Remember Dr. Seuss’s book Yertle the Turtle? It was one of my favorite stories when I was young. I still have a copy.
“On the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond, Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.” From the perch of his rock, he ruled all that he could see: “But I don’t see enough. That’s the trouble with me.” So one day he decided to build a tall throne out of his fellow turtles so that he could see more.
And it worked. “I’m Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me! For I am the ruler of all that I see!”
Never satisfied with his growing empire, King Yertle kept demanding more and more turtles so he could get higher and higher. “Turtles! More turtles! He bellowed and brayed.” And one after another, they came. “They obeyed.”
Until finally the small turtle on the bottom named Mack had enough. “Your Majesty, please…I don’t like to complain, But down here below, we are feeling great pain. I know, up on top you are seeing great sights, But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”
“You hush up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle. “You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.”
Then, Yertle the Turtle King started to give the command for more turtles, but this time: “That plain little turtle below in the stack, That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack, Decided he’d taken enough. And he had. And that plain little lad got a little bit mad. And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing. He burped! And his burp shook the throne of the king!”
Then “Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond, Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!” J
Ha! I still love this story. Maybe that’s why I can’t help thinking of it whenever I read somebody once again crowing about how many friends they have on Twitter or MySpace or Facebook or FriendFeed. “I have almost 2,000 friends!”…”I have over 13,000 friends!” It’s as if they are building thrones for themselves out of fellow human beings.
I believe Yertle-the-Turtle-type social networking, and the social networks themselves that rely on it, will start falling from grace in 2009. Here’s why:
1) Time and usage are naturally maturing social networking and this kind of “I have more friends than you!” status climbing smacks too much like “My dad is bigger than your dad!” People (and networks themselves) who cling to old standards of prestige are going to look increasingly pathetic.
2) Most of these connections are totally meaningless, often brought about because somebody befriended you and you felt compelled to do the same in return (or it was done automatically for you), without so much as even looking at his or her profile.
Face it, if you are but one of thousands of “friends” what’s the likelihood that this person will ever respond to you? Now that the economy is in decline and people’s stress level is correspondingly rising, real friendships with consistent interaction will increase in value. Fake friendships will be discarded as noisy distractions that only waste time and feed irritability. Our increased sensitivity to betrayal and intolerance for things we can’t count on will demand that we shed false friendships and house-of-cards networks. “Scaling back” will happen psychologically as it happens economically.
The good news is that a growing appreciation for true connection will have the benefit of increasing our social fabric’s thread count. Today’s Web mesh is largely held together by widely separated Yertle Kings who gather eyeballs but don’t generate much genuine discussion, and thereby little bottom-up connection. Tomorrow’s social fabric will have a much tighter weave, and hence be softer, more satisfying and stronger. Luxury brought forth from hardship. Ahhhhh.
3) The number of Macks who are brave enough to burp will begin exploding soon because of the increasingly bad economy that will make them ever more cognizant of (and desperate for) this truth: authentic and lasting social networks are simultaneously economic networks serving the material good of all members – as it’s been for 200,000 years.
Lane Hartwell was the first “Mack” that caught my attention. It was exactly a year ago this week that we had the blow up regarding the Richter Scales video about the tech bubble. (Awww, the good ol’ days!! J ) It’s a fabulous video, and we need to foster more mashups like this, not fewer. But all creators in the value chain must be paid.
Why should Michael Arrington, who is making millions of dollars from TechCrunch, be able to run such a video for free? Newspapers and magazines pay creators for content. As blogging moves closer to “real” media, bloggers will inevitably start having to pay their fair share, too. The technology is now available to make it all workable as a win-win for all concerned. (See my video on Saving Digital Artists if you want to learn my own approach.)
So far, social networks have been designed to enrich nobody but the owners, too often, off the backs of others. For example, how much of the $1.65 billion that YouTube fetched was shared with the creators of all those videos that made the site successful? Answer: Not one dime.
4) Belching Macks won’t be limited to artists. Network members themselves, who are feeling the collapsing economy’s weight on their own backs, are going to increasingly become resentful of business models that drown pages they create in ads that earn other people money but nothing for themselves. King Yertle can link to your brilliant web post, just as he can feed his own readers with your comments and reactions, but unless you’re a Yertle yourself who is big enough to have your own revenue model in place, you’ll get nothing out of it except maybe a few comments in return.
In social networking, monetization models, if they exist at all, are not distributive. How much ad revenue does billionaire Mark Zuckerberg share with the users of Facebook who create all that advertising inventory in the first place? Answer: $0.00. Resentment already exists and will build in 2009.
Please don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having thousands, even tens of thousands of followers. More power to you! But don’t call them “friends” and don’t gather people like baseball cards just to feed your ego. Being at the top of your social network shouldn’t demand treating it as a throne. You should be mindful to serve your network as much as it serves you, and you should be provided the tools to do so.
The bottom line is, 2009 is going to prove that social networking is far from being a won space. If you want to build a different kind of social network, don’t be intimidated by naysayers who think it’s too late. No, the window won’t be open forever, but it is still open now.
Remember, kingmakers like FriendFeed and even that “oh, marvelous” Facebook – which acts as oblivious to the risks of their own fevered climb as Yertle was to his – are all vulnerable to falling Plunk! in the mud. Design something better. I am. You can, too. Nobody is the Google of Social Networking. Not yet. (See my post on “The Next Calvin and Hobbes vs. the Next Google: 5 Tips” )
Sharp VCs will listen to us and take advantage of the new opportunities that this recession brings, mindful that nobody is chained to any existing social network. As Dr. Seuss says:
And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.
Tags: Artists, Digital Art, digital artists, Dr. Seuss, economic crisis, economic meltdown, Lane Hartwell, Next Google, Richter Scales video, Startup Opportunity, startup tips, tech bubble, VCs, Yertle the Turtle