Are Social Sites this Centuries Penny Press?

futurelab default header

by: David Polinchock

I decided to take the plunge this weekend and spend a great deal of time at The NY Post recently wrote how youtube could now be worth $1 billion, finally making it worthy of a plan by Dr. Evil.

So, I've spent more hours then I probably should watching videos on the site. I've looked at the professional, the amateur and, well, the less then amateur. I've had some occasional laughs and even a guffaw or two; I've been occasionally titillated and I even listened to the recording of the Howard Stern Show on 9-11.

But mainly, I saw a lot of boring stuff that I would barely watch again and probably wouldn't have watched in the first place if I weren’t trying to learn more about youtube. I mean, my life can be pretty boring on its own and I wouldn't want to put any more time into watching snippets of other people's boring lives.

There was a lot of good commercial quality content on the site and, as I said, some of it can be very entertaining. And one thing is very cool about sites like this. It does take distribution control away from a small group of media companies. Now anyone has a place to showcase his or her talents. That's way cool for the really talented folks out there stuck without a way to show them. And I have a theatre degree, so I know how hard it is to make a living in that field. But it is good to remember that not everyone has talent!

And, since everything old is new again, the whole youtube phenomenon reminds me of the stories from the early days of the printing press and the Penny Press here in the US 100+ years ago.

As was the case today, before the printing press, content was controlled by a very small group of people. People could only read what was given to them to read and these edits were made to help people understand the complex narratives — to help people keep under control.

Then Gutenberg created the printing press and all of that changed. Now content could be distributed by a larger group of people and that meant new content could find an audience. As we've written about in the past (Experience Manifesto: Lloyds of London ne Lloyds Coffee House), the coffee houses in London in the 1600 and 1700's all used to print their own newsletter, directed to its specific audience. So a coffeehouse that served doctors would print a newsletter about the medical field. In fact, Lloyd's of London, the large insurance company, was started at Lloyd's coffeehouse because that's where many people in the shipping industry went for coffee.

When the Penny Press hit the US in the 1800's, there were 500+ being printed in their heyday. They were fast & cheap to print and people printed a lot of them. According to Historic Pages history of newspaper:

By 1814 there were 346 newspapers. The 1850 census catalogued 2,526 titles. An astounding 11,314 different papers were recorded in the 1880 census.

And, if I had to make a guess, there were some good things being printed, but there were also some mediocre things printed and I would even guess there were lots of bad things printed. And I'm not talking bad like you didn't agree with their POV; I mean bad like just poorly written.

And, over time, the bad ones died off and we were once again back to a relatively small group who distributed the content for us.

The same thing happened with blogs. There are just so many out there and many of them are either mundane or poorly written and there's a lot that are both. And eventually we find a small group that we like and that's what we read.

It seems like there's a cycle that always occurs. It's like your freshman year away. You go from a restricted world to one with (seemingly) complete freedom and you just do way more Jell-O shots then you know you should. Eventually, you calm down, (although it's still OK to have Jell-O shots every now & then) and settle into a routine.

And that's the cycle all of the sites like youtube and myspace will go through. At first, lots of people will spend lots of time on these sites. And eventually, they'll slow down. It's the circle of life!

The key for the advertising and media companies to not pretend these new channels don't exist. But it's also to understand that they're not your saviors either. Sure, I had fun watching clips of Howard Stern, but it didn't make me want to buy his on demand show.

We say a lot here that it's much easier to get people to watch this new content then it is to engage people and certainly both need to happen.

But before you jump in and declare these sites as your salvation, make sure you look at the cycle and understand how to play the cycle we’re in. And don’t bet the farm on this being your future. It’ll change again before you know it.

As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts! I also posted portions of this on Soflow and you can follow the conversation there as well.

Link: Soflow – View Forum – Are Social Sites the New Penny Press? – Version 1.3.1.

Original Post: