In the era of Angry Birds, the challenge is finding the great things amid the junk

May 16, 2012

We’ve already determined that the world is flat, but the world is also starting to get more level. When I say level, I mean that the barrier to entry in many things has been lowered or blown apart altogether, and that our filter for what is the “real” thing (brought to you by big companies and big business) and what is small, organic, grass roots and homegrown has been shattered. In fact, those two things are kind of starting to blend together.

Entire industries — media, entertainment, finance, technology — are being upended by this leveling. This phenomenon has arrived via a whirling and gnashing of elements that connect consumers to producers in a one-to-one manner. Something which has never before been possible. Increased access to and comfort with Internet technologies such as the iPhone and HD cameras, and a general acceptance of a life lived online play a part in this shift, but there is a larger piece at play as well. The familiar industry of advertising has been supremely disrupted, our sense of conspiracy is at an all-time high, and the barrier to entry to produce something that has the appearance of quality is at an all-time low.

So our world is changing, but our filters are skewed. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it’s a new thing, and we’re still adjusting to this new reality.

Let me give you a few examples of this leveling. Let’s call it the Great Leveling.

Angry Birds is a global phenomenon. The game, which was first launched for the iPhone in 2009, has become the most popular piece of software of all time in the Apple App Store. It’s available on more than 15 platforms, has been downloaded more than a billion times, and has made its publisher, Rovio Entertainment, very rich. Even though Rovio had been around for a few years making games, it was suddenly able to sell its software alongside the biggest players in the industry (such as Electronic Arts) with no clear difference to a consumer between the offerings. In the past, you could only buy the software sitting on store shelves, but what happens when anyone with a computer and Internet connection can get their goods on the shelves?

Rovio succeeded because of the Great Leveling, and paved the way for many others to follow in its footsteps.

In books, new stars like Amanda Hocking have risen from the world of self-publishing. Hocking began releasing vampire romance novels she’d written in her spare time on Amazon as Kindle editions. She eventually sold more than a million copies of her books and raked in $2 million in profits. She earned a book deal with St. Martin’s Press, but her rise to fame took place in our new, leveled world. Her story would have been nearly impossible at any other time in history. But Amanda is not a fluke — she’s a pioneer.

Sites like Kickstarter go even further, altering our concept of how businesses get started altogether. The crowd-funding site recently gave birth to projects like the Pebble E-Paper Watch. The wrist-worn device connects to a phone and can relay text messages and calls to the wearer. Its creators, frustrated with a lack of funding for their project, turned to the site in hopes of raising $100,000 to begin production of the devices. In the end, users forked over more than $10 million to the company, and 85,000 watches are now spoken for by a very vocal public.

In the past, starting a hardware company took a lot of time, backroom deals and upfront money.

But elsewhere, there are more troubling issues with this leveling. While news sources have grown exponentially more varied over the past 10 years, knowing and trusting those sources has become a more difficult. Sites such as the Huffington Post can produce astounding journalism, but they also can produce a lot of, well . . . junk. And noise. Not only do ethical and intellectual deficiencies abound in this brave new world, there are questions of partisanship that should strike fear in your heart.

Don’t like the “real” news? Just turn the dial to something else. Everyone can get an answer they’d like to hear, but what’s the value of those answers? And who will judge? The filters are gone, so a reader’s work is more arduous.

That’s true for music, too, and increasingly true for movies and television. It’s incredible that anyone can make a record and release it on iTunes. But seriously, should everyone make a record and release it on iTunes?

So that’s the rub. For every Angry Birds there are a hundred games to waste your money and time on.

Our challenge is no longer about making great things, it’s about finding those great things. It’s about how we filter, how we separate the good from the bad, and how we learn to trust when everything is flat.

I think we’re at the start of one of the greatest booms in innovation and creativity the world has ever seen. But this time around, if you don’t like what you see, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.theverge.com), a technology news Web site. For previous columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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