The global karaoke machine

I’ve written here recently of how the web is allowing us to produce marketable digital versions of ourselves and the anxiety that such self-commoditization can produce. In a new post at GigaOM, Robert Young examines the implications of self-commoditization for the media business. He writes that “today’s social networks (along with other forms of social media, like blogging and online video-sharing) are just the tip of [the] iceberg when it comes to the long-term potential of digital self-expression.” People are beginning, he argues,

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 … in this new industry, the raw materials for the “products” are the people.

Traditional media companies, Young believes, can capitalize on this trend by enabling and promoting it – “by re-focusing core assets that have the capability to deepen the level, and heighten the production value, of self-expression.” The model he uses is American Idol. The popular show provides a stage, or a “platform,” for self-expression that has the kind of professional production values that individuals could not create for themselves. To put it another way, traditional media can play the role of a global karaoke machine.

This model has one great advantage: the talent’s free. (And the cost of talent is often the biggest cost for media companies.) But there are some possible drawbacks. First is the question of how you make money. American Idol works in the context of traditional television, but most self-commoditization occurs on the web itself, and even highly popular platforms, like MySpace and YouTube, have yet to prove they can turn an attractive profit. There’s little constraint on the supply of digital selves, which makes the process of turning those selves into a steady flow of cash problematic at best. Young says that companies should “view the audience itself as a new generation of ‘cultural products,'” but he doesn’t go the next step and explain how you make money off those “products.”

The second question is a larger one. Young says that “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 to what degree will self-commoditization cannibalize those traditional industries? If people are busy creating their own private reality shows, how much time and interest will they ultimately have for reading newspapers or going to the movies? Self-commoditization is in the end indistinguishable from self-consumption. And narcissism is a very deep well.

Young may be right that “digital self-expression” is an iceberg. But if that’s so, the traditional media business may be the Titanic.

2 thoughts on “The global karaoke machine

  1. finn


    While narcissism is indeed a deep well (or highly reflective pond), is self-expression really such a bad thing?

    If our culture slowly becomes one in which people explore who they are and how they want to express that, how is that worse than a culture where people do essentially what media & marketing forces tell them to do? Isn’t it preferable to focus on oneself (even to the exclusion of other, worthier objects) than to see the latest movie that has generated so much “buzz”? I don’t remember “Air Force One” being an elevating experience.

    I suspect that the argument you present is a bit of a straw man. Sure, self-commoditization may be a bad choice when compared to listening to NPR, reading the New Yorker, or spending time at the library researching some complicated topic. But I don’t think that MySpace users are making that choice. They may be choosing to skip the latest episode of American Idol … but I’d argue that’s a very good choice indeed. Yes, I know MySpace is a vast wasteland. But so is network television, and at least MySpace requires _some_ thought.

    (sorry for the run-on paragraph; I can’t figure out how to create line breaks).



  2. Tish Grier

    Hi Nick,

    been reading you for a bit now, and this particular subject is fascinating for me (spoke at SXSW on blog conversations and civility…)

    There are some *huge* problems with the idea of self-commoditization: how many will actually be able to make money from self-commoditization, and what will they have to do to achieve it? What will the impact be on an individual’s sense of self as it evolves with age–and what will the impact be on the individual’s ability to gain meaningful employment if they “flop” from self-commoditization efforts? Is the answer as easy as deleting one’s failed (or ageing) avatar and trying again? Or is it deleting every aspect of oneself in the hopes that a potential employer will never finds the snippets of us that exist in various places after we have self-deleted?

    Currently, *some* folks have made good money on lucrative book deals from being fired for their blogging (as noted in a recent NYT article)–but will this trend continue? And we are only seeing a snapshot of these person’s lives–what’s the effect over the long haul? Will they be one-hit wonders who will eventually have to get real jobs? We’re getting alot of “happily ever after” stories at the moment, but we’re not getting the whole story.

    We also know very little about how an individual’s future employers will react. We have a sense of how they react to blogging about one’s job–but how will employers perceive an individual who blogs in detail about his/her personal life? Sure, we can blog anonymously if we want to display intimate details of our lives, but what if we’d like those intimate details to generate income? Then, on some level, we may have to give up the anonymity–which could impact us in the long run.

    I wonder, too, how many people can handle the “splits” of self/personality that occur when one creates avatars for different purposes. How does this effect how one presents IRL? As so many have tried to pursue lives of wholeness IRL, maintaining split avatar lives on the internet, because “everyone else is doing it,” could lead some away from attaining wholeness. Or will we have to begin to see the internet as an extension of IRL, and that everything we do in it as having the potential to be manifested off-line? And what will the consequences be?

    When many of the “experts” on social networking in suburban communities are state troopers or local vice detectives, there’s the potential for some *very* serious consequences to those rushing into monitization of self-over-exposure.

    Maybe this sounds alarmist…but I’d rather think about this now than see people hauled off to jail for thought crimes later.


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