What is talent anyway?

In the Web 2.0 text debate between Andrew Keen (author of The Internet is NOT the Answer) and David Weinberger (author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, and others), the authors discuss whether the Web is a Kafkaesque miasma of chaos and disorganization or a Cinderella story of a happy ending waiting to rise from an underrated medium (fortunately, they did specify Disney’s Cinderella — it would be a totally different debate if it was the Grimms’ version!). Keen was on Kafka’s side, while Weinberger was on Cinderella’s.

I willingly acknowledge my bias and optimism toward the Web and all it has to offer — ideas, communication, knowledge. With that said, Keen came off as a Luddite who is terrified of losing his precious status quo because of the newest technology on the scene. It seemed like every sentence of his gave me the desire to retort — yet Weinberger provided all the retort much more eloquently than I could have here. He his ultimate criticism of Keen’s views came early in the article, but sums up my thoughts perfectly: “Andrew, you join a long list of those who predict the decline of civilization and pin the blame on the latest popular medium, except this time it’s not comic books, TV, or shock jock radio. It’s the Web.”

Keen’s arguments shifted as Weinberger rebutted his arguments. Starting with the Web populated with nothing but monkeys (I assume drawn from the infinite monkeys theory) who just make and endless chaotic cacophony, to the threat to the livelihoods of those in traditional media (sad, but not like technology has never threatened whole industries before), to the fact that without traditional media, talented individuals will neither be discovered nor properly groomed. He even goes so far as saying that artists are useless without the industries that support them:

The issue of talent is the heart of the matter…. Web 2.0 misunderstands and romanticizes talent. It’s not about the individual — it’s about the media ecosystem. Writers are only as good as their agents and editors. Movie directors are only as good as their studios and producers.

These professional intermediaries are the arbiters of good taste and critical judgment. It we flatten media and allow it be determined exclusively by the market, then your friends Joe and Marie have even less chance of being rewarded for their talent. Not only will they be expected to produce high quality music, but — in the Web 2.0 long tail economy — they’ll be responsible for the distribution of their content…. Either they can produce music which has commercial value or they can’t. If they can’t, they should keep their day jobs.

While Weinberger addresses this handily:

It aims at moving units. It therefore does exactly what you complain the Web does: It panders to the market…. The question, therefore, is not whether the traditional media’s taste is better or worse than the Web’s. The Web doesn’t have taste, good or bad. The Web is not an institution, a business, or even a market, any more than the real world is. It’s us. We have lots of different tastes. On the Web we can better fulfill those tastes (because of the Long Tail you ridicule in your book), rather than simply relying on others to decide for us what is worth attending to.

However, I had more questions about Keen’s arguments about talent and commercial value. For instance, what is talent? Does talent equate to commercial value? Has the definition of talent changed with the advent of the Web and democratization of the arts?

From Keen’s remarks, is definition of talent would include being “discovered” by some media outlet (publisher for authors, recording label for musicians, agent for actors, etc.), groomed for success, and then made famous by that media outlet. As we have learned about the long tail, it is much more likely for somebody to make it big when their only competition is the limited to the amount of physical shelf space in a bookstore or music store. Thus talent does, indeed, equate to commercial value and marketability in his view.

But bookstores and music stores are dropping like flies (RIP Borders, Blockbuster, Sam Goody and countless others), and only those who adapt to the new media on the Web will succeed.

So the question still remains of what constitutes talent in a system where you might be successful if you are a skilled self-marketer… or you might not. Or when all it takes is one lucky viral video to make it big.

What even constitutes popularity and success? In traditional media, it was the number of books or CDs you sold. It was the number of awards your acting netted you. It was the ratings you got on your TV network during prime time. Yet some things inexplicably become extremely successful. Are the winners of reality TV shows successful or talented? By what measure? They gained popularity and wealth–they had tons of commercial value (so I guess they could quit their day jobs, according to Keen)–but is that truly success?

