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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.
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.