Opinion Exhaustion: Skittles, President Obama, and the Assault of Everyone

Something new is happening on Skittles.com. The company isn't putting its real estate to work as a marketing platform--singing the vast and socially beneficial aspects of Skittles.

Instead, they have turned their homepage over to their Twitter feed. On some days, Skittles turns their homepage over to their Wikipedia entry, and to their Facebook page.

That means that they're willing to live with anything that anybody might have to say about Skittles--laudatory, or lambasting them as evil purveyors of chemical sugar drops.

Depending on your perspective, you'll describe it as a signal of surrender, of resignation, or of enlightenment.

It's a kind of new media theater, and perhaps the ultimate statement that UGC (user-generated content, to the non-wonk) is the most important and valuable conversation going on in America.

President Obama seems to Agree.

Last week, at the Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner, President Obama joined the mock-the-mainstream-media brigades, saying:

"It is great to be here with so much talent from the world of TV and radio. Despite the flood of new media, I think your programming is more relevant than ever before. At least, that's the impression I get when I read the blogs every day."

Later in the speech, he piled on again:

"As you know, we've been working around the clock to repair our major financial institutions and our auto companies. But you probably wouldn't understand the concept of troubled industries, working as you do in the radio and television."

It is clear that mainstream media, bloodied by the combination of the Great Recession crushing their revenue stream, and the muscular emergence of UGC --- from Huffington Post to Yelp --- is perhaps on the extinction walk. (Although, as I Twittered the other day, when a reporter from the Huffington Post get kidnapped by the Taliban, then The New York Times needs to call in the movers.)

But I'm not at all convinced that the desire for what reporting has always done--to bestow perspective, to construct a thoughtful narrative, to establish the shifting frames of context -- is completely old-school.

I am convinced, though, that we will soon grow exhausted by the current wave upon wave of democratic blathering. Clay Shirky's book calls it "Here Comes Everyone", but I increasingly see it as "The Assault of Everyone."

An example of the counter-reformation appeared this week with a new travel site called Oyster Hotel Reviews. (Disclosure: they are a client of ours.) We are highly selective about the start-ups we choose to get involved with. But their business model was so intuitive and blazingly contrarian that we signed on.

Oyster is a travel Web site. On the surface, you'd cynically say "Yeah, that's what the world needs." Well, actually, it's exactly what the world needs. You see, despite the apparent glut of travel information, virtually all of it falls into two categories. The first is the vast acreage of personal opinion, like you'll find on Trip Advisor, which is theoretically valuable but practically unworkable. You have no idea who's writing what, both in terms of their legitimacy, their vendetta-quotient and their relative sophistication and experience.

The second content area is the thousands of hotel websites, and they are masters of propaganda, pushing out misleading information, doctored photos, and other marketing mendacity.

Oyster, by contrast, has hired real reporters (yes, someone is actually hiring reporters these days) with journalistic training and travel sophistication. They spend actual time in the actual hotels, and then write a detailed review that synthesizes their experience with discipline and fairness.

They also take hundreds of photos, so travelers can see what the hotel is really like, not what Photoshop says the hotel is really like.

You can't do this on Trip Advisor, Travelocity or the website of the Mondrian in South Beach.

I am convinced that other business will emerge to fill the many needs that the cascade of UGC simply cannot satisfy. And the need is also evolutionary. After all, the way we survived, the reason we're here, is not because we listened to everyone. It's because we were able to ascertain who should be listened to. And who should be ignored.

Even millions of years ago, on the Savannahs of Africa, all opinions weren't created equal.

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2 Comments

  • Frank Polack

    So possibly we get back to how things should be..opinion on the opinion pages (Twitter, et al) and REAL news from a news organization. Over the years the line has been blurred, with supposed unbias newscasters throwing their angle in the telling of facts. Perhaps this is also why people quit buying newspapers. My mother stopped her local paper due to the incessant condescension to its readers, but she is not replacing that with any new media. Researches may want to look at that phenomena.

    And I predict Twitter will fizzle out when enough people realize they don't need to share every minutiae of their lives with strangers ("going to the store now"). Do we really need online b*tch forums?

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    I think user generated content builds its own path to finding experts. Twitter users get followed because they build a reputation, as do amazon reviewers, eBay sellers, and bloggers. There's a wisdom to crowds that can't be replicated by a single person, no matter how insightful. We might be over correcting on the democratic side of things because the internet is shiny and new, but I think its a permanent fixture of media.

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