"How would you make money if you owned Twitter?" Venture capitalist and CEO of Alltop Guy Kawasaki asked Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson at the closing keynote of SXSW. "That was one of the questions I was dreading being asked," said Anderson. "The other one is, how would you save The New York Times?" In yesterday's breezy, at times raucously hilarious, session where the two essentially interviewed each other, Kawasaki and Anderson confronted the increasingly contentious value of free vs. the concept of "giving it away."
When Anderson admitted he didn't want to talk about The New York Times, it was no surprise. The future of newspaper content or even the country's economic state weren't top of mind at SXSW this year. Twitter, on the other hand, a free service with no business plan, was the unofficial official sponsor of the event, with most speakers announcing their usernames and tags at the beginning of their sessions to corral chatter and gather real-time feedback. (The the tag for Kawasaki and Anderson's session was of course #free.)
Twitter, Anderson reasoned, had two options: Start selling banner ads or start charging to use it. The only problem is that neither really fits with the company's ethos. However, "if a company wants to have a voice, being able to raise their visibility [on Twitter] would really be worth something," said Anderson, citing Internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis' idea to charge companies up to $250,000 to be one of Twitter's top ten recommendations. Kawasaki agreed with Anderson that it has been a really effective tool for promoting their ideas to a passionate audience; it had, in essence, helped make him famous: "I couldn't not have Twitter." Even though he was disheartened that Britney Spears has "blown past him" in number of followers.
But Kawasaki and Anderson realized they both share another thing in common when it came to making a name for themselves: Both of them have made both money and authority off of their books. Books made out of paper. Books that are definitely not free. "Paper still matters," said Anderson, almost evangelically. "I believe in books." (Which makes more sense when you know he's written a book about the concept of free, Free, that will be on sale in July. Or maybe it will be free?)
If books are basically a condensed form of information, which you expand upon in person or on your blog for the right audience, mused Anderson, publishers who help you get your book out there will also be responsible for representing you as a blogger or a speaker—like an agent but for your entire brand. (Anderson's start up, BookTour, matches authors with audiences in this way.) The future of success will be achieving "microcelebrity" status. But in the Twitter-tastic, free-for-all universe, getting famous is easy: It's making money off fame that's difficult.
"Create microcelebrity and then monetize it," was Anderson's advice to content creators, using the pop music industry as an example. Fans now procure music by whatever means necessary, yet artists are always paid for public appearances, commercial gigs and concerts. If getting to that point means giving away a little bit of your content for free, or allowing it to be stolen, that's fine, said Anderson: "Use piracy to create celebrity."
Sci-fi author and Wired.com blogger Bruce Sterling echoed (or predicted) Anderson's comment the day before during his annual rant. He called himself a "global microbrand" (a term attributed to Hugh MacLeod) and saw his role as a speaker and pundit replacing that of the international correspondent, the fastest-dying breed in journalism. He wasn't feeling as optimistic about books, however, saying that publishing has never been in a more powerless state than it is now. He began his speech by stacking a tower of his titles on the podium, which he decided to give away to people in the audience under 25. Will anyone be reading these books on their Kindles by the time those 25-year-olds are his age? he wondered. "No. Kindle is like a plug-in cassette for an Atari."
But he gave Twitter an interesting twist. "There's a lot of you in here," Sterling addressed the audience. "But my Twitter audience is bigger than you. And they're a better audience than you," noting that they're more diverse and geographically dispersed and can help disseminate his message faster and give him feedback more effectively. But when it comes to making money off them? Well...
Twitter proved itself exceptionally effective for one thing, at least: real-time one-liners (or two-liners, depending on the character count). Back in Kawasaki and Anderson's session, Kawasaki ended the session by reading feedback off the Twitter feed tagged for their session. From user kdc: "I was hoping that this would be like the Oprah show and we get a free copy of Free under our seats." Anderson quipped, cryptically, "You'll all get a free copy...under your mouse."