Americans like to give names to generations. We call our World War II heroes the Greatest Generation, beatnik poets of the 1950s the Beat Generation, and reckless investors in the 1980s the Me Generation. But we can't seem to agree on a name for the millions of people today who are flooding the computer Internet with their own stories, music, films, and art. A recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 44 percent of Internet users are generating creative content and posting it on the Net - people like J.D. Weiner, who keeps an online political web log, or blog, aimed at first-time voters.
"Young people spend most of their waking hours on the Internet, so it was a very natural step. You can just put up a blog, and people will come and talk about your life, or sex, or politics," he said.
Some people call these Internet do-it-yourselfers Generation C, for the creative content they put on the Net. Or citizen media, meaning they're average people offering their work to the world. Another name is Generation E, for entitled, because these folks feel they have just as much right as established writers or musicians or filmmakers to be heard.
One new software package called Garage Band has enabled musicians like Troy Pyva to make music in cyberspace. "I have no background in music at all. But I'm able to create tangible music with this," he explains.
Jonathan Caouette used an I-MAC computer to edit his first film, called Tarnation, about a gay teenager and schizophrenic mother, which he completed on a $218 budget.
"If you can read and write, you can make a movie now. This technology is enabling people that never had a voice before to come out of the woodwork," he said.
Tarnation caught the eye of Gus Van Zant, who directed the hit movie Goodwill Hunting. He helped get Jonathan Caouette's little movie into the Sundance Film Festival.
Donnie Deutsch, who heads a New York advertising agency, hosts a cable TV show that features creative Internet wizards. Generation C or E is not an age group, he says. It's a mindset.
"Basically, my opinion, my voice, my artistic freedom is well deserved, and I can do whatever I want," he said. "This was the first generation that's saying, 'You know what? We count,' that 'my opinion is as good as any great writer's, and my ability to create music is as good as any musician's,' and it's kind of a crazy, brave new world."
Mr. Deutsch says citizen media don't bother trying to impress corporate giants like publishers and TV networks. They just do their thing online and let the public judge. Just ask Benny Ng. He works for My5minutes.com. It's a four-month-old Internet enterprise that invites people to upload their videos - of any length - onto the Net for free. He says My5minutes.com has already introduced a thousand people's videos, from martial-arts stunts to happy birthday greetings.
"They have an idea, and they're being creative. They're shooting it," he said. "They're editing it, and they're uploading it. And you can easily have hundreds and thousands of people view it within a matter of hours. This is just their chance to stand up and say, 'Hey, this is what I have to say.' It's a little bit of affirmation. People like recognition. Kids these days, they call it 'props.'"
Dale Peskin, the deputy director of a Virginia think tank called the Media Center, says information is once again being spread the old-fashioned way - by word of mouth - but in non-traditional cyberspace. He calls this nothing short of a revolution and cites a powerful example from South Korea.
"The most popular and influential [online] media organization is something called Oh My News," he said. "It was founded four years ago. It has 6,000 'citizen reporters.' It has an editorial staff that filters and vets the information and checks for accuracy. And they now have daily usage of two million people a day. They were influential in electing the president of South Korea and have enormous influence as a sort of grass-roots, democratic media organization. Will that happen here? I just don't know."
Alex Halavais, a University of Buffalo communications professor, tells VOA today's C or E generation finds a comfortable online niche he calls mass individualization that attracts people who share the same interests. And Jarvis Coffin, co-founder of a Boston company called BURST! that helps individuals and small Internet publishers find advertisers to underwrite their creative websites, says the new army of online self-publishers is taking a bite out of mainstream media and publishing houses - not so much in revenue as in audience.
"If you look at the declining audience numbers of television, of magazines, and of newspapers, that tells the beginning of the story. People are happy to be empowered," he said. "They want to be able to make their own choices about what kind of information they get, when they get it, and in many cases they want to be able to produce it for themselves and share it with their neighbors."
But not everyone has joined the love-fest over the do-it-yourself Internet phenomenon. Jim Farrelly, who teaches film studies at the University of Dayton, for one, says he's sick of what he calls these dilettantes in the entitled generation who want to act out their dreams without years of study and hard work.
"They have technology, so why not claim talent as well? They have literally filled the Internet with their juvenilia and meaningless tripe," he said. "It's fast food and instant gratification. Time they should spend reading experts they dedicate to cranking out their own drivel. Whole novels are being dumped on the computer, hoping to be discovered. These are people who are desperate for fame. There is no measurable standard, and there's no accountability. Let them see what the masters have to offer, and then see if they can even approach that level of achievement."
Jim Farrelly at the University of Dayton says big media and publishing houses will continue to sift creative wheat from chaff, but not before what he calls an ignorant few have, to use his word, polluted cyberspace with their flings at fame and fortune.