User generated content isn’t really something that began with the internet. In one form or another, it’s probably always been with us. When I think of this history of modern media and communications, I think back to the 1920s and Ralph Peer, who traveled the back roads of the south making acetate records of country and blues players, or John Lomax, who also sought out obscure folk songs. Peer uncovered two of the early giants of country music — Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. In a way, the Bristol Sessions were the UGC of the day.
In the 1940s and 1950s, just about anybody could walk into a record shop, enter a sound-proof booth and record a record.
Elvis Presley first entered Sun Studios in Memphis to record two songs as a birthday present for his mother (or so goes one version of the story).
The other night I watched A Face in the Crowd, which is the story of a hobo who is discovered by a radio reporter making her living recording on-the-street vignettes of everyday people. The 1957 movie may be Andy Griffith’s finest acting performance, but the main reason watch the movie is what it says about media.
Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is discovered right about the time TV is becoming a powerful force in shaping pop culture. In fact, one of the charters in the film says, “Let’s not forget that in TV we have one of the greatest vehicles for mass persuasion in history.”
The initial public appeal that makes Rhodes famous is his natural, one-of-the-people manner. He uses radio to speak directly to his audience and is natural and uninhibited. At one point, he says, “back where I come from if a fella looks too dignified, we figure he’s fixin’ to steal your watch.”
As the story progresses though, the public persona of Lonesome Rhodes is just an act. He becomes mass media.
The movie got me to thinking: Right now, the internet still seems very democratic. We all have a voice. But you’ve got to know that big media would love to reign in this anarchy and exert control in order to make revenue and profits more predictable. Is the internet entrancingly democratic, and big corporations and governments can’t change it, or will the rich and powerful eventually use the internet to exert the same influence over our decisions and buying as it once did?
Sp that’s my musing brought on by a 50-year-old movie. I think it’s a point to ponder.
Jimmie Rodgers was never corrupted, nor the Carter Family, but they paved the way for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.
A few important historical works I can think of in regards to user created content, pre-Internet: read Bernard Bailyn’a “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” and then peruse the “Pamphlets of the American Revolution: 1750-1776” edited by Bernard Bailyn.
Of course American colonial and revolutionary history is a sea of books. But like a historian of early Dutch America once told me, “learn to swim.”