Diller’s tale

Barry Diller was the kickoff interview here at Web 2.0 yesterday afternoon, which was more than a little odd, because Barry Diller does not appear to have anything to do with Web 2.0 — if, by Web 2.0, we mean, as conference hosts John Battelle and Tim O’Reilly said, an approach that involves innovation on the Web platform, an “architecture of participation,” lightweight business models, Web services with no lock-in, and so on.

No one has been smarter than Diller about rummaging through the broken and disused parts of old-Web flameouts and using them to assemble money-generating machines in relatively dull markets. And yet he has had no success — maybe even no interest — in creating innovative services or bringing new ideas to the Web. His company is a sort of Night of the Living Dot Com Dead.

Diller does not suffer fools — or interviewers — gladly, and he reserves a special sardonic disdain for tech-industry hype. That can be refreshing. I first heard his digital-skeptic act over a decade ago, at a panel at the old Intermedia conference in 1993, where he shared the stage with Bill Gates, Apple’s John Sculley and cable mogul John Malone. While the other spouted visionary platitudes, Diller simply fumed at their disconnection from his reality. (I wrote about the event for my old paper, here.)

Today, Diller is still wearing his skeptic’s hat; at Web 2.0 he turned it on those among the new wave of Web visionaries who have dared to dream that our new publishing and searching technologies might help bring a wider conversation into being beyond control of the broadcast world’s gatekeepers. “There’s just not that much talent in the world,” Diller says, “and talent almost always outs.”

On the one hand, Diller likes the Web, because it makes it easier for people to strut their stuff, if they have any: “If you have an idea, you can get it up and out, and good ideas resonate.” On the other hand, don’t expect some sort of renaissance of creativity to happen when the Web allows us to tap the talents of a wider swath of humanity: “I think that entertainment — TV, movies, games — I think it’s going to be a relatively few people who do that, simply because there is not enough talent, and it is not hiding out somewhere…”

For Diller, in other words, the Long Tail has no snap. Putting the tools of creation and distribution into the hands of the 99 percent of humanity who have hitherto had no access to them won’t fill a bigger pool of culture; the existing talent scouts of Hollywood and its equivalents have already done perfectly well, thank you, at tapping all the talent that’s there.

I’m sorry, I worked for 15 years as a theater and movie critic, and I know that Diller is wrong. Sure, I did my time working at a theater reading the slush pile of unproduced play submissions; I spent too many hours watching the awful 95 percent of movies that do manage to get produced and released. I don’t have any illusions about repealing Sturgeon’s Law.

But the promise of the Net, still not fulfilled but hanging there hopefully before us, is that a free, open, teeming network can actually provide more opportunity for “talent” to “out” than a handful of overworked script readers, slush-pile combers and A&R men. To think otherwise — to think that the existing corporate cultural system is the most efficient mechanism imaginable for the identification of artistic talent — is pure arrogance.

Based on what he said here, I think Barry Diller believes he is someone who understands the Internet because he knows so well how to make money through it. But I don’t believe he understands the first thing about what makes it anything more than just a money machine.

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