I think we should all take a moment to consider the passing of Web 2.0, and the dream of a democratized internet.
What’s that? You didn’t realize we were done with that whole thing just yet? Well, clearly you’ve not talked to AOL CEO Tim Armstrong recently. He’s seen the future of the internet, you see, and he’s ready to tell you all about it:
The first phase of the Internet was about access, and I believe AOL was the biggest player in that phase. Then the next phase has really been about the platform, so you’ve seen Apple, Google and Facebook there. But the phase after this is going to be more of the Hollywood phase, where it’s about content, creativity and really putting a human face on the Internet.
Well, a human face that happens to be famous, that is. Armstrong was talking to the Hollywood Reporter about AOL’s multi-million dollar deals with celebrities including the Jonas Brothers, Ellen DeGeneres, Kevin Smith, Heidi Klum and Queen Latifiah. Of course, it’s not the only web giant who’s doing that kind of thing; YouTube is doing the same thing, offering celebrities up to $5 million to curate their own channels fileld with original content on the video site. Whereas the internet used to be make celebrities of the people who used it, now it seems that the future of the internet will be reinforcing the celebrities that we already have.
There’s some evidence to suggest that perhaps this is what internet users really want, beyond the hopes of executives at AOL and YouTube. Hewlett Packard’s recent study of social media use demonstrated that internet users still tend to focus on mainstream media as sources of information, instead of user-generated content, something that the 2010 GlobalWebIndex report backs up, noting that “professionals are back in the driving seat when it comes to content” and “we as consumers are going back to traditional needs and demands and seeking a more passive experience.” But even if the majority of web users are just looking to sit back and be entertained (and, occasionally, educated) instead of participating in the ongoing dialogue that is the internet, does that really mean that celebrities are the best people to give them that?
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I’ll admit it; I’m very cautious about the idea that celebrity will really revolutionize the internet in any real way. Sure, the celebrities involved are very excited about it – Klum has talked about the internet as an alternative to television, saying “Sometimes television shows think too much about their ratings,” which seems naive to say the least; AOL isn’t giving away millions because it’s charitable, it’s wanting hits and the celebrities will be expected to deliver – but I’m not sure that anyone is really ready for what the results of Celebrity Internet Content will be. Do the celebrities understand the medium of the internet, and how it’s different from television? Do audiences understand what they’re going to get from what are essentially vanity projects from the celebrities? I’ve likened a lot of this to Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network in conversation (a lot of hype and buzz beforehand, and then the reality turns out to be much more dull and in need of a revamp three months after launch because audiences have bailed so quickly); that may be a lazy shorthand, but I think it should be at least a vague warning of putting too much faith in the power of celebrity.
(In talking about this with a friend, they brought up another warning sign against celebrity internet content: Charlie Sheen. His argument was, there is no-one in the Western World that people want to know more about right now, but people abandoned his Sheen’s Korner webcasts in droves because what they wanted was actually more of the packaged soundbites others had offered up. I’m unsure if it completely holds up – Sheen is in so many ways a special case – but it’s true that Sheen managed to turn the audience off by giving them what they thought they wanted.)
Ultimately, it’ll all depend on what these celebrity channels end up actually being. The idea is nebulous right now, a catch-all term that could mean anything from unedited self-congratulatory vainfests to celebrities hiring professionals to extend their brand in unexpected and interesting ways, and the success or failure of the idea depends entirely on the execution (As critic Tim Goodman pointed out, “One hundred and eighty seconds is not a visual neutron bomb. Look at FunnyorDie.com — which is the first thing that Google/YouTube should have thought about. Cool site, larded with celebrities doing highly polished videos, spoofs, etc. Not a network killer. Not a game changer. Just more distraction”). Of course, the main thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter that celebrity is the current “future of the internet”; the way the internet works, anything else can be the next future of the internet as quickly as it takes for the idea to catch on. Maybe we can try “anti-celebrity” if this take doesn’t work out.
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