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Is Social Media the New Hollywood or the new Pittsburgh?

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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.

16 Responses to “Is Social Media the New Hollywood or the new Pittsburgh?”

  1. I find it quite dismaying that most GigaOm bloggers, being renowned as visionaries, think bad of multi-purpose social start-ups. Did they forget why MySpace had it’s success and defeated Friendster? There are over a hundred examples of same thing reoccurring in the Internet and in business as a whole.
    Think of car – will you, as a consumer, buy a car which has, say an ultra-nice climate control system, but lacks audio or will you tend to buy a car, which has all the features, not at best levels, but satisfying enough?

  2. Why would I buy my Internet access from my cable company?
    Why would I buy my music at my coffee shop?
    Why would I buy my flat screen TV from the same company I bought my laptop?
    You get the picture?
    Companies have offered ancillary products for years with great success. The key is to offer products that make sense to your customer. If my social network can offer me blogs, photos, video and the ability to connect under one site, then why the heck not?

  3. Robert – It sure is beginning to feel more and more like the 90’s BBB (before the bubble burst). Social media is not going away. Why? The kids. The kids are growing up with the ability to actively share their lives online, on mobile and who knows where it goes from there. It’s a part of their lives and tho it will of course change, the concept of ‘social media’ is here to stay.

    Sure there will be the Hollywood versions but there will also be the Sundance and pre Sundance communities that will be developed. As technology becomes even easier watch out for what the kindergarten set will create!

    Who will make $$$ from their ventures? As you imply .. the marketplace will take of that one.

  4. Jesse Kopelman

    Interesting to note that Bell wasn’t wrong at all. Thanks to DSL and XoIP, the physical plant of the telephone network is able to “deliver music, drama, and news to the people.”

  5. lionKing

    For no reason I get excited whenever I see Pittsburgh in headlines.. :) ..

    Long live Pittsburgh.. :) ..

    Now, some serious comments.

    1. You say “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.”

    Think of what % of people want to use social media as an opportunity
    to Hollywood ?? I would sayy 5% max.. Note that most of the participants in
    social media are passive users who either read blogs, or watch videos but don’t
    contribute ..

    So “social media as a new opportunity and path to Hollywood ” is just another
    application of social media.. This could well be the widest application built on top
    of social media.. There are other significant applications on top of “social media”..

    1. You say “social media as a digital appendage of oneself.” ..

    I agree with this one.. Blogging,social networking and video sharing have all done
    two things: 1) Empowering user to increase his social presence 2) information/entertainment

    In technical terms, ‘social media’ is a platform for poeple to exercise their creativity.

    In sum, according to me it doesn’t make sense to compare both the models you mentioned..

    As clarified above, one is an application and other is a platform on which there are
    multiple applications..

  6. You are so right! Everywhere people see few examples and they start building their ventures. Bad part is, smaller non planned ventures destroy the strength they can gain by aligning to bigger better or proven networks. Its such an apathy that everyone has started thinking he or she has an idea and they can make it work, in that race they are also destroying other valuable ideas. I don’t understand why is it so hard for people to work in TEAMs. And I agree this is really dangerous it distracts the user/donor or investor. The worst hit is user, user starts thinking its all same. Socialism is not one person’s domain but I think by looking at so much of funds pouring in people think its all freely available. This trend needs to be canalized in right direction and right guidance from people like you is highly required.

  7. I really like this post. I do believe that social media is more than just a passing fad, but two things trouble me (the same things that seem to trouble you):

    (1) To your point, the degree to which so many social media start ups are looking to be all things to all people strikes me as a recipe for failure. Just this week I was pitched by a start up who (no joke) described their offering as “the first destination to combine social networking, personal publishing, co-creation and collaboration, presented in a Second Life style graphical interface, and with a gaming and prizing platform to keep users engaged.” Who wants that?

    (2) Hollywood’s sudden interest in social media (per the examples you cited), while understandable, seems to ignore one potential hiccup: that the success of so many social media “stars” may in fact be due to the confluence of individual and environment. Take the lonelygirls out of the YouTubes (or Revvers) and the simple truth is that they may not fascinate us so well. Sure, there will be exceptions, but just because organic, consumer generated content succeeds within its home environment (a social network or a video sharing site) that is not a guarantee of success once that content creator is scrubbed for mainstream media (and let’s face it, Hollywood is not likely to keep good-enough as-is once it gets a hold of farm team talent.) We loved lonelygirl when we thought she was real, we were intriqued by lonelygirl as we debated whether she was a marketing ploy or seeded mainstream content; will we still love lonelygirl when she appears in 30-second spots or joins the cast of a sitcom? Maybe, but probably not. Pittsburgh works BECAUSE it’s Pittsburgh (or “any town” to Steve’s point) – because it’s not clouded by Hollywood glitz and glamor.

  8. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your comment. My choice of Pittsburgh (where I attended CMU) was, in fact, meant to imply precisely the reference you brought up. Sorry I didn’t expand on it more… I was hoping the radio & telephone metaphor would serve that purpose.

  9. Good post! I’ve been doing some thinking in this area as well and agree with your assessment. You cant’ be People and Real Simple at the same time. All goes back to the basics of Marketing – know thy customers and give them what they want. Let’s go Pittsburgh!

  10. I was a bit disappointed by this post. When I saw Pittsburgh in the headline, I thought you were going to draw lines between Hollywood as content and Pittsburgh as the nuts and bolts of infrastructure. But Pittsburgh in your post was pretty meaningless, just another word for “any town.” Still, the headline alone got me thinking. So that’s OK. If you don’t blog about it, I just might.