Give Me Some Space
Anywhere there's a common interest, social networks are often the easiest way to connect with others through content. MySpace, for instance, is notorious for its population of wannabe celebrities and angst-ridden teens, but it also operates as a social network built around sharing and distributing digital music that can launch up-and-coming bands from playing garages to headlining national concerts.
MySpace band profile pages are a platform for musicians to upload and stream MP3s and music videos, as well as list upcoming gigs and post show pictures. It's a direct path from the bands to their target audiences, skipping the record executive middlemen and giving all bands—whether they're chart-toppers or not—a chance to get their music heard.
More importantly, it's a way for bands to identify a network of fans, and, from that, build a loyal audience that connects with each other as much as it connects to the music. The British band Arctic Monkeys built a MySpace presence by sending out emails to hundreds of MySpace members through the site's spam feature. After building internet buzz based on the handful of demos posted to the MySpace page, Arctic Monkeys signed to Domino Records in a matter of months and broke the British record for albums sold in the first week of its release.
"We were giving songs away free anyway—that was a better way for people to hear them," the band said in an interview with Prefix magazine. "And it made the gigs better, because people knew the words and came and sang along."
The social network has affected two major shifts in how Generation C interacts with the world. Their social networks are becoming simultaneously larger and narrower than ever. The entire globe is their new locale, and niche communities are the new mass audience.
Critical Path's Dew says the friendships his 14-year-old daughter builds online aren't fundamentally different than the ones he had growing up, except that they're less limited by geographical proximity. "Younger generations are growing up with a more open view of who they can connect with. Geography and time zones are becoming less relevant, and the sophistication of the tools are making it easier."
The power of the network has even reached political campaigns. In addition to shaking hands and kissing babies, 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama is hoping to forge connections with supporters on BarackObama.com, which gives members the chance to build their own profiles, write their own blog entries, and create their own groups, like Hip-Hop for Obama or Iowa Union Members for Obama. This daring new campaign strategy allows supporters to express their own views and opinions while keeping Obama at the center of the social web.
Networks also facilitate viral communications. "Forward it on" is the Gen-C motto, and it's a highly effective way for content to spread quickly. Must-see TV has been replaced by must-see viral videos. Within hours, popular video clips make the rounds from inbox to inbox, and a poorly-shot video of a kid practicing his light-saber moves with a golf club can become as much an instant part of the pop culture lexicon as anything TV executives concoct. In fact, that video, dubbed "Star Wars Kid" and first disseminated over Kazaa's peer-to-peer file-sharing network, has now been downloaded or viewed an estimated 900 million times according to viral marketing company The Viral Factory, making it the most popular viral video to date.
Creators are Consumers
Generation C is made up of digital natives or, at the very least, naturalized netizens. For them, digital creation is the standard outlet for creative urges. They're not necessarily more talented than their predecessors, but they are prolific, and they've broken the standard flow of content from its creator to consumer. Gen C has taken on both roles, making companies scramble to find a new role in the cycle and giving Gen C unprecedented power in deciding when, where, and how to get their content.
That's why ease-of-use and portability are their primary concerns when it comes to choosing a digital canvas. Gen C likes their applications web-based and their devices mobile. While they'll drop thousands of dollars to get the hot new camera, laptop, or phone, they don't want (or expect to have to) shell out thousands of dollars for creative platforms when freebies abound.
Millions of Gen C users cluster around sites like YouTube and Blogger that give away content-creation tools that are easy enough for the average web user to deploy on his own. Sites like YouTube provide blank slates for Generation C, offering unobtrusive functionality and intuitive use for both the creator and consumer.
The content is the star of the show, but every person who uploads or uses it usually has the chance to leave behind his unique imprint on untold viewers. Creators who have accounts on Gen C hot spots attach more than their byline or end credit to their work. They build their own profiles, which, in addition to their user handle and picture, usually include interests, background, and location. They build their own mini-networks of friends with common interests in the real and cyber-worlds, and collect their favorite content into lists they can bookmark or share with others.
In addition to creating and offering content of their own, users want to leave their digital fingerprints on others' content. On YouTube, viewers can tag others' videos with their own keywords. Blogs have comment sections to encourage feedback and spark discussion. And, on Facebook, users can grab and add friends' pictures to their own profiles.
Hybrid sites like PopTeenUS.com publish user-generated content in a magazine-like format with limited editorial input. PopTeenUS solicits about 80% of articles for its readership (teen girls, ages 13-19) from its readership. Readers and writers chat via message boards, post pictures, and even serve as models for the site's fashion stories. Mark Peabody, VP of business development at PopTeenUS, says that the small editorial staff's job is more about constructing a framework and providing a forum in which readers can take the brand and shape it to their tastes and interests.
According to Peabody, at sites like PopTeenUS, the editorial board is no longer in charge of setting the content agenda. "We're constantly being told what to add," he says. "We're building a brand around this user-generated content."