Boy Don’t Even Try to Touch This: Collectivist Contribution and Beyonce’s “Run the World”

In which innovation and the number of contributors appear inversely proportional.


To my dear reader,

In his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, programmer, musician, and technological critic Jaron Lanier admits a variety of disappointments with the “Web 2.0” – websites that emphasize user-generated content, ease of use, and compatibility with other technologies and products for consumers. Prominent among these is the loss of individuality among what we might call “collectivist contribution” – the contributing to a work alongside many others in such a way that each individual voice is diminished in favor of the voice of the mob. Despite their clunky programming and awkward design, Lanier writes, the initial iterations of webpages demonstrated greater individuality and innovation, before major internet giants (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) designed templates into which people began fitting themselves, and before collectivist contribution by means of sites like Wikipedia became the norm. Personally, I appreciate the ease and comprehensibility with which I can communicate thoughts with such templates (including this WordPress blog template!), but upon reading You Are Not a Gadget earlier this week, this commentary reminded me strongly of an image that floated around the internet several years ago:

Six writers, four producers...

In the wake of songwriting giants such as the Beatles, Carole King, and Randy Newman, the 90s and 2000s saw composers and songwriters diminishing in stature. Rather than songs being a collaboration between one songwriter (or one composer and one lyricist) and competent performers capable of performing their songs in front of live audiences, more of the songwriting was done by several people bouncing ideas off one another, with several producers manipulating the arrangements and audio production, and inept performers having their errors fixed by computers. There is nothing inherently good or bad about either approach, but the collectivist contribution Lanier discusses is mirrored in the newer, collective songwriting process, including the songwriting of Beyonce’s “Who Run the World”.

As an ardent feminist, I wholeheartedly support the message of Beyonce’s song. Nevertheless, the generally unremarkable nature of the song (both lyrically and musically) suggests that, with so many people’s opinions at play, one of the only things they could agree on was the titular line. It’s possible that, with only one songwriter and one producer, the result wouldn’t have been any better, or might even have been worse, but I suspect that, as Lanier believes about the internet, with fewer contributors, the result could have at least been more interesting.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert


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