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.