April 9, 2007

People are spiritually starved, and feel, just below the surface, that their culture is strangling them.

-Tom the Butcher (via Gene Weingarten)


Yahoo! and the Identity of Things

December 2, 2006

I’ll admit that Yahoo!‘s purchase last year of Flickr and has long been a source of speculation and excitement for me. I wasn’t quite sure what they were doing, but I felt it had to be something pretty cool.

Now comes at least part of the answer:

If you like the Wii, you’ll love Yahoo’s new Wii portal, which aggregates Flickr photos, games, avatars with custom Wii gear, links from and MyWeb, stories from Yahoo’s Games section, Wii-related questions from Yahoo Answers and links to buy consoles and games on Yahoo Shopping. It’s the first of many sites in Yahoo’s “brand universe”, says Variety, and the plan is to roll out over 100 more of these fan sites during 2007, each one focused around a popular brand. They can then use these niches to sell targeted advertising. And while Yahoo isn’t seeking the approval of the brands themselves, they hope that these companies will play ball and provide them with some extra content in exchange for promoting the brand. Future portals could include “American Idol” and “The Lord of the Rings”, according to Yahoo. Just like the relaunch of Yahoo Food and Yahoo TV, these portals might help Yahoo to bring together some of their scattered social offerings. Since Flickr and have such unique identities, it wasn’t clear how they’d be integrated into other services: now it seems they’ll be treated as huge, free content repositories.

This is really exciting for a couple of reasons:

  • The focus is on user-centric identity and evaluation. By basing the content of each of these channels of the “brand universe” on Flickr and users’ content and assessment of products, the products become not about themselves but instead about how people use and talk about them, and how they’re important to their lives. In a recent column on the future of publishing, Cory Doctorow said the following:

“The thing about an e-book is that it’s a social object. It wants to be copied from friend to friend, beamed from a Palm device, pasted into a mailing list. It begs to be converted to witty signatures at the bottom of e-mails. It is so fluid and intangible that it can spread itself over your whole life. Nothing sells books like a personal recommendation…”

And that’s exactly right, but it’s true even beyond e-books. All cultural objects and phenomena are social. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful painting, but what makes it GREAT is all of the millions of words written about it; all of the millions of trips to the Louvre that people have taken – all of the many things that people do and say and create because of that one painting. The Nintendo Wii is no different, really: it’s just a bucket of wires in a cool case. What makes it worthwhile as a cultral object is the experiences that people have with it and what they say about those experiences, and this method of organization recognizes that central fact.

  • Yahoo! seems to understand the power of the second economy (aka, “(a) amateur economy, (b) sharing economy, (c) social production economy, (d) noncommercial economy, or (e) p2p economy”) and the potential for a hybrid economy. By making each of these channels in the “brand universe” more about those who are using and doing things with cultural objects, it enables those members of the second economy to gain greater exposure and, potentially, commercial viability of their own right in the first economy.

People identify themselves in many different ways, and one of those ways is through the things that they use and enjoy. There’s no shame in that, necessarily – after all, “things” are, in their inception, dreamed up by and created by other people. For as long as consumer products have existed, they have been adopted by people and often modified from their original purpose in ways that assert individual identity. This latest effort by Yahoo! acknowledges that central fact of consumer culture: that things become what people make of them, and that what people make of things is valuable, sometimes more valuable than the thing itself.

The Changing Media Landscape

November 22, 2006

Bill Simmons is doing some of the best current American writing right now – and it’s for He ostensibly has a sports column, but really it’s free-form cultural commentary with sports as the jumping-off point – he frequently (more or less constantly) uses pop-culture analogies to explain sports happenings, and then will turn right around and use sports analogies to explain pop-culture events. This is high cultural-literacy stuff, so it’s not surprising that he provides one of the more cogent analyses of the current state of play in television content that I’ve seen, anywhere, in a recent Friday mail-bag column:

Q: “Friday Night Lights,” the show — your thoughts? I figure it might be up your alley given your love for the “90210,” “O.C.” and such. I’m hooked and I’m not even into those kind of shows. Guilty pleasure.
–Jon Smith, Seattle

SG: I’m sure you’re right. Here’s the problem: I bailed after one episode because the ratings were so low that I assumed the show was getting canceled. After the Sports Gal’s experiences with “Reunion” and “Love Monkey” last year, I didn’t want to get sucked into a show, get attached to the characters, then have it get yanked after seven episodes. So I bailed. Naturally, NBC decided to stick with the show because it built a small but rabid fan base, and now there’s no way to catch up on old episodes because it would be too logical for them to either rerun them two at a time on Saturday nights or on the USA Network so latecomers could catch up (or people like me who gave up because they thought they show would get axed). Now I have to wait to spend $30 on the Season 1 DVD to come out next summer, which is ridiculous because I never wanted to stop watching the show in the first place.

The larger issue: TV networks spend so many time/money/energy pushing their new shows (look at the “Day Break” commercials over the past few weeks), lack the patience to stick with those same shows once they’re on … and then they wonder why we aren’t watching as much TV anymore. I mean, why would I start watching a serial show like “Kidnapped” or “The Nine” when I know there’s a 90 percent chance it’s going to be gone within four weeks, or even within a year? Would you buy a book in the store if you could only read one chapter a week and knew there was a chance the last 20 chapters would disintegrate within six weeks if there weren’t enough people that bought the book? These stupid TV networks blame DVDs, video games, Internet, iPod downloads and everything else for declining ratings, but the real reason more people aren’t watching them is because nobody trusts free networks to keep their shows on the air. At least with HBO, if they’re launching a season of “The Wire” or “Rome,” I know that I’m getting every episode from that season if I start watching. Like with “Friday Night Lights” — if that was an HBO show, I never would have stopped watching after one episode. Since it was an NBC show, I bailed. What does that tell you? [emphasis added]

That’s exactly right, and it’s also exactly the feelings shared by many, many people (something that Simmons is excellent at doing). The broadcast networks have to know this at some level but, because of entrenched procedures and their ad-supported funding structure – and the fact that they almost all use sports as a loss leader, essentially a guaranteed chunk of audience with which to hawk the rest of their (crappy) products – they’re starting from a deficit they fear will grow larger, while the cable networks have their guaranteed pot of money (from subscriptions) and can budget and build from there.

Something, it would seem, has to give. Will the broadcast networks just stop producing original scripted content? It could happen – in fact, NBC has already announced that they will no longer produce scripted content themselves. NBC News President Steve Capus said upon that announcement, “We’ve been a TV business that dabbles in digital. Now, we’re positioning as a news content-production center going forward that happens to do television.”

That seems to be a pretty broad admission that amounts to – yup, we got beat. So now, only a few years removed from total content dominance (“Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” etc.), NBC is giving up the ghost to focus on its more profitable properties – the evening news and its cable news channels, supplemented by reality TV and gameshows. Except – the evening news continues to hemhorrage viewers, and the number of viewers of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC combined is a fraction of any of the old broadcast networks’ audience. In other words – in its retreat to safe territory, NBC (and the other broadcast networks) might find the territory no longer so safe.

Viewers – rightly – no longer have any particular loyalty to any particular media channel. If it’s not delivering, there’s always another place to look, and the cost of changing is, more or less, zero. The networks, or any other media outlet, are only as good as their latest content, and if they stop even trying to differentiate their content – to take risks and be different – what good are they?