The internet died last week. At least, that's the message coming from Harlan Ellison and Prince, two controversy-loving artists who evidently couldn't stomach how social media makes it impossible to totally control their online image.
Harlan started the fun last Tuesday after reading this rather innocuous article on io9 about his current book sale. I've read through the article twice and can't see what pushed Harlan over the edge; perhaps it was one of the comments to the article (such as the commenter who said, "What is the current bid for Harlan to stand and yell at you for 15 minutes?")
In response, Harlan posted on his website forum that "I've finally had as much of the internet as I can bear. The 'news site' ... has actualized my worst dread nightmare of web involvement. I just gotta get the hell away from this awful thing. ... I abominate the public footprint being left for me by caitiff like the journalistically-knobheaded toddlers whose names are emblazoned on their editorial side-bar."
Because of the extremely dated design of Harlan's website forum, it is impossible to directly link to his comment. However, his words about how "I abominate the public footprint being left for me" does suggest his problem with the internet is that he can't control his online image.
The same thing popped up last week with the artist again known as Prince, who stated "The internet's completely over. I don't see why I should give my new music to iTunes or anyone else. They won't pay me an advance for it and then they get angry when they can't get it."
Obviously Prince has issues with the new ways people are purchasing music online, but I can't help but wonder if like Harlan Ellison, Prince's true issue is how social media has changed the dynamic around managing your own image. Both Harlan and Prince came of age when artists began receiving more media coverage for their persona than their artistic works. This isn't to say that Harlan and Prince aren't great artists--they are. But they have also cultivated their controversial image for maximum effect. The dust jackets to one of Harlan's books claimed he was "possibly the most contentious person on Earth," while Prince wrote the word "slave" on his cheek to protest being trapped in a contract with Warner Brother after the company paid him an unbelievably large amount of money to, well, be trapped in a contract with them.
But hey, controversy was good to these two artists and for decades they used it to promote their artistic works. But now the established order has broken. Instead of being able to create and manage controversy on your own terms, that pesky social media allows anyone to pick at your life and work. If you squeeze someone's breast on stage during the Hugo Awards ceremony, people will post the video online and rip you a new one. If someone isn't pleased with your archaic view of the internet, they can pick apart your opinion while the entire world watches in glee.
Please tell me how this can be anything but good?
The irony is that both Harlan Ellison and Prince were originally enfant terribles fighting the far-too conventional artistic establishment. Now they are the very establishment they once fought against--aging artists who don't like how the internet and social media gives millions of people the ability to criticize them.
Please don't mistake my criticism. I love the best examples of Harlan's writings and Prince's music. I have purchased a number of Harlan's books and Prince's albums, and if they release new works I might purchase even more.
But the days of micro-managing your controversies to raise your artistic profile are over. If you do something controversial, yes, the online world will notice. But you can't manage how people will react. People might as easily applaud as laugh or scream at you.
This doesn't mean controversy no longer sells. Of course it does. But if you light a fire in today's online world it can easily come back to burn you. And I suspect that is what Harlan Ellison and Prince hate about today's interconnected reality.