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Cool Today, a Joke Tomorrow?

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I had the opportunity to sit down and share pizza with a bunch of teenagers this weekend. Naturally, I quizzed them about their media consumption habits.

These young folks happened to be passionate about music, so I asked them how they found out about new acts. In my younger days, my generation did this by listening to the radio, so I began with the simple question: what’s your favorite station?

None of them listened to the radio. “So how do you find out about new music?,” I asked them. Do you watch MTV? “Nope,” one answered. “It’s all word of mouth,” offered another. “If I hear something that I like, I’ll tell a friend,” said a third. “Wow,” I thought to myself. The idea that radio and television were completely irrelevant to these young people was a bit of a mindblower, but it certainly accords with what interactive media pundits have been saying for some time: the world is fragmenting into a myriad of tiny micro-channels which have, in just a few short years, turned the existing media world on its head.

After the pizza had been eaten, I followed these kids into the computer room, and hung back, at a respectful distance, while they recreated at the PC. “You’ve got to see this video,” one said, going to her Myspace page, where she had embedded a video from Youtube. “It’s hilarious.” She hit the “play” icon, starting the video, which ran for about three minutes. In the video, one teenager sat at a computer, downloading illegal music from the Internet. Another, posing as an investigator from the RIAA, entered the room, pointing a power drill at the other teen. I watched this video for a minute or two. Frankly, there wasn’t much to it: the scenario was obvious and cliched, the acting was wooden, and the production values were very poor. And yet the teenagers all enjoyed it, and I wasn’t about to throw rain on their parade.

Then I dropped my bomb: “did you guys know that Google bought Youtube last week?” “No,” they all said. “Does it matter to you?” I asked. “Not unless they start mucking around with it,” one answered.

This teenager’s response points to the central problem that faces media companies and marketers as they attempt to monetize the millions of eyeballs that are attracted to mass niche sites such as MySpace and Youtube. Any moves they make to better monetize these assets must be so subtle as to border on the invisible, or else their millions of users will defect. The kids I talked to last weekend aren’t computer programmers, but they’re more than equipped to quickly pull up stakes and transfer their friends and files over to another service. Their only loyalty to a brand is function-based, and brands which no longer function for them, including MTV, have no place in their mediaverse. In other words, they’re fickle, in exactly the same way that youth has always been fickle: yesterday’s overnight sensation is just one step away from being tomorrow’s has-been joke, and this principle applies to multibillion dollar brands as reliably as it does to Posh Spice or Britney Spears.

When Google bought Youtube, and News Corp. bought Myspace, these corporations placed an enormous bet on Youtube and Myspace being able to somehow resist the inevitable tendency of dominant youth-oriented brands from being pulled into the abyss of generational irrelevancy within a comparatively short time frame. It took 20 years for MTV to become irrelevant, and it took youth-oriented sites such as GeoCities, TheGlobe, and Six Degrees perhaps 5 years to suffer the same fate.

Whether Youtube will follow the same trajectory is impossible to know, but unless Google and News Corp walk a very fine line in their battle to monetize these sites, they’ll “muck up” the particular magic that has brought these sites their incredible critical mass. And there’s nothing “uncooler” than what was cool six months ago.

Neither Google or News Corp. is stupid, and each will probably be very hesitant to make significant changes without a lot of research. The downside of this cautious approach is that there are more than a handful of kids in garages developing video/social networking sites, and they’re not constrained in this way, which means that when they launch a competing service, it’s guaranteed to have a much higher “coolness factor” that will cause them to suddenly become the “in” place to hang out and self-publish. Unless Google has somehow developed an algorithm to abolish fickleness, it’s only a question of when, not whether, this will happen.

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Mr. Frog is a leading Search industry visionary. Mr. Frog is a member of the Did-it Search Marketing team which accompanies him to most major
marketing conferences.

Cool Today, a Joke Tomorrow?
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