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Web 2.0 Expo: Too Much “Popular,” Not Enough “Quality,” or How To Make Good Web Content

September 21st, 2008 by Jeff Simmermon

I was at the O’Reilly Media-sponsored Web 2.0 Expo here in New York last week. While I wouldn’t exactly call it fun, I learned a lot. Here’s a few observations:

*** The term “Google-juice” sounds really, really gross

*** The word “leverage” is vastly overused. It’s not a verb, people. Every time you say it, an IQ point dies.

*** People love to talk about the “Wild West” mentality on the Internet. Meaning, I think, that there are no rules or ethics online. The real Wild West was about gunfights, cattle theft, drinking whiskey in filthy saloons and dying during childbirth. Making baseless claims anonymously in your underpants is the opposite of tough. There’s a big, big difference.

*** Being articulate, intelligent and well-read and being a Top Digger are not the same thing by a damn sight. I’m not going to name names, but a certain social media expert should be aware that they speak Portuguese¬† in Brazil — not Brazilian.

*** There were a lot of people asking “how can I leverage the power of Web 2.0 community to ‘go viral’ and drive traffic to my market share, incentivizing revenue generation through targeted content promotion?”

Nobody asked “how can I make content that’s actually good?”

I’d like to focus on that a little bit.

In the new social media landscape (that’s a triple word score on the jargon board) popularity beats quality every time. Popularity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But popularity without quality is kind of pointless. It’s the difference between the Beatles and Milli Vanilli.

Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed referred to the “Bored at Work Network” in his presentation about viral Internet hits this week. He’s right: the Internet exists to entertain people who are dicking around at work. We’ve all sleepwalked our way through a day, clicking for the thing that makes our brains squirt a little pleasure hormone and shoot us closer to quitting time. Sometimes we shop online, sometimes we look at our friends’ pictures. But mostly we’re looking for a vicarious thrill. The modern workplace has evolved way past the actual Wild West, and all that’s left is telling stories around the campfire.

Being the first person to retell a great story by someone else carries a certain thrill, sure. But coming up with the story yourself is a million times cooler. Almost every Internet mega-hit is an escapist thrill that tells a story we can identify with. It’s either something we wish we’d said, something we wish we’d done, or a story we wish we’d lived. Any bozo can bang out a bunch of geek-themed top ten lists and pay Diggers to promote them. Finding and telling a good story is really, really hard, but so much longer-lasting. If you’re doing it for yourself, for your own artistic benefit, it’s the only way to go. And if you’re doing it for a brand or for your company, it’s gonna stick a lot longer than some dumb Facebook app or agency-sponsored Digg promotion. People know the difference.

All the most successful stories in any medium have the following characteristics:

Characters – ones we can identify with. We live in troubled times and everyone’s looking for heroes and villains. Give your audience both, but remember: heroes are good, but anti-heroes are cool. Villains get the best lines and though they’re not always happy they get to have a LOT of fun.

DesireVonnegut said it best: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

Conflict
— the natural byproduct of Desire when there are Heroes and Villains

Point of No Return — once that Conflict gets going, stuff happens that can never get undone. Lex Luthor goes bald, Kevin Colvin gets complimented on his wand, some guy leaves a nasty note on a dollar bill — once that happens, there’s no turning back.

The best Web stories end initially at the point of no return. If they’re sticky enough, if the characters and conflict are powerful enough, they catch hold of the Bored at Work network’s imagination and they get linked all over the place. Somewhere in the heat and pressure of all that attention, something happens to change the story and force it towards a conclusion.

If you want to make good, solid content that really hooks people and promotes your brand — whether you’re a writer, an artist, or an advertiser — stop going for the cheap highs and find the story. Make yourself the hero or the villain, or the thing that the heroes and villains desire. Ratchet up the stakes, show the point of no return and shove the whole mess out onto the Web. If it’s a good story and a slow news day, you won’t have to push it too hard. Just know that once it’s out there, you have absolutely no control over the story anymore.

Try to control the story and you’ll choke it under your heavy hand. It’s better to just make the thing and set it free. If you’re good, it’ll come visit and bring you a lot of presents one day.

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