Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Hot Teen Amateurs

The virtuous circle of narcissism and voyeurism that explains why blogs and user-generated content aren't getting any smaller

Hearing that someone doesn't read blogs is, for me, akin to hearing that someone doesn't drink coffee. That is, I can imagine how one could lead a perfectly acceptable and fulfilling life in the developed world in 2006 without drinking coffee, I just don't know why one would. Sure, you'll get by just fine without coffee, but if the option is (so readily) available and cost-effective, why not just treat yourself? Same deal with the blogs -- I mean, you're not really missing anything by not scanning blogs, but there's a lot of good stuff there, stuff that's certainly worth adding to your rotation.

I don't mean to sound like the haughty "I can't believe you're still living in the Dark Ages" tech geek. If anything, we're long through the looking glass w/r/t blogs and their user-generated content cousins/ derivatives. The newsweeklies ran their cover stories years ago, and Myspace has made the cover of Business Week. Folks can't get enough of blogging and, more generally speaking, sharing their thoughts, photos, videos, ideas, and everything else that they can digitize with the rest of the world on the Internet. Blogs, in their strictest sense, were just the start of what is a very real shift in both the way pop culture content is created and consumed. Why just write when you post pictures? Why just write and post pictures when you can also add your writing and pictures to communities and networks so that anyone with an inkling of an interest in any part of your writings and pictures can find them in just a couple clicks?

Thus we have the tens of millions of folks on blogger, Yahoo 360 and MSN Spaces. We have the millions of photos on flickr. And we've got a gazillion teenagers and college students sharing maybe a little bit too much information on Myspace and Facebook. (And this doesn't even get into the YouTubes of the world, as the bar for making a video is still slightly out of most folks' reach.)

It's easy to dismiss some of these sites as fads (certainly the social networking sites seem to be pretty fad driven; we miss ya, Friendster!), but it's borderline absurd to think that the general trend toward decentralized content creation and consumption is going to disappear. Nope. This stuff isn't going anywhere. If anything, it's only going to get bigger and bigger. And here's why:

User-generated content has captured the imagination of a culture that was already more than convinced that it is every individual's right, if not destiny, to someday enjoy fame and celebrity. We've long since treasured the legends of the actors or models who were "discovered" on a street corner or at a restaurant, or the authors who were toiling in obscurity before their big break ("You should see the closet where JK Rowling used to live!"). Over the past ten years, reality TV and the tabloid press have packaged and productized precisely the improbable ("I can't believe it all happened so fast!") march to fame that surely awaits us all.

The Internet has taken the existing overnight celebrity meme and lowered the cover charge (what economists call barriers to entry). Sure, you could write a novel, submit articles to magazines, or move to LA and become a struggling actress, but really, why bother? Look at Wonkette, Bill Simmons, and Jenn Sterger! All you need is access to a computer, and within minutes, you can launch your own amazing career!

This is not to say that everyone who writes a blog or posts photos of themselves online is dying to be famous. But there's certainly a fair degree of narcissism involved in sharing yourself with the world online. Look at me! I've got something to say! And of course, we've all heard the legends of the folks who pay the bills on their monthly AdSense revenues -- if not fame, it sure would be nice to quit the day job. But even if you don't become famous or even get to quit your day job, blogging/ posting does offer a daily dose of positive reinforcement. That is, the nice thing about the Internet is that it's easy to keep score: you can see just how many people looked at your blog, your myspace profile, or your flickr photos. And every time you see your numbers go up ("I'm so clever!"; "I'm so pretty!"), you get just the encouragement you need to continue ("If there are people out there interested in me, I better keep givin' 'em the good stuff!").

But that brings up the other side of the equation: who the hell would want to read a stranger's boring diary or look at their vacation photos? I don't know these people; why would I care? Certainly there's a strong argument to be made for user-generated content being the ultimate niche content. That is, since it's so easy to publish online, tiny little interest segments will have their very own content -- and a built-in niche audience armed with a search engine. Thus, I post on F.C. Camena just in case there are other people out there who also watch a lot of soccer and can't get enough of Winning Eleven.

But the explosion in user-generated content is about more than connecting tiny little communities and niche interest groups; that only gets you so far. There's a much simpler answer to the explosion of the online community sites (the myspaces and xanga's of the world): voyeurism. People like to watch. Trained by reality TV, e-commerce and broadband porn, we have a generation that's completely comfortable surfing page after page of profiles/ blogs -- the photos and blurbs that are essentially ads for people. We like peering into other people's lives, and the Internet offers an essentially endless supply of folks who want us to look at them. So we click. We look. We read. We click again. Why not? Who knows what we might find? Don't cost nuthin. We click again.

Essentially, what we have is a virtuous circle, where narcissism leads us to share ourselves online, which is eagerly gobbled up by a voyerusitic culture, a culture which demonstrates its approval of the narcissists by clicking and looking, which in turn encourages even more narcissism ("Look at all those clicks! I better post more photos!").

This is what's convincing millions to blog, and also what's encouraging the teenagers to post compromising photos on myspace. If you want those clicks, you're going to need to lure the voyeurs. And if you want to lure the voyeurs, you're going to need to do something to break through the clutter. And who knows -- maybe fame and fortune await!

This is all a long way of saying that you shouldn't expect this user-generated content thing to disappear. If anything, just wait until everyone's blog and myspace page contains video as well (like, say, when they put a video camera in your mobile phone). So it's not going anywhere. Not so long as there is suficient narcissism and voyeurism lurking in Western culture, and I think we've got that one covered.