Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What YouTube's 'Charlie bit my finger' tells us about Web 2.0

Have you seen "Charlie bit my finger – again!"? Well, about 53 million people have, and it hasn't been on a big screen anywhere.
This movie has had no marketing, no trailer, no production expenses, and certainly no highly paid actors. Instead it followed a simple formula: Toddlers + Laughter + YouTube = Huge Traffic.
But here's the really interesting part: Tens of thousands of people who saw this clip did more than just smile and surf on.
They "mashed" it up with other media ("Charlie Bit Sarah Palin"), created a song about it ("Charlie bit my finger – The Musical"), created their own versions ("Shoshi bit my finger … again!"), posted their own comments, shared it with friends, or otherwise interacted with the original clip.
This is the world of Web 2.0. It is the evolution of Web platforms that are supporting millions of simultaneously connected global conversations. And it promotes the idea that a community is more powerful than an individual.
The point of this new media landscape is to create something and share it with the world. When we post anything to the Web, we are begging for a conversation. We want to be ridiculed, called out, accepted, talked about, linked to, and, most important, not ignored.
It's easy to criticize the rise of participatory social media as a giant waste of time. And it's true that a fair amount of what's being created is adolescent. But that criticism misses the point: This trend is setting the stage for greater long-term engagement. It's an indicator that people are working to find new ways to collaborate and to be part of something larger than they are individually. The sheer immensity of the participation is the story.
Think about where the Internet was just a decade ago. Getting online was a chore. News sites were updated just once or twice a day. That was the static world of Web 1.0. Ironically, that platform emerged from the government's desire to promote collaboration among researchers and scientists, yet at the outset, it seemed best suited for e-commerce.
Today the Web landscape is dominated by blogs, wikis, and social networks. It is finally fulfilling its original promise of interaction, engagement, collaboration, and conversation. We are living through a media revolution that is set to explode this political season.
And who is driving this revolution? Teens. For them, this isn't "technology," it's just the way things are.
They have grown up in a media ecology that pushes them to manage time, identity, privacy, and persona in ways that we have never been asked. They time-shift television to watch it on their mobile devices. They create and share audio, video, and pictures at an amazing pace. They spend as much time honing their Facebook profiles as they do working on schoolwork. Here at Penn State, about one-third of our 90,000 students created at least one form of digital media last year.
They are smart and very talented individuals coping in a new social, political, and media landscape that is driving radically different kinds of behaviors. Many describe these teens as digital natives. So guess what that makes the rest of us? Digital immigrants.
In many ways, the rebirth of the Web as a collaborative platform is because of them. Their intense expectations for connections, regardless of our understanding of them, are driving new business models and shifting the way people connect, share, and collaborate across every node of the Web. They intuitively understand that participation requires promotion. When they post content, they market it aggressively via word of mouth, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
Again, this isn't just narcissism writ large. When teens and young adults do this, they report that their motivation is to have their friends reflect on what they have created, comment on it, and move the conversation forward.
In the next few weeks, pay attention as the big media personalities do the "real" reporting. And then watch how many iReports are cited, how many Twitter streams are mentioned, and how many YouTube videos turn into real campaign commercials. You'll be stunned.
In a Web 1.0 world, you would have needed real skills and access to a distribution network to do any of it. Those days are over. Charlie says so.
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