Tear Down This Wall

Consumer generated content is to media what third parties are to electoral politics. OK, so I'm a political geek and I think almost entirely in metaphor. But stay with me on this, because I think there's a big idea here.

Throughout American electoral history you've seen third parties emerge to challenge the entrenched two-party system. They've had colorful names (like the Populists, the Green Party, the Free Soil Party and - my personal favorite - the Know Nothings) and each has at least temporarily electrified a substantial chunk of the voting public who'd grown weary of the ideas and conventions of the Republicans and Democrats. (Who can forget our bizarre waltz with Ross Perot?) Third parties seize on an issue that's largely ignored in Washington (e.g. the environment, governmental corruption, immigration or labor standards) and then generate a lot of smoke and fire, leading pundits to question whether this means the end of the two-party system.

But it never does. Instead, the existing political parties (a) realize the seriousness of the issue, (b) publicly embrace it and (c) make it a plank in their existing platforms, thereby eliminating the reason for the third party's existence. The third party limps along for a while and then fades to black.

And so it will go with today's dominant purveyors of consumer generated content. Sites like MySpace, Facebook and others are riding high because they've tapped into an underserved but important phenomenon: they give an unfiltered voice to the consumer. Turns out that average Joe wants to have his say...and maybe share his Harley pictures and favorite AC/DC lyrics at the same time. The unique visitor and usage numbers have been eye-popping, if not the associated ad revenue. (Fox executives are busy tamping down ad sales expectations for MySpace, saying that the real value is in that old standby "data.") Mainstream media have taken notice (that would be "a") and will - in short order -- announce how they'll incorporate new tools to empower and give voice to consumers on their own sites ("b"). Soon consumer generated media will be an everyday part of the media business ("c"). Or maybe it already is.

It's intriguing that Rupert Murdoch would have to go outside the company and buy MySpace when he already broadcasts the single best example of the consumer generated media phenomenon. I'm referring of course to "American Idol." Why does this ratings juggernaut blow away all other programming in its path - including other reality shows? Because it's embraced consumer generated content more deeply than anyone else. From the zillion hopefuls at the start of the season to the freak show of horrible contestants eliminated early to the cheesy call-in voting process, everything about "Idol" screams "we did this!"

Despite operating in the ideal media channel for consumer generated media - the Web - most online publishers are intriguingly slow to the gate on this issue. Their tentative embrace of CGM - a blog here, a feedback loop there -- is what's made MySpace and Facebook necessary and possible. No question that they'll fully integrate it in the future; how fast and how well are the real issues. The obstacles are emotional and political, not technical. The major online and multimedia players could become CGM powerhouses if only they could shed their broadcaster/publisher skins and emerge as true advocates of open conversation with the consumer.

But first they have to tear down the wall. Dominance in tomorrow's media landscape will be won by the companies that most aggressively pursue real CGM strategies today. Once they do, the MySpaces and Facebooks will become footnotes in web history.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver