Jason Calicanis: You Are Your Own Media Company


February 18, 2014

Jason Calicanis is an entrepreneur and blogger. He spoke to FRONTLINE about how brands are adjusting to a digital world — and why you should, too. “The most important [thing] young people need to realize is audience equals power,” he explains. “The bigger your audience and the deeper your connection with it, the more opportunity you’re going to have in your life.” This is the edited transcript of that interview, conducted on Aug. 11, 2013.

Let’s start broadly and just talk about the social media biz. What’s the size of the industry or what kind of money is at stake?

In social media? Well, social media needs content created by the audience. We used to call it UGC in the industry, user-generated content. Now it’s called social media. But user-generated content was a very small market before Twitter. Twitter was really the seminal company here, not Facebook. …

Twitter was the one that enabled everyone to have their say, and of course, all the celebrities came onboard, and that was a real seminal moment as well. … Once those people started getting on, and you realize, “Wow, I’m just one step away, zero hops from a celebrity, and I can reply to them,” that’s when it exploded.

It does change everything, because now the audience is no longer the audience. The audience is now the publisher, and if you’re good, you can really disintermediate the publisher and the news sources and go direct. And once you can go direct, that changes the whole media business. It used to be people who had something to say would go to The Wall Street Journal, New York Times or a magazine, Spin magazine, whatever it is, and they would be interpreted and then presented to the audience. Now, we go direct to the audience, and there’s no filter. …

Does this create just a ridiculous glut of information? How does a young person cut through the clutter?

Well, of course, yeah. When everybody can publish, there’s going to be a lot of noise. And people are trying to build systems for rooting out the noise, and some of those systems are run by the big companies.

So Facebook’s approach is you’re too stupid to do your own filtering; we’re going to filter for you. So you follow all your friends, and we’ll tell you, based on an algorithm or what they’ve paid us, what you should read. So Facebook treats consumers like children. That’s the authoritative state. …

What Twitter said was, you are smart enough to manage your own subscriptions, so if you don’t want stuff from The New Yorker, if you want stuff from Alec Baldwin, unsubscribe from them. And that’s why Twitter I think is considered the better platform among media elite, because I’m deciding who I follow, and I’m going to follow Alec Baldwin even though he’s going to go on a tirade that I don’t want to hear sometimes, but he may say something really intelligent. Or I’m going to follow The New York Times, or I’m going to follow, you know, VICE or whatever it is. …

Getting through the noise is about connecting with an audience, being authentic and having something important to say. … The whole point of this is if you talk like a human being, you connect with an audience. If you have something original or unique or authentic to say, you don’t need any help.

The problem is, people look at it as a marketing channel. That’s the big mistake. You’re not marketing when you’re doing social media. You’re having a conversation. And if you think about it just like a one-on-one conversation, then you’ll succeed. If you think about it as marketing, you will fail.

“All these kids who are involved in making YouTube channels, etc., they’re just part of that big machine, which is classify, organize everybody on the planet into buckets and then sell them to marketers.”

But don’t companies and brands by definition think of their interactions with an audience, meaning potential customers, as marketing? Pepsi doesn’t have conversations.

Actually, the smart companies are realizing they shouldn’t be doing marketing; they should be having conversations now. So if you look at something like Red Bull, right, which is sugar and water and caffeine, they are the extreme sports publisher today. What they did with the space jump was incredible. They created the biggest event in Internet history and one of the most watched videos of all time. …

There was no publisher involved. There is no NBC or PBS or Viacom involved in this. The brand said our consumers, the people who drink this caffeinated sugar water, like to see people do really dangerous things, like jumping from space. So we’ll pay the $10 million to do the space jump; we will get 100 percent of the viewing audience. They’re a publisher now. Brands are publishers.

And that’s going to be the case going forward. They’re not going to try to market you through a clever commercial. They’re going to figure out what content you like, and they’re going to make it. …

Likes, follows, retweets, etc.: Explain to me [how] they have different values.

Yeah, I mean the “like” on Facebook is the biggest scam ever created. It’s sort of like Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer getting you to whitewash the fence and saying: “Hey, this is great. Give me your apple; you can do my chores.”

Facebook scammed the world into thinking a like was important. They stole that innovation from a company called Digg, an entrepreneur named Kevin Rose who created the Digg button. And the Digg button originally was, well, you have a story on your site, and you want to Digg it on our aggregator of the top stories on the Web.

Facebook took it to an even more sinister and brilliant level. They said, if you want to be liked, … put this like button there, and we will prove to you that you are like-able. The most manipulative thing you could ever do, right? And these suckers fell for it. They paid by virtue of their real estate to put a like button on their sites.

What they didn’t realize was that not only … that Facebook knew that you were coming to that site — let’s say the site was about luxury sports cars — [but] that every time everybody came to that site, Facebook was then putting them in a marketing database, saying that person likes luxury sports cars, so they can remarket to them. It had nothing to do with liking.

It was a complete and utter scam for Facebook to take every single person on the Web and put them into buckets to market to them. … That’s like step one.

Step two gets even more sinister. They said now, inside of Facebook, you can buy likes. We can create little content stories where if somebody who is in your network says, “I like this,” if your cousin says they like it, it will come up on your feed saying that everybody who’s friends with that cousin — “Cousin Joan loves Red Bull sugar water. ” And you say OK, they’ve just now used your family and network as endorsers of products, without any endorsement payment. So they screw your cousin out of their endorsement.

And they charge people a dollar, 50 cents to get that like. So they took your real estate off your website, then they sold your cousins’ and your uncles’ and your friends’, and you paid for it again, stupid marketers.

Then once you had a million likes, you thought, well, this is great, because every time we post something to our Facebook page, a million people are going to see it. No, then they created something called edge rank, and they said in order for people to see it, it has to have a certain number of likes and a certain number of followers and comments — a little bit of engagement, because we don’t want you just spamming those million people. That was their excuse, but then they said, you know what? If you pay to reach those people who you already paid us to get as likes, then we’ll make sure that you get on their page. So they charge people again for an advertisement. They said to get through the edge rank, to get through our algorithm and be on a million followers’ pages, pay us again.

It’s confounding, right? They basically got people to pay three or four times. Facebook absolutely screwed all the marketers. And the marketers realize it now, and they’ve been kind of up in arms about it, and that’s why Facebook has been having a hard time with marketers investing in their pages on their site. They got all these millions of followers, but it didn’t pay off.

Now, Twitter is completely different. When you get a follower on Twitter, every time you tweet, your followers see it. That’s the sort of social contract there, so you have to be careful. If you write 100 tweets in an hour, people will be like: “Why are you flooding my stream? I’ll unsubscribe.” …

So Twitter followers are much more valuable in that way, but really at the end of the day, it’s about engagement. … Engagement is really what people are looking for. How do you connect with an audience and inspire them to do things, right?

So getting followers, easy, gameable, you can pay for it. But getting people to then click on a link, getting people to buy a product, getting people to support a Kickstarter program, getting people to sign a petition, getting people to show up in person, that engagement is really the holy grail. …

That’s what these young people are doing really well. So the YouTube stars that are starting to emerge, whether it’s iJustine or Smosh or Jenna Marbles, not only can they get a lot of followers and subscribers on YouTube and Twitter, but when they say, “Hey, go do something,” or, “Hey, meet me here,” they can get 1,000 people to show up somewhere, or 10,000 people to show up somewhere. And that’s really the holy grail. …

So likes are a scam, but likes are an important scam. They matter.

Well, it depends on which side you are. There are people who are selling likes, and there are people who are selling their social network as a platform, like Facebook. I think there’s a lot of scam going on there, but then there is something very real, which is if as an individual, you have a certain number of followers or you have a Klout score, which is another third-party company that looks across all of your social networks and says, how much interaction do you get on top of those followers, right?

So the engagement of the followers: People are going to start looking at that and making hiring decisions or partnering decisions. A million people follow me on different social networks, and a lot of times, people will advertise on my podcast, not just for the podcast advertisement, but because they know I might retweet them later or because I might thank them on my Twitter.

