Monday, February 25, 2013

Entertainment Without An Entertainment Industry


...and welcome to the blog for my independent research project

 Entertainment Without An Entertainment Industry

What is an independent research project, you ask? Well, it means that this is a topic I think about, a lot. I collect data, harvest articles, and when opportunities arise, write up and present the findings to date.  I have also worked with groups of students (so far from Tufts and Harvard Business School) that are looking at similar or related topics in their research or field projects.  This project has also been accepted for Research Affiliate status at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, a place of deep thought and good sandwiches.

Here are the basics:

Is small the new big? Are niches the new centers of power?  Have we gone from Warhol's famous for 15 minutes to Clay Shirky's famous to 15 people to famous to 15,000 people? Or 50,000 people?

This blog is called De-mass'd because I'm interested in the de-massification of media we are currently experiencing. Media is moving from something exclusive that was traditionally the domain of broadcasters and institutions towards new models where media production is distributed throughout the population. I'm interested in the micro-stars of the Internet: the YouTubers, musicians, artists, bloggers, podcasters, and online personalities whose fame has been facilitated by open and ubiquitous digital media platforms.  I'm not talking about viral videos and phenomena, but, rather, the people whose names you probably don't know, who are finding a new way of being in this new environment.  At the same time some of these people will experience a level of success that could be described as viral, and if/when that happens I will chronicle and analyze the situation here.

But generally I'm interested in the process by which people can rise to a level of celebrity without reliance on a traditional industry infrastructure.  Part of this is asking how, and to what extent, we the people make fame. What is the balance between celebrity manufactured for us, and celebrity manufactured by us?

Some slightly academic talk...but just for a bit

Traditionally, as Turner (2006)[1] has observed, media like television were conceived of as carriers of power located elsewhere, in the state or commercial interests. The media were so-called because they 'mediated' between the locations of power and their subjects.  To some degree, today, subjection is a mischaracterization of audiences. Audiences have power, and one measure of their power is the extent to which media, the mediators of incumbent power, play a diminished role in the creation of celebrity.

This process can take one of several forms.  For example, a person with a set of accomplishments and talents can now achieve success, in both the cultural and economic senses, while circumventing the traditional infrastructure. The insurgency of such people is facilitated by online media platforms and social networks powered by us, the everyday people who are users of the platforms and networks. Depending on the person, their level of success, and their desire for success, the process may end here. Or this may be just the beginning.  There may be a second step of the process, in which initially circumvented institutions and organizations co-opt the success. Or a third step in which new intermediaries enter the space, providing services that aim to amplify and optimize the cultural products for a new marketplace. In so doing, of course, these parties recover the mediator role, but now not only of state, or political interests, and commercial interests but of audience interests too.

And so a dialogue emerges between digital and traditional media, as the capabilities of tools and platforms develops and their accessibility to audiences grows. A new center of economic and cultural value emerges, in which the person of talent, the “ordinary celebrity,” (Turner, 2006) can either be commercial product or independent agent. They can choose between a shot at the high life as a media product, and being their own agent in a more stable, if modest, self-managed career.

This is a new form of viability that can be found throughout the chain of value; not the virality that takes video clips to millions if not tens or hundreds of millions of views and makes them part of the cultural vernacular -- but rather a quieter form of existence. In earlier media structures those falling into the nether reaches of this chain were relegated to cult status at best or complete obscurity at worst. Now players in a variety of niches can find audiences that are ‘big enough’ and have influence in ways which were previously unattainable. As an economic phenomenon this is something new. This new location of viability can be thought of as success without celebrity. These individuals are not famous in the traditional sense, or perhaps even well-known, but they have their constituencies, and this is something that was not previously achievable, due to the constraints placed upon them by geographies, gatekeepers, and the relatively high cost of market entry.

Online sites such as YouTube and U-Stream offer fare ranging from animal webcams to video clips of people’s vacations, pets, and children, to performers, interviewers, and self-styled topic experts. The distribution of viewers for these videos is not unlike what one would find in any one of a number of hit-oriented businesses such as publishing recorded music, and movies: the head of the distribution represents the thinnest slice, and is where the bulk of the audience and the revenues are, with the numbers trailing off sharply from there.[2]  What is worthy of note is not the existence of this pattern (also known as a power law or power distribution) but that those in an extended section of this distribution can:

 a) attract significant amounts of attention and/or notoriety
 b) potentially earn a living from the sale of advertising priced on the basis of their volume of clicks.

