks now, so today I dusted off my favorite punk rock history book (England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond, by Jon Savage), looking for some historical perspective. I found a passage about what Savage saw as a tipping point of punk rock, when talk show host Bill Grundy interviewed the Sex Pistols on national television. The Sex Pistols dutifully played the part of the fearsome punks that the general public was afraid of and that brand of “punk rock” became a caricature of itself ever more quickly, feeding a new breed of punk rockers who bought the right clothes but cared little about the original philosophy behind the music. From the book:
A lot of people who had been on the scene disappeared as soon as Grundy happened,” says Jonh Ingham. “It became stupid very quickly and no one with any snazz wanted to be associated with something like that. They were into it for the clothes and the elitism and as soon as it became Rock’n’Roll they didn’t want to know”. . . .
“Bill Grundy was the end of it for me really,” says Marco Pirroni, “from something artistic and almost intellectual in weird clothes, suddenly there were these fools with dog collars on and ‘punk’ written on their shirts in biro. It had been like the Warhol scene, filmmakers and poets and artists and God knows what. Then there was Sham 69: Jimmy Pursey leaping about like an idiot, and his band with long hair, flares, and Hawaiian shirts.”
Yet there was another side to this process of definition. All pop movements have started with elites — and none, to that date, more self-consciously than Punk — but there is always a point where the elite loses control. That point is reached when the mass market and mass media take over, a necessary process if that movement is to become pop. Within this transaction, simplicity is inevitably imposed on complex phenomena, but there is also a fresh burst of energy released with unpredictable, liberating results.
Punk was a living exemplar of the subcultural process: the dispossessed gain cultural access, but at a price. Pop music is the site of this sale and the record companies are the auctioneers. Definition is a vital part of this, not only pinning down Punk, but opening the floodgates of commerce. As the trade magazine Music Week stated: Punk “might be THE NEXT BIG THING so long awaited.” For the next few months, any male Rock group with the requisite stance had an interested hearing from the major record companies.
Jason’s “what is not Web 2.0” list is useful as a warning to those who might think throwing AJAX and RSS on their sites is a shortcut claim to Web 2.0 cred, much like the preppy suburban kid who buys a studded collar from the Hot Topic at the mall on a Saturday and comes to school as a self-certified “punk” on Monday. At the same time, you can’t help where you were born, and maybe you’ve got to start somewhere.