Actually in our marketing kit, when we sell people buying ads on my podcast, one of the line items is “Jason will … tweet a thank you to you for sponsoring the show.” So I just tweet, “Hey, thanks to whoever for sponsoring the show.” And they love that, because they get 1,000 followers and they get engagement, and they [feel], oh, it’s a personal endorsement.

So what I’ve decided to do with my podcast is, I only take advertisers who I believe in their product. I just made a list, and this is where I believe it’s going. … The upshot of it is, someone like myself can make a list of 25 marketers whose products I use, and I say to my sales team, “I’ll only read commercials in my podcast for those 25,” and let them know that, … because I only have two ad slots a week, they fill up six months in advance, and I align myself with the great people. I think that’s what you’ll see on the high end as well. …

Our focus is really on kids, teens and culture. … What’s a like worth to a 16-year-old girl? What’s a like from a 16-year-old girl worth?

… Young people are primarily spending, or starting their media consumption, in social networks. They don’t go to a television, start flicking through what’s on or open up newspapers or magazines like maybe generations previously had. They take out their smartphone and they go on a social network, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, which is really a social network at its core. And they just say, “What are my friends consuming and talking about?” So almost everything that they consume starts there. …

Then it becomes very important that artists, publications, distributors of content make a connection with young people at a level at which they’re willing to magnify whatever the piece of content is. If your content is not worthy of a retweet or not worthy of a favorite or not worthy of a comment, it’s not socially compact and effervescent for somebody to engage with it, it’s probably going to fall under the radar.

So that means something cerebral or interesting maybe is not going to be retweeted, but something really stupid like, you know, two people taking gallons of milk and pretending they fall in a supermarket can become ultimately viral. …

And the kid that did the smashing a couple gallons of milk to get a million followers, where does even the idea “I need a million followers” come from?

This is all back to [Andy] Warhol, right? Everybody wants to be famous on some level. It used to be, you know, for Gen Xers, my generation, the way you would get famous would be to have a magazine publish you, or starting your own zine, your own renegade magazine that was a photocopy that you could put into Tower Records. …

Today, it’s, “Well, I’m going to start a YouTube channel or a blog or a Tumblr, get a lot of followers, and then I’ll be famous. And people will follow me, and I’ll get free stuff in the mail, and I’ll get sent on junkets and trips, and people will recognize me from my YouTube channel.”

It’s starting to happen. You have iJustine or Jenna Marbles, two young women who are just getting millions of millions of followers, and they’re going to be the next Ellens and Oprahs in a way, if they can transition from the juvenile culture, this sort of preteen culture, into a more adult product eventually.

The big problem with YouTube is, can this medium of silliness become more serious, or do people just graduate from there and go into regular mainstream or Netflix original series or Amazon original series?

Now, these platforms allow kids to do this stuff, Instagram and YouTube and everything. So who profits out of that? Explain how the business works. …

So what we have in the Silicon Valley technology industry is a rallying cry to make platforms. The reason people want to make platforms is platforms don’t require payment to the talent. So we build tools, and you as the artist use them. We then get to monetize the tools. In some cases, they split money with you; in other cases, they take 100 percent of it. But because we’re giving you the tools for free, and they’re pretty awesome, you get to use them, and you don’t have to pay a hosting company for your HD videos. …

So in a way, that’s a pretty good deal. You don’t have to pay to build a content platform. You don’t have to pay to get audience. The audience is already there.

But this is really the north and the south, as we like to say, and between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, where you have creators who want to get paid, and the north who does not want to pay content creators.

It’s a big war that’s been going on for two decades now, and some people have split sides. You have some people like [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings [who] thinks that, you know what, I’m not going to be like Google and just take advantage of content creators and give them tools and then monetize them. I’m going to actually pay serious content creators to make series on this — you know, Orange Is the New Black or House of Cards or whatever it is.

So there is some movement between the people and the technology industry not paying content creators — and even on YouTube they’re paying the content creator 55 percent of advertising, and YouTube is reportedly keeping 45 percent. Not allowed to say exactly which one it is, because YouTube doesn’t want to talk about the split.

