Web 2.0, Kool-Aid, Aspirations and Failures

I’ve had this post percolating in me for a while. I’m trying to distill down a zeitgeist I’m sniffing in the blogosphere. First, here’s some of my source material:

Steve Rubel is down on the Web 2.0 world in general

Andrew Baron enters his fourth year with Rocketboom

Justin Kownacki finds social media’s social structures rigid and frustrating

Podarama is looking for a reprieve from imminent doom.

Kevin Kelly points out that 90% being crap means 10% is wonderful

It has felt to me like these are threads in a consistent cloth, but I’m not sure if I can weave them together well. In my head it feels so easy, but writing it and articulating in words is hard.

Andrew Baron points to his particular keys of success with Rocketboom and he thinks one of the big contributors is abandoning the pursuit of a network.

We’ve seen alot of the popular content startups turn into networks of shows and I continue to be critical of them for operating like old record labels. There is a better way to grow a brand of content for the long term. I can’t believe how much money some of them have burnt through.

He doesn’t name names, but one assumes that Podtech and Podshow are amongst the networks he’s talking about. I don’t really know how the business prospects of Cam Reilly’s Podcast Network are faring but I still think it is weird that when I look at their site, the 3rd most prominent link is to a show that has never had an episode. Podshow’s web interface gets weirder and weirder to me. When I find new shows to add to AmigoFish and they are a Podshow property, I have to hunt all over the web page just to find the RSS link. I eventually unsubscribed from the Scoble Show when I got tired of seeing yet another demo of a product I didn’t care about. That was the only Podtech show I watched or listened to. I haven’t listened to any of the programs of the TWiT family in something like a year and a half. I hung with the Daily Giz Wiz longer than any, but eventually dropped that one too. I’m not even listening to the entire slate of IT Conversations shows anymore. I couldn’t take Tech Nation, a show I stopped listening to on the radio in 1998 because I got tired of it.

Just today, my brother IM’d me the link to Podarama’s plea for help. I initially thought I’d never heard of the site, but when I explored a little I found I had listened to a program on it – Zydeco Road. I listened to a few episodes and bailed. After living in Lafayette LA, this New York based zydeco show didn’t cut it when I can listen to Zydeco Est Pas Sale from KRVS anytime (and I even know those guys.) My brother pointed out that Podarama seems generally hapless and that even clicking on their store link takes you to a login page. That’s right, you can’t see what they have for sale unless you create an account. I’m not rooting for failure of this outfit, but it doesn’t seem like an operation overflowing with clue.

It seems to me the stampede to form networks was one of the very first impulses people had when the podcast era began. It perplexed me then and it continues to perplex me. The main thing I like about producing a podcast is that I don’t need a network. For 80 years, to get nationwide distribution you needed a network. When I produced Reality Break in the 90’s, we had it on NPR’s PRSS system for two years. Nowadays, you could get the same reach without the necessity of dealing with the bureaucracy. Having experienced that sort of fun, I never understood the urge people have to recreate these no longer necessary structures. To me, the lack of a network is the strength.

As a consumer of podcasts, I’ve never gotten anything out of a network. I don’t look at a show and say “Oh boy, that’s on Podshow/Podtech/TWiT/Podcast Network so it has to be good.” This is the way it works in the post-scarcity world. To return to my hobby horse and invoke Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of all new media is “crap.” I don’t believe in the objective good/bad or high quality/low quality I constantly hear bandied about. The only valuable metric is relevant to me or irrelevant. Really, what Sturgeon’s Law says is that 90% of the shows are not of interest to me. That works for independent individual’s shows, but also the output of networks. I have no brand affinity for any podcasting network. Why should I? 90% of their output is not interesting to me.

On the flip side of that, as Kevin Kelly points out in his rebuttal of new media’s favorite publicity whore Andrew Keen, 10% “good stuff” (ie, relevant to me) from a large number of participants means overall more good (relevant) stuff available. That has been my experience. Even as I have dropped the shows I referenced above, I continue to find more and my total number of subscriptions has creeped upwards steadily for the last three years. In the last few weeks, I have tried half a dozen new shows, dropping a few and keeping a few.

And yet, Steve Rubel finds the Web 2.0 world — with which the new mediasphere (blogs, podcasts, videoblogs) seems inextricably linked — to be in decline. To him, this feels just like it did in 1999 when VC money flowed into every stupid idea, money was wasted left and right and people were motivated by the idea of a fast track to a liquidity event that would make them rich. He liked things better in the trough between the high times because there was a focus on creating good sites of high value with less of an eye to a quick score. Still, a lot of the problems he points out are a function of the Silicon Valley mindset, where the corridor from San Francisco is dense with people high one each other’s tail pipe fumes.

I personally don’t care much about that world, which I’ve always found shallow and smug and self-satisfied. These are the type of people who refer to “fly-over country.” Whenever I hear that term, it makes me want to fly my fist into some Santa Clara hipster’s big fat mouth. I’m from fly-over country, and have spent my whole life there. It’s what most of us refer to as “America.” You know, that measly 260 million people who don’t live in San Francisco or LA or New York. That brings me to Justin Kownacki, who I know from watching his series Something to Be Desired. (I’m on Season 3, episode 11.) He points out that the gospel that Web 2.0 evangelists preach is that our present technologies and webscape permit creativity from everywhere. Their words do that, at least. With their actions they tend to cluster in Silicon Valley, logroll with their fairly insular set of cronies and generally assume that most of the value exists in each other. This led to phenomena such as Odeo being proclaimed the best podcasting site out there when their page was a big “Coming Soon” banner. It wasn’t the work, it was the pedigree that mattered to people.

