Monday, February 21, 2011

Social Media Week: 800 Million Channels of Me

Now that anyone can create a channel with global distribution, then channels have lost their value. Now that content is super-abundant, it too has lost value.

In commenting on social media this week, I am veering dangerously close to "the pot calling the kettle black," for this site is situated uneasily in the wild borderland between social media and independent journalism. First, an important caveat: while I don't claim a comprehensive understanding of social media, as a participant and citizen it is of intense interest to me. So this week's commentaries are not so much coherent attempts to "explain" social media as much as a collection of "obvious" observations and speculations.

Can someone whose photo and name anchor his weblog critique the other 800 million people operating their own channel of Me? To the degree that is just another Channel of Me, then I would certainly be the pot calling the kettle black. To the degree that is more than a Channel of Me--that is, a channel of thousands of pages of content with hundreds of thousands of visits per month and uncounted thousands more views of that content from aggregator sites and other blogs, it offers a roosting point with views over both the landscape of social media and the rocky terrain of independent journalism.

I also work in the rapidly changing territory of professional journalism as a paid writer for AOL's Daily Finance website (View my Daily Finance archive of articles) and in the vast hinterland of self-published authors who sell books in both print and digital formats.

Not only do I not understand social media, I don't even understand my own (amazing to me) success in assembling a modest audience in the unfettered meritocracy of the blogosphere.

I think my "job" here, if running can be viewed as "work," is to present you with ideas to disagree with, but to do so in such a way that the process enriches our mutual understanding of important issues. I could be wrong about that, and I am actually doing something I don't even feel the edges of, much less comprehend. I am acutely aware that what I "know" is contingent and constantly open to review, critique and modification.

In other words, I don't know nuthin' about nuthin'.

From that auspicious starting point, let's stipulate that value arises from scarcity. Back in the days when the radio was the only mass medium, then radio broadcasting stations were scarce, costly channels of distribution.

When music could only be heard live or on the radio or purchased for home use on vinyl records, then the channels of distribution were limited and thus quite valuable. Ditto television broadcasts; when millions gathered around TVs to watch the historic moon landing in July 1969, we all watched one of three networks.

Though the broadcast spectrum remains inherently limited, the larger limitations were imposed by central government (broadcasting licenses) and the high costs of broadcasting and content-creation--what many call "moats" or high entry costs which limit ownership to extremely wealthy individuals and enterprises.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, anyone with an Internet connection and a web browser can launch their own channel--a channel with near-zero entry costs and a global distribution. That is a remarkable turn of events.

Since channels of global content distribution are no longer scarce, they have little inherent value. The value, then, flows from what the channel distributes: content.

Content was once scarce. Television and film studios were costly to establish and operate, and so the three networks dominated content broadcast on television.

Radio stations were less capital-intensive, and so they could proliferate more easily. But even radio stations require substantial sums to operate, and once advertising revenues fall below operating costs, then the station is sold off and someone else attempts to lure enough listeners and harvest enough adverts to profit from the ownership rights to distribute music for free (though that "free" required purchasing a radio and putting up with the adverts).

Now there is more content than anyone can possibly consume. In addition to new content-creators like HBO (which now has multiple channels of "premium content"), we have a vast and ever-growing universe of content created by users: YouTube videos and animations, playlists, online magazines, blogs, forums, etc.

This explosion of content has been accompanied by inter-activity. Now we need not passively absorb the content--now we can post our own comments, engage in discussions online, rate others' content, and so on.

As a result, content and inter-activity in themselves no longer have any value.They've completely lost their scarcity value. The only value remaining is in scarce content, a list that shrinks by the day as digital tools enable people with little capital to create products which once were immensely costly and thus rare: musuic mastered in recording studios, film productions, animation, etc.

People will pay to see a first-run Hollywood film because the content is still relatively scarce: the experience of the large screen, the still-costly special effects, the celebrity actors and actresses, etc.

There is also a time element to this scarcity value: people attach more value to being first to see the content, and hence they will pay to see a new film during opening week but not after everyone else seems to have seen it; its inherent novelty value--novelty being a permanent holder of intrinsic scarcity value--will have degraded to zero.

Which brings us to the 800 million Channels of Me. That number is probably an underestimate; I arrive at it by adding Facebook's 500 million users to an estimated 300 million other global developers of social media channels (pages). If we count each person's online presence as a channel--a LinkedIn presence and a Facebook page, for example--then the number balloons.

But whether the number is one billion or 800 million doesn't matter much: the point is that everyone can now broadcast their own Channel of Me.

What becomes scarce in a universe glutted with content is a stable audience. Note the word "stable": having a 100,000 visitors one day and near-zero from then on offers both the satisfaction of fame and the ennui of its loss. What is truly scarce in a world of abundant/free/valueless content is a stable audience which returns to consume content day after day.

This is the promise of aggregators and platforms: the content might not be compelling, but the variety and thus the novelty of the content constitutes a meta-value of relative scarcity.

Thus a site which randomly lists YouTube videos offers no meta-value, while a site that promises "the 10 best videos of the day," and manages to deliver some visible editorial selection, would then provide some scarcity value to visitors: rather than slog through hundreds of videos, they can visit this site and get a selection of the "best" (i.e. highest novelty or production or historical value) in a short period of time.

Our time, after all, is scarce, and thus it has value.

Channels of Me offer content on that most interesting subject: me. Most creators of social media channels aspire mostly to serve a narrow audience of their friends and family.

This offers many levels of creative satisfaction and exchange value--the "social" in social media--but people seem to crave novelty and scarcity value.

In other words, we all crave the scarcity value of a large audience. We can all be stars on our Channel of Me, but since there are 800 million other stars on their own Channel of Me, then the value proposition is rather thin gruel to our desire to stand out in a media-saturated culture.

Collecting a lot of "friends" is one way to acquire the veneer of a large stable audience, but it's a thin veneer because many of the "friends" are not stable visitors; they come and go, or become Zombies, social media presences in remorselessly clingy digital bits only; their actual time invested in viewing your channel is zero.

Thus the satisfaction in having a lot of "friends" or followers, whose investment to list themselves as such is trivial in time and effort, is ultimately exceedingly thin. What is scarce is a stable audience. Zombies inhabiting a social media Potemkin Village is not an audience.

As "adult content" sites have discovered to their dismay, people crave novelty.Now that amateur pornography is apparently so abundant that it is free, then what value is there in "professional" "adult content"? As with other forms of content, pornography was once scarce and therefore the distribution channels were valuable. That no longer appears to be the case; the novelty is gone, the scarcity is gone and so is the value.

Novelty is a tricky commodity. This is why TV shows tend to have their best years early on; once the novelty wears thin, then the boundaries get pushed to "jumping the shark" levels and the audience tires of the creators' visible effort to maintain novelty.

Which brings us to the old Hollywood cliche that there's only three stories. Others boil it down to one: a stranger comes to town. As Jean-Luc Godard noted, "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun."

Add the stranger coming to town, and voila, there's your three stories.

The novelty, then, resides mostly in the characters, not the story. Alas, most of us are average (by definition)--I know I am--and thus the intrinsic novelty of our lives is rather modest. But each of us remains an interesting character, if we can find a way to reveal that character in accessible expression.

That is the difficulty in operating a Channel of Me: the "me" is intrinsically novel and universal, and what is difficult--that which remains scarce and thus valuable--is expressing that character in an honest, profound and compelling fashion.

As for "news" and commentary, cliched, derivative content is super-abundant and thus has no value. Insight, illumination, and solidly grounded reporting, however, remain scarce, because they remain difficult to tease out of chaos.

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