At New York’s Parsons School of Design a course entitled Internet Famous[3] is taught, in which students are challenged to use the Internet to get their work seen by the largest audience possible. But the course description offers a caution: “just because a lot of people see your stuff doesn’t mean it’s good… but it does mean you’re famous — Internet Famous”. This research project hopes to supplement the concept of “Internet famous” with a more nuanced definition of online success -- with qualitative and quantitative data to support the observations. By analyzing the path of content from individual creators to end users a determination of new locations of value is possible.

The terminology we currently have to describe the participants in this interplay is no longer particularly helpful. For example, the definition of incumbent, the position usually occupied by the company, and insurgent, the position usually occupied by the disenfranchised outsider, are no longer applicable in a hard and fast fashion. When individuals have direct, unmediated access to online communication channels, and each other, via platforms and social networks the result is that they often wield power over the monoliths of industry and culture.  And so we need to think about the shift from the disintermediation made possible by digital media to an increasingly reintermediated system – i.e. from the removal of a ‘middleman’ or series of middlemen to a reintermediation via platforms, aggregators, and exchanges.

A framework for thinking about these issues is offered in this chart that contrasts the traditional media model of broadcasting, publishing, and advertising-based marketing with the networked, digital model that now exists.

Traditional Model
Networked Digital Model

Original Content
User-Generated Content
Push Model
Pull/Self-Serve Model
Paid professionals
Combination of paid, unpaid & amateur/hobbyist
Gatekeepers/Editorial Staff
Fans as curators / Content voted up & down
Perishable Content
Content may be less time-sensitive & is always alive online
Broadcast Model (1-to-many)
Interconnected model (Many-to-Many)
Advertising & Subscription Revenues
Advertising & Merchandising Revenues
Pay for Access
Relatively high cost per acquisition
Low cost per acquisition
Hit-oriented businesses
Long tail businesses
Front-end loaded model (up front investment, obstacles at start of process)
Back-end loaded model (entry is easy, but players are abundant)
Long path to success
Swift market entry

Some Research Questions:

How does power arise from the distributed network vs. the top down, mediated environment?

What are the relative values of the elements of the ecosystem, such as the aggregators and platforms?

What are the limits to working outside the infrastructure of traditional media and industry?

If/when partnered with industry infrastructure (e.g. record labels, physical retailers or larger digital retailers, YouTube channel initiative) what are the measurable effects on product, service, and audience?

 How is consumer perception of the product/service affected?

What are the adjusted definitions of success  -- when access to media creation & distribution systems is more available than ever but the pie is being divided many more ways?

Don't be a stranger

Should any of this be of interest to you do drop me a line at leora.kornfeld<at>  It's the Internet, so operators are always standing by. Thank You.


[1]The mass production of celebrity : 'Celetoids', reality TV and the 'demotic turn” Graeme Turner, International Journal of Cultural Studies 2006 9: 153
[2] Of the 48 hours reported as uploaded to YouTube each minute (figure reported for 2009), 30% receive less than 100 views, 3% received between 10,000 and 100,000 views, 1.7% received 100,000 to 500,000 views, and 0.33% received over 1 million views. As of 2012 the number of hours of video uploaded to YouTube each minute rose to 72. More recent statistics re the distribution of views have not been made publicly available.
Source: Tube mogul stats re YouTube: May 20, 2009
[3] Parsons graduate Design & Technology program offers a class called Internet Famous, described as being dedicated to learning how to spread your work to the widest possible audience online”. The program description also points out that “just because a lot of people see your stuff doesn’t mean it’s good… but it does mean you’re famous — Internet Famous.”

Please note that I do not own the images used in this blog and am using them simply to add some color to what could otherwise be drab chunks of text. If you hold the copyright to any of the images used in this blog and would like them removed, just email me at leora.kornfeld<at> and I'll get on that pronto. Thank You.