Why there'll be no social media bubble

South by Southwest is my seventh social media conference in about a year (the others were Syndicate, Gnomedex, BlogHer, Podcast Academy and New Communications Forums in Boston and Las Vegas) and I’m again impressed with one thing: the lack of interest in financial rewards or profit motives on the part of the participants.

That fact was driven home to me again this evening, in a panel session called “Production Companies 2.0: Taking Online Video to the Next Level,” which featured some of the early winners in video blogging. In contrast to the industry panels of a decade ago, which were all about creating huge new brands and reaping rich rewards for the founders, this session focused on issues of artistic control, voice, independence and freedom from the pressure of commercial interests.

Ryanne Hodson of RyanIsHungry.com spoke about the importance of not signing away control over content to investors, while Andrew Baron of Rocketboom boasted about new features on his site that enhance social networking features and make it more useful to viewers. “The vast majority of our discussions about Rocketboom are about how to make it better for the audience,” he said.

Where money was discussed, it was always in the context of how video bloggers could manage to make a living from their craft. Rock-star blogger Robert Scoble actually drew oohs and ahs from the audience for mentioning that he had signed a sponsorship deal for his video blog totaling $300,000. A decade ago, such a small amount would have prompted snickers.

As a veteran of forward-looking industry conferences going back more than 20 years, I find this spirit remarkable – and refreshing. Ten years ago, the tony Internet industry confabs attracted swarms of bankers and venture capitalists looking for the next billion-dollar company. Entrepreneurs who played the game successfully at the time were rewarded with billion-dollar payouts. In contrast, Jason Calacanis, arguably the most successful social media entrepreneur to date, sold out to AOL for $25 million. That’s nothing to sniff at, but it’s a far cry from the payouts awarded to the founders of Yahoo, Lycos and Broadcast.com.

Last September, I wrote a column in BtoB magazine (the original doesn’t appear t be online since BtoB revamped its website) arguing against the probability of a social media bubble. “Bubbles need air supply in the form of venture capital and inflated expectations for investors. They also need a payoff. Almost none exists in this market,” I wrote at the time. I still hold firm to that position. Perhaps the big money is still waiting on the sidelines for a viable business model to emerge, but I think they’ll be waiting a very long time. The Internet bubble of the late 90s was driven by investors’ misguided assumptions that the Internet was a channel for big media and big brands to emerge.

In fact, the opposite is true. Social media is fulfilling the Internet’s promise to make it possible for millions of small communities to form around very specific areas of interest. People now have the tools to share and comment upon information that’s compelling to very small groups – and to do it at almost no cost. Political super-blogger Glenn Reynolds calls this phenomenon An Army of Davids and the terminology is apt. The Internet is all about specificity, not generality. It just took us a decade to realize that.

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