Is Social Media the New Hollywood or the new Pittsburgh?

When Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his new invention, the telephone, for the first time publicly in 1876, he didn’t announce the birth of a new age of ubiquitous electronic person-to-person communications. Nope. Instead, to the oohs and aahs of those gathered around him at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Bell proclaimed the advent of a new entertainment medium designed to deliver music, drama, and news to the people. In other words, he described what we all now know as “radio”, not the “telephone”… oops.

I’m reminded of this little bit of historical trivia every time I watch social media evolve…

…. reading all the articles, hearing from the hundreds of new social media entrepreneurs who write me every day, etc. As social media advances into a powerful new medium for self-expression and communications, the true utility and purpose of social networking sites like MySpace and social video-sharing sites like YouTube seem to be in constant flux. Many go as far as to predict that social media will be a passing fad. Yet in all this confusion about what social media will, or will not, ultimately become when it grows up, two distinct paradigms seem to be dominating the majority of views (and strategic plans) today.

The first is social media as the new Hollywood. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say a “farm league” to Hollywood. There’s plenty of evidence to support this scenario:
(a) MySpace is owned by Rupert Murdoch, a media mogul;
(b) YouTube (and soon-to-be-parent Google) are doing all they can to partner with the established media players;
(c) Hollywood talent agencies are dedicating resources to social media to scout for new talent and deals;
(d) established Internet players like Yahoo Media Group and new startups like Bix are launching new platforms and contests aimed at becoming the web version of “American Idol”… the list goes on.

The bottom line here is that there are a group of people who view social media platforms as a new opportunity and path to Hollywood fame.

The second model has less to do with the bright lights of Hollywood and more to do with everyday life, and using social media as a digital appendage of oneself. Here, social media fills the basic human desire to express ones’ creativity and individuality, and to use self-expression in order to enhance and extend their relationships and communications with others.

Of all the large social media platforms out there today, Facebook is probably the purest in this sense… peruse the profiles in Facebook and one of the first things you’ll notice is the low “narcissism” ratio vs. other more fame-driven social networks. Consequently, for whole new generation of Internet natives, checking your Facebook profile several times a day is more important than any other form of communications.

Now, let’s go back to Bell for a minute. While his initial vision for the telephone-as-radio turned out be the wrong one, it’s critical to realize that the invention of the radio could not have occurred without the prior invention of the telephone. Put simply, the telephone and radio run along the same continuum of physics. It’s also equally important to understand that the same fundamental science can spawn two completely separate industries. But the most important lesson of all is that Bell didn’t try to create the “radiophone”.

The reason I’m bringing all this up is because I’m starting to see a potentially dangerous trend emerging… one that’s quite reminiscent of “everybody wants to be a portal” wave of the late ‘90s. As I get pitched by hundreds of new social media ventures, there seems to be an increasing disconnect between what they say is their vision vs. the platforms that are actually being built.

It rings especially true when I hear from people deep within the entertainment community about how they intend to embrace and leverage social media to their benefit. To boil it down, nearly every platform demo and spec that I see now are nearly identical in terms of functionality and feature set. Most alarming though is that too many ventures seem to have an overwhelming desire to do it all by building a “radiophone”, as opposed to focusing on one or the other. After all, even Bell quickly realized his success would be found by focusing on building the telephone, and letting others build the radio.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, there are also a lot of parallels that can be drawn, when building an online community, to building towns, cities, or even a nation. While the difference between, say Hollywood and Pittsburgh, from the perspective of urban planning, political organization, economic policy development, law enforcement, etc. might seem similar at a zoomed-out level, the distinguishing characteristics and services of each city get amplified as one zooms in to the culture of the population and the various neighborhoods that make up each city.

Hollywood is very different from Pittsburgh, and the factors that drive the health and prosperity are highly specific to each. This is an obvious statement… yet such obviousness does not seem to be translating to many of the social media ventures that I’m seeing. Put another way, the biggest danger for any social media venture today, whether they be at the startup stage or even for those that already have a lot of traction, is to try to be all things to all people.

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