For the Week of January 3, 2005
The climax of the original "Muppet Movie" takes place in the office of a media mogul, played by Orson Welles. He presses an intercom button and asks his secretary to "send in the standard rich and famous contract for Kermit the Frog and company."
It's not really so simple, but in fact it is. A very small number of people hold the keys to wealth and fame in the American media. The names change, slowly, but the number of people who can dole out the contracts remains very, very limited. And their power to bind-and-loose fame and fortune remains enormous. Unless you scale - as an individual or a business - the doors are locked.
The promise of the Internet was that it would end this monopoly. It has not. If anything the control of Big Media has become more intense. Name an artist who has "broken out" using the Internet in the last decade. Meanwhile, networks like Fox brag about how they can turn anyone into a name everyone knows, and control all the resulting cash flow. That's the basic premise behind their hit show "American Idol." The standard rich and famous contract remains what it was for Little Richard 50 years ago, little more than indentured servitude. The publisher controls all copyright.
This remains true despite the fact that the Internet has become part of the worldwide mainstream.
What the gatekeepers have that the Internet doesn't is a business model. They create "products" around "talent," and mass market them through "broadcasting." The Internet is not a broadcasting medium, despite Mark Cuban's fortune from Broadcast.Com. It's an interactive medium. That not only means you can talk back to the artist, but that you're both on the same level. There's no stage, and no audience. Or, rather, everyone in the audience can have their own stage.
Not all stages are created equal. Broadcasting is the key to getting people to look at your stage. A single mention can send people "rushing to the rail" of your site, and you might turn that sudden opportunity into something, if you're ready for fame when it comes. But the more reliable way to scale is to have those steady, regular mentions, so awareness can build. That's most easily done through either buying broadcast ads or having a show (preferably a network) of your own.
The Internet companies that have become rich and famous have used "word of mouse," but they are not people, they are not talent. For the most part they are huge teams that grow and scale along with their notoreity. The path was clear for Yahoo, and Amazon, and eBay, and Google. The process was the same. It's a business process, not an individual reaching for fame.
A few people have made themselves notorious through their own Web logs, but many big bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan , came to the Web already famous, and had media advertising their wares for them. (Even memory can bring you through) . Matt Drudge could not have kept himself alive had he not been picked up by the right-wing media machine in the late 1990s. The business side of such sites as Slashdot or DailyKos is really pathetic, in the greater scheme of things, when you compare their cash flow to the costs of managing their communities.
Once you get "in" to the Internet, once you live there, the whole concept of fame - the rich in rich and famous - tends to break down.
Compare the life of Linus Torvalds with that of Bill Gates . Torvalds lives quietly in Portland with his wife and family. He has a decent job at the Open Source Development Lab but his fame comes unaccompanied by great wealth. Gates, by conrast, is the richest man in the world. Regardless of your thoughts on Windows and Linux, which would you rather have been behind?
The problem remains what it has always been in the Internet Age, how do you spin this straw into gold?
The two best ways are service and services. IBM represents service. They use Linux and the Internet to create high-value applications they then manage. They charge for the time of their people, then for the time while the application runs. This results in enough cash flow to employ a lot of people at very high salaries.
The services provided by the Internet are myriad. Virus protection is actually a service, not software. Your software is automatically updated when new threats emerge. RealOne is a service. A mobile phone contract represents service.
The question is how do you turn today's products into valuable services people will pay for? The answer to come from Big Media will be bundling. NetFlix offers you a service, delivering DVDs. If music publishers got their act together they could easily sell subscription services that supported any medium a customer wanted to move music to - for a monthly price.
Here again, however, we're talking about markets dominated by a few big players, who will dole out the "standard rich and famous contract" to Britney Spears or J.K. Rowling. It's our bridge to the 19th century, with a few gazillionaires and a lot of poor, the PC as sweatshop. We can replace you with some kid in Bangalore unless you differentiate yourself. And you had better be different enough to be mass marekted or else who needs you?
Some 10 years into the Internet Experience and the Middle Market (where I live) is still searching for a way to make a living. We can get a job with someone who has a business model, we can get lucky with the standard rich and famous contract, or we can just struggle along hopefully, fitfully, praying that someone will find a way to turn what we do into money.
The search continues...
I urge everyone who reads A-Clue.Com over to Mooreslore to enjoy my ongoing online novel, The Chinese Century. I hope it's as much fun to read as it has been to write.
In partnership with ZDNet, I'm now helping to produce a special blog on Open Source .
I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout , a new kind of marketplace for cellular data services.
My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .
Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
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Best of the Week
The Chinese Century
Clued-in is Brazil's effort to create an open source version of Java.
Clueless is the media game of "Get Steven Jobs," and all the predictions of the iPod's imminent demise.
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