In a January 6th blog posting, actress, writer, and all-around nerd-genre-genius Felicia Day takes to task an article published in a recent issue of Vanity Fair magazine. The article, written by Vanessa Grigoriadis, is about women who have used Twitter successfully to raise their professional profile – to gain “Twilebrity” status, as the article puts it. Day herself, whose feed has more than 1.7 million subscribers, was one of those women profiled.
As Day notes, on one level the fact that this article was written at all is fairly exciting for people interested in social media, since it means that a major mainstream news outlet is taking an interest in a still fringe-y media source, providing a certain degree of validation for those whose claims that social media is the future have long been met with skepticism and ostentatious eye-rolling. Furthermore, the article focuses on women who are helping to lead the evolution of the media landscape, an area not always known for being equally accessible to both sexes. Good stuff all around.
Or at least it would be good stuff if not for the numerous examples that Day points out indicating that the writer either doesn’t know a thing about social media or doesn’t take it or its practitioners particularly seriously (or, more likely, both). Take these little gems for example:
“For tweeple, e-mail messages are sonnets, Facebook is practically Tolstoy. ‘Facebook is just way too slow,’ says Stefanie Michaels. ‘I can’t deal with that kind of deep engagement.'”
“‘Sometimes,’ says Julia Roy, a 26-year-old New York social strategist turned twilebrity, scrunching her face, ‘when you’re Twittering all the time, you even start to think in 140 characters.'”
(I particularly like Day’s response to the second quotation: “‘Scrunching her face?!’ Oh gosh, thinking is hard!”)
I’ll dispense with any further analysis, since Day’s blog does a much better job of that than I could, so you’re probably best off just to read her posting on the subject. Go ahead, read it now – I’ll wait.
But there is one thing I would like to point out, and that’s the likely motivation for the tone of this stupid article: fear.
The traditional publishing industry is in serious trouble. More and more consumers are getting their news, entertainment gossip, and whatever else was formerly available strictly on the newsstand from online media sources. Now that hand-held web-browsers are in such wide circulation, the rate at which people abandon their daily newspapers and monthly celebrity magazines in favour of their iPhones and BlackBerries is only going to increase.
Not only that, the rise of social media has made it possible for anyone to be a publisher (this is not news). And as more and more talented writers choose to publish online rather than through traditional channels, those online sources are rapidly gaining credibility (this is sort of news), taking away one of the few major advantages the traditional media had left and flooding the media pool with competition – competition that, unlike say Vanity Fair, has low overhead and has learned that you write for business development, not for business. These people are therefore much less worried about the revenue from their media outlet and can give their content away for free, which gives them a significant competitive advantage over the old-guard (this is big news).
The scariest part for peddlers of traditional media is that these low-cost outlets are proving just as desirable for readers as their high-cost competitors. Felica Day’s Twitter feed (@feliciaday), for example, has more than 1.7 million subscribers; Vanity Fair‘s monthly subscribers only number about 1.1 million. Those are scary numbers for an organization with a vested interest in making sure that their (much more expensive) medium is the one attracting the most readers.
So it’s no wonder that they’d take such a snarky tone towards social media – if their capital can’t help them, what weapon do they have left to protect their market share, aside from barely-veiled attacks on their competition’s credibility? To be fair, it may just be that the writer isn’t into social media and – mistakenly – adopted a tone appropriate for a fluff piece about a faddish, passing trend, rather than a proper examination of a media game-changer.
Either way, you can’t ignore the fact that there is blood in the water – and from reading between the lines in this article, Vanity Fair knows it.
Well, as it sometimes does, life (actually homework) got in the way of posting this past week. But now that my layout assignment is finished, let’s pick it up again.
The last posting on TheNew20 was (partly) about distributing music free over the internet with the expressed intent of making it easy to download, redistribute, reuse and remix. In the comments section, Ian (who writes some pretty interesting stuff on Facebook if you can get ahold of it) posited that the such distribution would result in the anonymization of the artist, and that this would homogenize music and generally lower the quality of the musical experience for the average consumer.
To this I say “Nay, my friend! Your point is well taken, but consider this:”
The identity or character of the artist is, of course, extremely relevant in a music culture that has become inseparably linked with celebrity culture. A big part of the way that the average person consumes music right now is by reading or hearing about the life and personality of the artist in magazines or on television.
I would argue that it is actually this that leads to the homogenization of music and that by anonymizing music, we might actually improve it.
When the focus is put on the artist rather than the work, the work stops being the element of the performance that differentiates that performance from others. In pop music, being different usually doesn’t sell records, following formulae – i.e., meeting the exact expectations of an audience – does. This is, of course, why everything on the radio starts to sound the same after a while.
What provides differentiation – and hence, the competitive leverage that an artist needs to sustain a career – is the character that the artist plays in their videos and in their interviews and their magazine covers (and, even more recently, on their MySpace pages and Twitter feeds). Even if an artist’s music is essentially indistinguishable from others’, the personality they project makes them a distinct product and, hence, a valid and salient choice in a sea of other consumables.
So a system where everyone sounds the same as everyone else – a system that should be doomed to collapse – becomes sustainable because it is propped up by the market for personality.
On the other hand, movements that have not embraced this system have tended to foster more innovation. Jazz and blues, for example, tend to rely on standards and commonly-used chord progressions that are shared and passed around with little regard for who the original composer was – if anyone even knows. Likewise, early hip-hop was all about the common pool of verse.
These genres arguably represent the greatest leaps forward in musical evolution in modern history, a jump that hasn’t yet been equaled (in fact, you could easily argue that most developments in contemporary music are just examples of people finding different ways to adapt these early forms).
So what was different between then and now?
Well, rather than being isolated by legal copyrights and the assumption that an artist – rather than an audience or community – own a given work, early examples of pop music were free to be passed around and tinkered with. Under this model, music is a shared experience that allows for many different people to contribute to a work, not just the person who “owns” it. Collaboration, not isolation, is the recipe for innovation – you know what they say about two heads being better than one.
That means that, somewhat contrary to common perception, anonymizing the artist and dismantling the personality market might actually be a good thing, a move that will foster musical innovation and improve, rather than diminish, the musical experience.
So Down with Rock Stars!! Bring on the mash-ups and remixes. And stop telling me who Fergie spends her weekends with.
BTW, if you’re interested in good (and often hilarious) mash-ups and remixes, I recommend the podcast Radio Free Hipster. Good stuff all around.