What does success on the Internet look like?

Still thinking about how all this adds up, if it does. I’m aware there are gaps in the reasoning.

1. Been saying to people recently stuff like “look at the top bloggers, look at Kos, who basically transformed the Democratic party into his vision – no one knows who these people are, yet you can nearly rule the world from here.” I’m not saying I’m right, but that’s one starting point for this inquiry.

2. The other could be this wonderful interview with Felicia Day (h/t Josh), where she says this:

Wired.com: Has The Guild helped your acting career?

Day: It’s very funny. No. It’s a little frustrating. Having done this for two years, I’ve gotten used to the fact that it’s not going to cross over. Occasionally I’ll see a writer who knows about the show. I have fewer auditions now than before I started The Guild because I have less time to concentrate on my acting career. In an ideal world, people would be offering me roles or at least I’d get more appointments and so would my cast members.

Wired.com: How about the other cast members?

Day: I would love them to work more as actors. It’s very weird to live in two different worlds — where we’re very popular, almost celebrities. And then when I go in to audition, the people in the waiting room recognize me as Felicia Day, the person who does The Guild, but when I go, in very few of the people who could hire me to do the job recognize what I do. It’s a very interesting place to be and I’ve gotten over the fact that that might not change.

3. Finally, a brief note about what those formally invested in education are doing (the case of established success):

In 1990, Harvard had an endowment of about $4.7-billion. That was still a lot of money, about $7.7-billion in today’s dollars. Only five other universities have that much money now. Over the next two decades the pile grew to colossal heights, $36.9-billion by mid-2008.

Harvard spent the money on many things. But not a dollar went to increasing the number of undergraduates it chose to bless with a Harvard education. In 1990 the university welcomed slightly more than 1,600 students to its freshman class. In 2008, $32-billion later, it enrolled slightly more than 1,600 freshmen.

That is remarkable stinginess. Harvard undergraduate degrees are immensely valuable, conferring a lifetime of social capital and prestige. The university receives many more highly qualified applicants than it chooses to admit. Because the existing class includes underqualified children of legacies, rich people, politicians, celebrities, and others who benefit from the questionable Ivy League admissions process, Harvard could presumably increase the size of its entering class by, say, 50 percent while improving the overall academic quality of the students it admits.

Granted, it would cost money to teach more students. The university would need to invest in land and buildings and professors. But that’s precisely what the university spent the endowment on. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences alone expanded by more than 125 positions over the past decade and increased spending by hundreds of millions of dollars. The university gobbled up nearby land and erected a collection of handsome new buildings, creating over six million square feet of new space since 2000 alone. Yet none of the brilliant new people and buildings and land were used to give more undergrads a Harvard education.

4. Let’s start adding this together: we know there are real world needs and wants, and we know that there are content-producers on the Internet that can help satisfy (i.e. “The Guild” can help other people relate to more intense gamers; if you read everything I have on Dickinson carefully you’d probably be much better in your English classes, or  at least sound like a nutcase) and – this is the kicker – satisfaction is had, actual power is obtained, attention is gotten yet no knows who you are or how they can even use you.

The weird thing about the Internet is that you’re getting attention from a select group of people, but it’s like you’re operating in another spectrum of mass media. The Internet is mass media, but it doesn’t cross over into the continuous tv/cable stream or newspapers or radio the same way those things get spliced into online culture. It makes a lot of sense to talk about the “entrenchment” of more traditional, mainstream media: it isn’t like the content offered is of the highest quality: it’s pretty clear there’s a lot more that goes into some 5 minute shows than to much on television currently.

I think it also makes a lot of sense to talk about “money” and how far that goes. I brought up Harvard because Harvard isn’t merely symbolic – it is the literal instantiation of our reasoning that money creates educated people. We may think, when we actually focus on the problem, that such an assumption is absurd. But the truth is we’re operating on that premise – or something very close to it – every day. It’s no shock to me that Kos got a lot of his power by showing he could fundraise; money commands the attention of those who would rule. And Day is pretty clear that a little bit more money for her show can go a long, long way, although there is a limit of diminishing returns that can be reached quickly. Part of the reason why mainstream media is entrenched is that money established a mode of discourse, a mode of thought: no one talks about political issues the way I do on television. There’s a format, people are used to it, they can get the gist of what everyone’s saying without paying attention to a single word.

No amount of money is going to help the Web break that last monopoly, not for some time. What money represents – its impact on all our education – is that learning can be convenient, politics can be user-friendly and entirely about expressing oneself, and entertainment need not challenge us to be better. When you consider the labor of love it takes to do anything well  (read the Day interview and contrast with what most Harvard students are up to) it becomes clear that money isn’t corrupting necessarily, but sets the stage for the worst sort of complacency.

So what success on the Internet looks like is what it is now: for the most part, fairly modest even when one gets a “hit.” One gets attention because one is authentic for the most part. When success on the Internet changes, we’ll have to look for a new medium entirely for the sake of cultivating the things that matter.

3 Comments

  1. Great post!

    I gave it some thought and I think the thoughts might be getting mixed here for me.

    You asked what success is on the internet, and as a blogger, there are statistics as in how many people view your video, or subscribes to your blog or knows your name on Twitter.

    But success on the internet is another thought entirely.

    To have that success transferred and cultivated outside the internet, say landing acting gigs for Day, or to be considered as one might say prestigious as having the kind of success one associates with a Harvard degree, is difficult.

    A Harvard degree is more general as a sign of success. You go somewhere and you say you graduated from Harvard, they immediately know you either have money, connections, or brains, or a combination of those 3 things.

    Success on the internet is more specific and pigeonholes you into what you were famous for, be it Day’s hit Youtube Video, and people cannot imagine you doing anything else, because you are “the girl in that video”.

    Success on the internet doesn’t seem to transfer very well outside the virtual realm, other than just having your mug shot recognized easily or to be able to parlay that into small business deals (there was a girl who did makeup tutorials who ended up with her own skincare line), and from there, you can then grow your “real world” persona into a recognized success as well.

    Sorry for the uber long comment! :)
    .-= The Everyday Minimalist´s last blog ..How to create a Minimalist Home Part 1 =-.

  2. @everydayminimalist – I moved to the issue of “wealth” so as to bring up “what we value” fairly quickly – that way the argument “the Internet serves certain niches” would be a bit suspect in light of the fact that Harvard serves the smallest of all niches yet consumes enormous amounts of resources and commands popular attention and respect.

    There’s something correct about the difference between “niche” and “general,” but I don’t know how obvious it is. Thanks for your thoughts, I really have to think about this more.

    I mean, there’s a lot on the table above, I haven’t kept all the issues straight. But I think we have to argue for Day: what she did isn’t easy, not by longshot, yet we’ve found ways of not valuing it and dismissing it that are very artificial.

  3. I consider someone successful on the Internet if it benefits them in real life. If it pays the bills, helps get a job, or gains them recognition in a particular field – they’re successful.

    While it’s great to have plenty of page views, subscribers, etc I wouldn’t consider those a sign of success.

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