Influence and persuasion in a YouTube world

A call today from a local TV talk show producer looking to book me as a tech “expert”, alerted me to YouTube’s 5th birthday today (here’s my segment).  I wish I had known about the video streaming site’s public beta test back in May 2005 — at that same time, I was struggling to compress, upload and share clips from my documentary-in-production, Independent America: The Two-Lane Search for Mom & Pop using less user-friendly video solutions.  Today, that struggle to produce multimedia and share with the world is over.  And the easier it gets, the more we all have to fight for attention.

Oklahoma sixth-grader Greyson Chance didn’t have to fight too hard.  On April 28th, he uploaded a shaky video of his performance of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” to YouTube (embedded above).  Two weeks later, he has 16 million views and counting, an appearance on the Ellen Show, and a rumored record deal (I’m actually intrigued that his amateur video has so many hits, while his more professional produced performance on Ellen has a few hundred thousand).

Blink and you’ll miss the latest digital media phenomenon story.  Wasn’t it Justin Bieber just a few weeks ago?  Susan Boyle last year?  And yet, there is suspicion about certain timeless forces of promotion and Big Media manipulation even in this Cinderella Story of amateur rags to mainstream riches.

The Christian Science Monitor published its voice in the wilderness piece about Grayson a few days ago, suggesting it may all have been a promotional ruse.  That it seemed all too convenient to have those girls nicely framed in the background.  And how did this video reach critical mass so quickly (his choice of cover song doesn’t hurt)?  Conveniently, Grayson had also uploaded a performance of one of his original songs as well.  In other words, he was perfectly positioned to get the world’s attention.

Whether or not it was orchestrated (and I don’t know that it was), there’s no doubt that we now all have the tools to “do it ourselves” when it comes to media distribution.

[T]he entire entertainment landscape is being flipped around, says Fordham University professor and author of “New New Media,” Paul Levinson. “Literally anyone can try their hand on the Internet,” he adds. More and more, he says, the music industry as we know it will be less about talent discovery and more about distribution.

”It is,” he says, “the most revolutionary change in history.”

Here’s what I see:

– A telegenic, talented boy performing an international hit song in an “authentic” way.

– Millions gravitate to his performance, which he was able to share freely, and for free.

– The attention of the “crowd” begets institutional attention (Ellen, news outlets, a record company) — money begins to change hands.

Paul Simon once sang that “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”  Those are tortoise years now Mr. Simon.  How we influence, persuade and reach people may be paradoxically getting both easier and harder, but either way, it’s getting much faster.