The coming bloodbath for social media

f3120It seems that the latest big thing on the web is 4chan. This is an anarchic site which has joined a long line of enterprises that start in a bedroom and, in less time than it takes to grow stubble on a sixteen-year-old’s chin, become global giants.

4chan is similar to YouTube, but less polished and more randomly edgy in its content and style.

As in many markets, part of its appeal lies in how it has simplified a process, discarding any registration bureaucracy. It is cooler than other communities through its ballsy, anti-establishment behaviour (for example, the use of taboo symbols such as swastikas) and it is fast becoming the platform of choice for democratised, out-there creativity.

I am 50. If I’ve heard of 4chan, that probably means it has a short life expectancy. If advertising is seeking it as a medium in which to place commercials, then 4chan should be admitted to A&E immediately.

The essence of being “cool” is like romance. It is an ache that cannot be contained, attained or explained. It just is or isn’t and, like a wisp of smoke, suddenly it is gone.

In the Eighties, I worked on Levis as a media planner, and the beautiful advertisements from BBH were targeted to be placed only where the coolest people would discover them – pioneering stuff during the Jurassic period of 1982.
Levis was such an unhip brand at the time that we pursued the old platitude “the medium is the message” ruthlessly. We sought out obscure television shows, with minute rating levels, supported the then deeply unpopular art-house cinema,
and weird magazines too niche to enjoy any circulation figures or guaranteed distribution.

If they were safe or known yet, we avoided them. But at least we could place those genius ads somewhere.

The mega communities, such as YouTube, have not been able to cash in on their vast audiences because monetisation negates the very reason people flock to them. This paradox becomes even sharper when applied to organisations that rely on being edgy.

In advertising, the life blood for the agency networks has been to buy the most successful, newer entrants and graft them to the older assets, in order to make them appear refreshed – for example, RKCR to Y&R.

This principle also seems to have been adopted by the largest media owners who, in turn, snap up newer threats at massive premiums based on expectations of further expansion – for example Time Warner and AOL.

The allure of creating vast new revenue streams from advertising, because of some notional value of the eyeballs it delivers, is a deeply flawed and risky concept.

From the erection of massive screens in shopping malls to the placement of print ads in directories and the intrusion into online communities, the list of disappointments is endless.

Eye balls are just not enough and, in the case of 4chan or YouTube, commercial intervention actually interferes with their basic DNA.

Now that everything is expected to be free and available on demand to consumers, and advertising is often inappropriate, avoidable or clumsy, how do we make a profit? Online gaming? Product placement? Sponsorship?

These routes are palliatives. They will not prevent the cannibalisation of old and new media audiences – one being ad friendly, the other less so.

For advertising agencies which rely upon the special nature of their creative output and the guarantee of audiences, 4chan is further proof that creativity is everywhere and new media is less accessible.

It feels as if something radical must happen. And, for once, I’m not going to make a prediction as to what that will be.

But I am reminded of a seminal television conference in Monte Carlo when
Ted Turner (owner of CNN) was asked to comment on the prospects for the fledgling Sky and BSB services. His honest answer caused uproar among the 750 stunned delegates.

To paraphrase Turner: “Someone is just going to haemorrhage red ink.” The crowd applauded and he continued: “It is lunacy to have two players killing themselves when there is barely room for one to survive.”

At that time we were all too caught up with trying to understand the technology to notice that the basic model could not sustain them both. Turner’s prophecy proved correct: BSB imploded and Murdoch’s entire empire was seriously shaken shortly afterwards.

Today this issue of finding the new revenues for all our disciplines lies at the heart of the matter, and represents the single biggest conundrum. For once, as we are all linked, we are all in this together.

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