As Justin points out:

Eric was musing about the seeming hypocrisy of every ‘must-attend’ social media event, in which people who aren’t making any money in the medium still feel obliged to fly to an event to be part of some fictitious scene. At one point, I mentioned that, since the web is built upon the democratized promise that physical location no longer matters, I shouldn’t feel hamstrung by living in Pittsburgh as opposed to NYC / LA / SF. However, it’s undeniable that “the action” still takes place in the major media centers — which, if that’s the case, essentially means that the liberating power of the web is a lie.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country is full of us people just trying to do their work, get things done. I watch or listen to shows produced out of Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Greenville SC, Minneapolis, Cleveland, North Dakota, Vancouver BC, etc. There are even *GASP* whole other non-USA countries from which good work is published. A very small minority of what I listen to originates from the trinity of NY/SF/LA. I recently spent a weekend in Greensboro NC with several hundred people who blog, podcast, videoblog, make independent films and generally let their creative flag fly. Almost all of those people drove there, ie were within a few hundred miles of the event or even lived in town. Just in the Piedmont southeastern US there were that many creators doing good work who were willing to come out. There must be at least ten times as many who didn’t come out to the event, probably more. Fly-over country is getting it done, and you sniffy hipsters discount it at your peril. Even more, As Justin points out, if the promise of Web 2.0 is real we can do our thing anywhere. If we have to be in SF to matter, then that promise is a fraud.

Despite the naysayers and the prospects of the new media networks, I have nothing but optimism for and love of our new media. Every day it matters more to me than the legacy media. No doubt the business side will shake out some of the networks, which will scare out some or all of the VC money from the field. I think that will be good for the long term prospects. I’ll go farther. I think the long-term prospects of players in the new mediasphere will be inversely correlated to how much VC money they take. Entirely bootstrapped, self-funded organizations will be healthier than those with external funding. The number of shows will continue to increase, which will also be to the good. Most of it will be irrelevant to any given person but any audience member can find plenty to enjoy and every publisher can find plenty of people to be their fans. These are not bugs, these are features. At the end of the day, all the business talk and power dynamics and A-listiness is meaningless. There is work to be done, and some of us will do work we are proud of. Some of us will find the work that enriches our lives. Everything else is the droning of pundits that find themselves on the short end of the attention stick. Welcome to the 90%, our former arbiters of taste. We’ve moved on without you.

Update: I forgot to mention ConvergeSouth! WTF? Edited that in.

8 Replies to “Web 2.0, Kool-Aid, Aspirations and Failures”

  1. I agree… “What Dave said!”

    But to address your TPN question, we’ll have a look at that ‘mystery third show’ (I’m assuming its the Polly Poly link) and deal accordingly. On the hazier question you asked (“I don’t really know how the business prospects of Cam Reilly’s Podcast Network are faring …”) I think you answered it at the very end (“I’ll go farther. I think the long-term prospects of players in the new mediasphere will be inversely correlated to how much VC money they take. Entirely bootstrapped, self-funded organizations will be healthier than those with external funding.”)

    — Ewan

  2. Great post, Dave. I have never understood why people rush out to join networks either. Hosting doesn’t cost all that much. When I started the Deliberate Noise Network, it was totally tongue in cheek and people take it seriously.

    True, there’s something to said about having someone to help promote and market the shows, but I don’t really see a lot of that going on with the networked shows. I know about new shows from forum posts or from mentions on the shows that are on my subscription list and of course, Amigofish.

    I also don’t understand all of the traveling to central locations to meet other people, but I always thought that was because I am not a very social person.

  3. I think for new comers to the Web 2.0 life, not understanding the technology or how to get what you want come to you, its just so easy to go to a “network” site. When you first get involved you really want to be part of the crowd. You don’t want to feel stupid or left behind the “trends” so you go to where you know. You subscribe to whats cool. I think everybody does this to some exent at least till they get a hold on how to use and find the media that they really want.

    BTW: A great post to go along with my observations. I would love to see some sort of chart, vin diagram or something to show the inner connections of everything. Very interesting indeed.

  4. RE: Sturgeon’s law

    I find it odd that so many people complain about the 90% is crap thing. I defy anyone to go on to their 300+ channel cable provider’s schedule and find 30+ things that they think is worth watching.

    And the “poor quality” bitching is weird too. I remember watching TV for hours with “ghosts” on the screen because that’s all we got sometimes in Norton, Kansas. There were channels that didn’t ghost, but they weren’t showing the stuff I wanted to watch.

    I really think that most people aren’t bitching about the stuff, they are really bitching about the difficulty of weeding out the 90% they don’t want.

    Someone needs to tell them about Amigofish.

  5. I wouldn’t say the A-list and power dynamics are useless. They still hold sway (and the keys to the existing kingdom) in most parts of the civilized world.

    It’s the same reason the concept of a “network”of social media is valid despite the realities of 90% crap:

    – There’s distro / marketing strength in numbers

    – Good shows help crap survive

    The best thing I can say about social media’s relevance within that structure is: at least the old dynamics are now easier to disrupt.

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