How the Web Won

Illustration by Jacob Thomas

The web-wide protest launched last Wednesday against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) made this much clear: Whatever happens with the ill-conceived legislation, which could essentially shut down any site at any time for vague “copyright violations,” the larger battle has already been won. The cubicle dorks’ Arab Spring—which caused several of the bills’ backers, including Florida senator Marco Rubio, to withdraw their support—marked a momentous shift reaching completion. Yes: The Internet has fully supplanted Hollywood as the dominant shaping force in American culture.

Proponents of the legislation like Rupert Murdoch and the Motion Picture Association of America’s Chris Dodd fail to recognize that reality, which is where they make their critical mistake.

They believe that their content—their often terrible, half-baked content—is still driving the conversation. They believe that preventing bootlegging of the great new Gwyneth Paltrow movie (no such movie is forthcoming, but let’s just pretend) is only fair. And actually, you will find some sympathy toward that latter view online. We just don’t want shielding her movie from piracy to come at the expense of our ability to copy a photo of Gwyneth Paltrow, draw a penis next to her face, and put it up on our Tumblr, as the bills threaten to do.

More important, the legislation threatens everyone’s access to such home-brewed, often crude, and frequently very amusing creations. A lot of the doctored photos and gifs and video mash-ups floating around out there might seem lowbrow to you, entertainment with less value. But then you haven’t seen Contraband. And it also doesn’t change the essential fact that the Internet is what entertains us now. Blogs and YouTube still lead to book deals and recording contracts—mass-market successes measured on the old media’s terms. But the polarity has been reversed. Prime-time television endures, for instance, pretty much only because it gives people something to tweet about and more engaging recaps to read online the next day.

The central organizing principle of the web—the ability to find something, twist it and take it apart, and then make something new with it—is also not coincidentally one of the central organizing principles of art. Photoshop is the Everyman’s easel. No studio could hope to keep up.

There was a time when the likes of Robert Evans and Norman Lear played gatekeeper for the entertainment the rest of us consumed; today’s producer bigwigs are the editors of BuzzFeed, or the LOLcats guy, or those scary people over at 4chan, all of whom have the advantage of having a lot of audience members who are also auteurs whose own output keeps followers coming back for more. Critics of the SOPA protests complained that participating sites abused the power that comes from that dynamic, which got it half-right—the Internet is where the power now resides. Last Wednesday, our cubicle culture showed that it will stand up, it will rise, it will scream with one collective voice: We will fight for our right to Rickroll. It was enough to make you proud, if you weren’t so busy writing captions on photos of the Hipster Cop.

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How the Web Won