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Summary:

By Robert Young No one can argue that MySpace has been the “it girl” for the past year. And the fact that she belongs to Rupert Murdoch only seems to have heightened the envy, and gotten everyone’s knickers in a twist. As a result, it seems […]

By Robert Young

No one can argue that MySpace has been the “it girl” for the past year. And the fact that she belongs to Rupert Murdoch only seems to have heightened the envy, and gotten everyone’s knickers in a twist. As a result, it seems that nearly every media company and venture capital fund on the planet is out on the dance floor stumbling over one another to see if they can identify the next breathless social networking beauty.

Yet in all this craziness, it would behoove those looking into this space to step back for a moment, take a deep breath, and realize something fundamental… social networking is a micro-phenomenon of a much larger macro-trend that the Internet has spawned since its birth… digital self-expression. And today’s social networks (along with other forms of social media, like blogging and online video-sharing) are just the tip of iceberg when it comes to the long-term potential of digital self-expression.

Much like corporations leveraged Internet 1.0 by creating digital storefronts and giving rise to ecommerce, people around the world are now learning how to leverage the incredible power inherent in the URL to create what is essentially a parallel universe of digital identities. And just like all things Internet, digital identities are not subject to the boundaries of geography, or the laws of physics, or any of the other limitations of being a carbon-based life-form. As such, the extensibility and scale of the “digital you” is far-reaching, as are the strategic implications to the media industry. In many ways, the art-form of self-expression has become the “new media”, and social networks are their distribution channels.

It’s crucial to understand that social networks are architected to help scale self-expression to new heights, both in terms of the extent of self-expression as well as the reach of distribution (e.g. number of “friends” and the effects of the whole six degrees of separation thing). A simple example… a person on MySpace can have thousands upon thousands of friends. This was not possible before the Internet, and even prior online communications & community innovations like email, chat/forums, and IM didn’t truly enable this kind of scale. Moreover, a person can now express him/herself with multidimensional, multimedia depth via text, photos, audio and video… again, to a degree that was not really possible before.

To some extent, self-expression should be viewed as a new industry, one that will co-exist alongside other traditional media industries like movies, TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. But in this new industry, the raw materials for the “products” are the people… or as Marshall McLuhan might say, “the people are the message” when it comes to social networks. So for any player who seeks to enter this industry and become the next social networking phenom, the key is to look at self-expression and social networks as a new medium and to view the audience itself as a new generation of “cultural products”.

In the past century, the creation of cultural products was centered in Hollywood. Now, social networks are broadening the scope of cultural media to include “identity production” (a very appropriate term coined by danah boyd), all the while decentralizing the ecosystem out to the edges. For traditional media companies that are seeking to enter this space (e.g. MTV, Martha Stewart, etc.), it’s critical to follow the audience into the development of this new market by re-focusing core assets that have the capability to deepen the level, and heighten the production value, of self-expression.

Think of this way… what if “American Idol” had been produced solely by the capabilities of the contestants themselves, without the expertise and talent of the show’s producers, directors, writers, etc. As talented and entertaining as the contestants are, the resulting production quality, the level of emotional engagement, viewership/ratings and monetization potential of the full package would likely be far inferior to what we all see on the air today. Well, social networks should be seen in a similar way… people want to express themselves and the platforms that allow them to do so with the most creativity and production value, are the ones that people will flock to.

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Robert Young is a serial entrepreneur who played a major role in the invention & commercialization of the world’s first consumer ISP, Internet advertising (pay-per-click ads), free email, and digital media superdistribution.

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  1. Excellent read!

  2. Robert, nice article. I’d be interested to know what you think about the practical limits of attention of people, which the boom in online self expression will sorely test. If everyone is so busy “expressing”, is there anyone out there with time or interest to listen?

    “A simple example… a person on MySpace can have thousands upon thousands of friends” : you can link to thousands of people but only have time to have a meaningful interaction with a small proportion of those. I don’t use any of the MySpace-a-likes (too old!) but my impression is that many users occupy themselves with semi-competitive “friend-collecting” – quantity rather than quality.

    I hear a lot more often from my favourite bloggers than from most of my real friends, but there are only a dozen or so I can keep up with, and I’ve picked those to be the ones with something interesting to say (for my own tastes of course). Of course web serendipity often turns up someone new to add to the feed reader.

    A similar example, I take a quick look at a lot of new services that Michael Arrington reviews over on TechCrunch, but even though a lot of them seem like excellent and interesting ideas, I simply don’t have time to investigate in depth, let alone use them unless they are addressing a pretty urgent need.

    I suppose the answer is that if you have something interesting to say to some group, you have a much better chance of connecting to them now than in the past – a kind of e-bay of ideas.

  3. Great article. I think Robert’s point is more around self expression to friends than the one to many of blogs. Your comment is correct in that attention is scarce, but I believe it is also moving toward self expressing online as our social interactions move online. One could argue this has already happened with millennials who spend an inordinate amount of time on social networks. The major reason is they see their online personae as equally important to their personae in the real world and thus their attention is moving from offline to online.

  4. Greg Linden Tuesday, May 30, 2006

    Sounds a lot like Danah Boyd’s explanation in her essay, “Is MySpace just a fad?” She also argued that people seek self-expression in these applications.

    I am not so sure about that explanation. It seems to me that there must be other motivations, that it is about dating/sex, that it is entertaining and fun like a game, that it creates a sense of place and community, or something else.

    If the most expressive platform wins, then I would think that people would just use web pages. Can’t do much better than raw HTML for avoiding limits on self-expression.

    I think there must be more going on here.

  5. john macchia Tuesday, May 30, 2006

    Has anyone read the Tipping point?

    there are a few great chapters on social interactment and the number of persons one can know before neglecting their current friends…

  6. http://mstdump.net Tuesday, May 30, 2006

    Completely Agree with you John macchia

  7. Jesse Kopelman Tuesday, May 30, 2006

    Greg, I think the factor you are missing is ease of use. Sure, if you learn enough coding skills, you can do more with a web page, but not everyone can/wants to do that. Just like not everyone who spends a lot of time/money on good food cooks it all from scratch. Just like serious art efficianados rarely create all the works in their collection. Just like the people obsessed with modifying their cars rarely build any of the components from raw metal, if they build them at all. What MySpace gives you is a short-cut to having a personalized web page and more importantly gives you a way of having a lot of people to discover it easily without having to figure out a way to game search engines or, heaven forbid, spend money advertising it. In the end most expressive really only counts what people can make easy use of, not all potential avenues of expression.

  8. Michael Liubinskas Tuesday, May 30, 2006

    How is Rupert going to go with the whole ‘self expression can’t thrive with control’ part? Is he big enough to let go, or is he an ‘old dog’?

    And how does self-expression change the way we think about traditional media? When someone can blog/dump about something they believe in, I think they question traditional media more.

    Also, they know what it is like to have an audience. My girlfriend started blogging and she was astounded about which posts people chose to comment on and what they wrote. When she looks at a newspaper article, her perspective on the content, the motive and the author have changed.

    It takes time.

  9. My main problem with the majority of social networks is I believe far more people are writing than reading.

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