The Web is even more complicated. Are you judged by the number of Facebook friends your Famous Internet Cat has (Grumpy Cat has more than 8 million). The number of subscribers you have on YouTube, or the number of views your videos have. Pewdiepie has the most viewers and views, and few would call him an artist of any sort of merit — even a 17-year-old responded with disgust when I asked if Pewdiepie was relevant among teenagers: “Not to me anymore. I’m older than 12.”

Or maybe it’s your commercial value–both Grumpy Cat and Pewdiepie have made millions off of their respective branding. However, Grumpy Cat’s phenomenon was started by a viral photograph, while Pewdiepie’s fame was arguably due brilliant self-marketing. But much like the mega-stars of traditional media, Internet mega stars are uncommon. Yet, I would argue, not as uncommon as those in traditional media because there are no gatekeepers beyond luck and the fickleness of Internet democracy (and Facebook’s algorithms, but that’s another story).

It’s in the long tail where we see the main differentiators between the traditional and Web media. The long tail does not just fulfill our tastes, as Weinberger argues, but it also gives a chance of success to those who would otherwise not have it. In traditional media, you’re either a star or you’re not (for the most part). But on the Web, there is a wide spectrum of success. I follow a blog whose author makes $400,000 per year just on ad revenue. But I also have a friend who self-published a book and has sold fewer than 20 copies due to poor self-promotion. I have several artist friends somewhere between those two extremes–some survive exclusively on their art, while others struggle to break even. In a world of traditional media, it is unlikely that any of these people would be successful–there would be no spectrum.

I think the biggest talent when it comes to producing creative content for the Web (be it paintings, music, videos, video games–anything a person creates) is self-promotion. It is a vital literacy to “make it” on the Web. In fact, I’d say it is the content creator’s analogue to the content consumer’s “crap detection.”

Oh, and Grumpy Cat’s first book debuted on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction hardbacks. So, Keen, put that in your “I applaud the engineering of books about critically important subjects in politics, history and theology.” pipe and smoke it.

Posted on November 6, 2016, in Creative, Marketing, Social Media, Society and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. We are definitely on the same page with this. The internet has changed the industry. Someone here said they thought the internet was a fad. No doubt Keen was hoping so. The artists who survive and thrive are those who adapt to the changes, and those who discover new ways to do business considering the changes. By the way, I love Grumpy Cat.

  2. Great post! And yes, cats rule the internet. For example, in another video with Zittrain he mentions the famed site, http://catsthatlooklikehitler.com/cgi-bin/seigmiaow.pl. See more of that talk here:

    So the question still remains of what constitutes talent in a system where you might be successful if you are a skilled self-marketer… or you might not. Or when all it takes is one lucky viral video to make it big.

    This point reminds me that this topic was explored in full at MIT at, believe it or not, ROFLCon. Again, Zittrain was the keynote speaker and he mentioned authenticity dictating what makes some memes work. In those cases, you can’t try too hard.

    When it comes to connecting all of this pop culture stuff to social media marketing and tech comm, I think the clear point is people need to be open to exploring new channels, have something to say when you do use social media (don’t just create accounts just to list them on your website) and, finally, letting users have some say. Or at lease communicate with users in an open way rather than keeping to the old top-down structure. I have a feeling this will be making itself clear in your case studies, but I’ll have to wait a couple weeks for those!

  3. Once again, Jessica, you astound with your skills. This is just it: “Andrew, you join a long list of those who predict the decline of civilization and pin the blame on the latest popular medium, except this time it’s not comic books, TV, or shock jock radio. It’s the Web.”

    I have to admit, as many of you know, that I have stood in the camp of NO TECHNOLOGY despite my status as a technical communication. Oddly enough, it’s my status as a technical student that helped me to land my dream job where all I do it use technology. And guess what? Technology works, y’all. It’s amazing what it doesn’t for a start up business. And now that I have to use Facebook every day, I have my own Facebook. While I don’t necessarily adore having a personal online presence, I see its merit and have enjoyed many exchanges that have taken place on my Facebook. Plus it’s incredible for cross promotion.

    Weinberger makes a good point. The Web truly is the comic books and TV of yesterday. Humans have been finding ways to either ignore one another or entertain themselves and others for a very long time and that’s never going to stop. The only thing that changes is the method.

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