It’s not about you anymore. Thank goodness.
It’s been a little over three years since Time magazine named “You” its Person of the Year, a heavily mocked yet totally appropriate and even shrewd move by Fortune’s sister publication. YouTube was redefining the experience of watching videos. Facebook was picking up steam as the ultimate form of self expression for young people. And blogging was all the rage.
That was then. Today, YouTube is trying harder to become a destination for professional content, its owners at Google (GOOG) having realized that professionally produced entertainment is a better advertising bet than a silly cat on a skateboard. Facebook has endured, but by building itself into a communications platform that leverages all kinds of media, not just photos of now graduated college kids drinking from beer bongs.
Even blogging has evolved, and in a good way. People are beginning to understand that if a medium with new and exciting tools is just an excuse to write nonsense while wearing pajamas, then it’s not worth much. If, however, a blogger has a message, some thought, and some research, well, that’s called journalism. And that, come to think of it, is what we paid serious attention to before it became all about you.
Stop. I know. I’m making a self-serving argument. Guilty as charged. Bear with me.
Consider this trenchant post by software entrepreneur Joel Spolsky. It’s worth reading every word. To summarize, he argues that while he built his reputation with a blog on software programming, he’s giving it up because he’s too busy now running his company, Fog Creek Software. He also makes the obvious but still useful observation that his blog has been successful not because it’s about him or his company but because it was bigger than him or his company. (There will always be exceptions. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson neatly pulls off the trick of informing readers about high-level topics and what music he’s listening to.) In other words, Spolsky had something to say. He also had time to say it then, and now he’s more focused on managing, a typical experience for any blogger, who at some point has to go back to work.
Little pieces of the post-you mosaic are coming together. According to a recent Edelman survey, business magazines are trending upward as trusted sources for U.S. opinion leaders, while social media, friends, neighbors, and the like are trending downward. The crowd certainly has its wisdom. But the masses also can be asses, and it’s gratifying to see even a hint that people who think for a living value other people who think for a living.
Then there is Ariana Huffington. (Doesn’t it always come back to Ariana?) A marvelous, gifted speaker, Huffington addressed an advertising-industry conference in San Francisco this week, spinning a wonderful web about the “Four E’s” needed for today’s media: engagement, enthusiasm, empathy and energy. Wonderful stuff, of course. And almost completely meaningless.
She also talked about how “promiscuity” in media is a good thing and how just because something worked yesterday doesn’t mean it will work tomorrow. The promiscuous behavior she’s referring to is how consumers like to sample various ways of consuming and paying for content. By dissing yesteryear she has her scalpel out for “old” media. Perhaps she doesn’t realize, though, that the “what’s working” argument may bite Ariana and her crowd in the rear. What has worked for the last few years is building one’s media empire on the backs of someone else’s. It’s what Huffington Post does. It’s what Google does too. (Right, Rupert?) That doesn’t mean it’s going to keep working, especially if the creators of unique, valuable and expensive content — including, absolutely, my employers — start making it more difficult for it to work for the likes of HuffPo and Google.
Let’s cut off some foaming-at-the-mouth debates before they start. “New” media has brought us some wonderful innovations. Blogs and Twitter (see Spolsky’s great Twitter put-down above, which I don’t necessarily agree with) are wonderful forms of self-expression. They’re also effective distribution mechanisms for what once were newsletters, an honorable if small-bore industry that has existed forever. The ability to electronically refer and solicit comments is a huge advancement over how we used to do it.
But let’s face it: You are being co-opted. If you’ve truly got something interesting to say you’re going to be part of an organization that can give you a platform. And that company justifiably will take a piece of the action. As for high-quality work produced by professionals? That’s what consumers really want and are willing to pay for. Even Twitter users partly use the service to find good content, distributed for free by professionals who appreciate the service for the broadcast mechanism that it is.
Sorry to say it again, but you are yesterday.