I spent my December break reading “The World Is Flat” by Thomas Friedman. OK, maybe I was a little late to that book, but better late than never. While I can’t say the book told me any specific fact that I didn’t know, it’s ability to wrap up the last 10-20 years in a tight package and highlight it’s influence on where the future is heading is fascinating. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the level playing provided by the Internet open doors for something we couldn’t imagine in my youth. Friedman does a great job highlighting several trends that have emerged that help flatten the world. But there’s one trend that he didn’t cover that I find fascinating and it relates to the world of media more than anything else.
No one needs a lecture on Web 2.0 (if you do, the video circulating on it does a great job). Simply by reading this blog, you’re taking part in it. Heck, Time Magazine even named you “Person of the Year” (take a bow). But there is a line between official content and community content that I think bears distinguishing. When I compare our Communities team to MSDN or TechNet, I usually joke that they are “CSI” and “Desperate Housewives” while we are LonelyGirl15 or Diet Coke & Mentos. They are CNN.com and we are Wonkette. People should always care about the official word, but it’s cool to see what the “common folk” have to say. In the last several years, the community’s credibility has gone up and people are almost as anxious to see what they have to say as the official word. It’s why I love this stuff. But who is our hero? To whom do we owe a debt of gratitude? Tim O’Reilly? Robert Scoble? The Channel 9 guy? GotDotNet? 🙂 Perhaps. But there’s a phenomenon that pre-dates Web 2.0 that, in retrospect, proved that we were ready. All hail Regis Philbin.
Yes, Regis. No, not for his ability to put up with perky co-hosts or be David Letterman’s foil. No, Regis put a bunch of normal people on prime-time with “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” and made it work. Sure, quiz shows had a history of success decades earlier, but it was clear people preferred to spend their evenings with the Beaver, Marcia Brady, the Fonz, the Huxtables, and six coffee-drinking twenty-somethings in NYC. And the more glamorous and idealistic, the better. People loved the glitz of Dallas and Dynasty, soon followed by Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. Even Seinfeld, a show credited for capturing the humor of life in New York City, by the last couple of seasons, the lead characters were mostly dating women right off the fashion runway. Having lived in Jersey for most of my life, I can tell that there are many beautiful women in New York and very few of them went for “short, stocky, bald men who lived with their parents” (as George Costanza would describe himself). People love living in the fantasy world.
Then came Regis. He put on people of all shapes and sizes. They had personalities you couldn’t make up because they were too genuine. But you watched them in a pressure situation and if you knew the answer, you spent the time watching them squirm with some level of intellectual superiority. You related to these people. Unlike Jeopardy, where the questions are much harder and there’s no multiple choice, this contest was virtually dumbed down. [NOTE: I should mention that I think there may have been a UK version of the show, so I am definitely writing with a US bent] With Millionaire as a hit, Survivor was next and we’ve never looked back. There are as many reality shows as standard shows. The nation’s appetite has extended to wife swapping, no-nonsense nannies, bachelors and bachelorettes, several amazing races, a one billionaire’s really strange hair. Some are fascinating, while others are completely tasteless (anyone remember “Temptation Island”?). You root for some contestants and you’re shocked by others. And because you can continually refresh the players, the premise doesn’t necessarily get stale. We still have our fascination with the fantasy, but we’re having just as much fun with normal people and ratio of reality shows to fantasy shows remains high. Arguably one of the best non-reality shows on TV is “The Office”, which is a TV show about a reality show–almost mocking the genre.
The old cliche about Hollywood is that every actor eventually wants to direct. So wasn’t YouTube bound to happen? The new media levels the playing field for anyone to participate and that goes WAY beyond YouTube. Wanna write a book? No need for a publisher. With a copy of Word, a copy of Acrobat, and a seller account at Amazon, your novel can sit on the same virtual shelf as John Grisham and JK Rowling. Got a hot garage band? No more waiting for the recording agent to catch your latest gig. Use ProTools, connect with iTunes, and you’re set. Think you’re better than Oprah or Rush? Host a podcast and put it up on iTunes and you could have thousands of people listening to you. You hear the stories of the great movies that came from shoestring budgets (including “Clerks”, a part of any good Jersey boy’s education), but now, it’s even easier and there’s a willing audience waiting to discover you. I remember once looking for the video for the Foo Fighters song “Resolve” and saw a bunch of amateurs covering the song. And you know what? Each of those covers had thousands of views!
Given this willing to break TV down to the “common folk”, should anyone be surprised we’ve done the same for the web? So now, we care about what our peers say. Personally, when we released CodePlex, I was as anxious about what the bloggers would say as what eWeek would say. The world really has been democratized or, to Friedman’s term, flattened. It’s all a level playing field. And to think, we have Regis to thank…