Blogging, Digital Media

“Talent Will Out”

Or will it?

The "talent will out" claim was made by Barry Diller, at the Web 2.0 conference two weeks ago. (Emily Litella NB: some have written up his remarks at "talent wins out." I am 99% sure I heard him say "talent will out" or "talent always outs." I haven’t found a video or audio clip to confirm either way, but the "talent will out" interpretation is more consistent with his subsequent remarks. It’s a nuanced point, but an important distinction.)

Diller made this comment in response to a question from Battelle about Newscorp’s acquisition of MySpace, and whether there would be a future for "prosumer or user-generated content." Diller said he thought there was a limited amount of talent in the world, and that it was unlikely internet-based platforms such as MySpace would help us to discover a heretofore hidden respository of creative geniuses. For this view, he was widely excoriated by the blogging world and Web 2.0 priesthood as a relic, a media mogul who doesn’t get it, a Web 1.0 dinosaur.

I think Diller is right about the likely outcome, but wrong in his reasoning.   Unlike Diller, I would argue there is lots of talent in the world. The issue is that there is a very small pool of talented people who also possess the necessary ambition, time, energy and will to bring their talent to a wider public. And that’s not likely to change, even with these new platforms that make it easier for all of us to publish our work, and put our talent on display.

There are common-sense ways to prove this thesis. Start with blogging.  Here is a new medium that should have liberated the masses of talented writers out there waiting to be discovered. But despite the current hypefest around blogging and the near-religious belief by some bloggers that they are poised to topple the grandees of the print media, most blogs are utter crap. None have ever moved or affected me like the best of works in print. Where are these great new talents unleashed by WordPress, Blogger and TypePad?

This isn’t to say blogs are unimportant, and won’t make a huge impact on the media landscape. They are and they will, but for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the talent of individual bloggers, and a lot more to do with the wisdom of crowds; getting access to specific information about particular niches; and as a democratic check point to other, more hierarchical forms of media.

There is a second common sense way to prove the thesis. Think about the most talented friends you have. If they are great writers or humorists, are they blogging? If they are blogging, are they putting their best material online? If they make video or audio programming, are they putting that online? Are they even likely to do so?

My personal experience here is that my most talented friends aren’t putting their stuff online and won’t anytime soon, for one of two reaons. Some won’t because, while they do have ambition and will to channel their talent, they are putting their best work into creating books, or films, or radio shows; all mediums that are about showcasing talent (a follow point on that next graph). Others won’t because, while they have talent, they just have too much else going on in life, and insufficient ambition and will to use their talents to create something for public consumption. Their talent is channeled into the funny repertoire over dinnner, the occasional great e-mail, or something else wonderful but ephemeral and made just for friends and family.

There is another argument one can make why these new online platforms won’t suddenly lead to the discovery of new talent; and that is that they do not make great homes for talented people or the works they produce. I know, that’s heresy. But listen: A truly talented person with will and ambition and ego to make his or her talent public wants to tell us something in a pure, unadulterated, uninterrupted way. Where they, the talent, speak to us, the member of the audience. This has been true for thousands of years.

But as many others have noted, ad nauseam and better than I, the online medium is not at all about that. It’s about conversation. Participation. Remixing. Democratization. It’s about us talking to us. For all the many good things that come out of this new, collective medium, I am not sure it makes the best home for talented  people, and their works. There are and remain other media that remain better suited for that: the short story, the novel, the film, the interview show, the essay to name but a few. (Oh, and digitization of those things and distribution online is just that — distribution, not a new medium).

The point of all this is that the cheerleaders and operators of these new platforms should stop being so defensive when folks like Diller say it’s not likely they’ll become showcases for great, undiscovered talents. He’s right. Concentrate on the other things that the medium is good for — its ability to foster new forms of conversation; to allow us to find and to share information about specific things more efficiently than ever before; and to connect us and bind us together in new ways that harness our collective talents.