And that’s the other thing, which is this sort of secrecy around the business model of all this. But the business model is pretty easy. If we get a large group of people, whether it’s on Tumblr or Flickr or Twitter or Facebook — once you have a large enough group of people engaged, then you can market to them, and you can force them to go to the marketing first.

So Facebook was famously anti-advertising — “We’re never going to have advertising. “Advertising sucks” was [Mark] Zuckerberg’s rallying cry. Then they had a couple of bad quarters, their stock was trading at less than half of the IPO price, and Facebook was becoming a laughingstock. Well, I’ll tell you what: When you’re losing in Silicon Valley, it’s really brutal. And that’s when you’re going to do anything you can to get that stock price up. And that’s when they start selling all the data from the users, every possible way to market to you and spamming the hell out of you, so now if you open up your Facebook mobile app, the first thing you see is an ad, and they’re going to start putting videos on it.

They’re selling all your data to marketers, and that’s really valuable. When you go into Facebook’s advertising interface, I can say: “I want people who like Red Bull and like Coke Zero and who are female and who are this age, and who also like this artist. So I want the Lady Gaga fans who drink diet soda in Florida. Let’s sell them something.” It’s getting very granular in terms of your ability as a marketer to reach these people.

“The social contract is pretty simple. Technology company provides platform and audience; individual, young people provide content.”

Pretend you’re addressing a 16-year-old kid who either did one of these Jackass kind of videos, or the girl who’s gotten 150,000 likes on a picture of a bubble bath on Instagram. The people that created these platforms that empower these kids to do it didn’t do it as a favor to them, right? They’re getting something out of the deal. Explain the transaction that goes on there that a kid won’t be aware is happening.

I think kids are pretty aware of the fact that this media is being used to make money, but they’re opting into it because they want the fame. … These are very, very savvy young people.

So the social contract is pretty simple. Technology company provides platform and audience; individual, young people provide content, media about themselves that’s interesting.

And it doesn’t have to be very interesting to very many people. If I’ve got a million people like YouTube has now, and I’ve got a billion people like Facebook has now, or hundreds of millions like Twitter, I just need a small number of people to create content and a small number of people to look at each piece of content.

Once in a while you have these breakout hits, “Gangnam Style” or “Charlie Bit My Finger,” that just race away with it. But that’s actually not the bread and butter of these things.

The bread and butter is, “Hey, here’s a picture of me and my friends jumping in the pool on Vine, and it’s really funny. We all did 10 dives at once.” And yeah, a couple hundred people saw it. But if a couple thousand people do that, now we’re talking about millions of people consuming this every day. That’s the magic, and this is building audience that rivals anything that’s ever been seen before.

If 100 million people see the Super Bowl in the United States, and a couple hundred million see it outside of it, that pales in comparison to what YouTube is building. That pales in comparison to what Twitter and Facebook are building.

The idea is when Avengers 3 or 2 or 5 come out, they’re not going to have to buy ads on X number of networks. They’re going to go to Facebook and say: “We have a $100 million budget. We’re giving $50 million to you. Go reach your 3 billion on the planet. Twitter, here’s $25 million, and YouTube, here’s $25 million.” I think they do one, two or three ad buys. And by the way, Google and YouTube are the same company, so it’s one ad buy. They’re going to be able to market an entire movie to everybody on the planet, in all languages, through these platforms. Literally one advertiser could go into the Google interface and reach 500 million people and just set it up — “Boop boop boop boop, here’s how many people I want to reach in each country” — and put their credit card number in and spend $100 million.

That’s what Google is building. Everybody is very enamored by Google’s self-driving cars, you know, Google making glasses. That’s all jazz hands. It’s a big, huge distraction. They’re an advertising network. They’re putting a 25 to 50 percent advertising tax on everything created in the world. That’s all their doing. It’s a huge ad network. They’re going to subsume all advertising into their network.

And that’s what Facebook is building. That’s why Sheryl Sandberg, who was at Google and helped build that advertising business, was brought into Facebook by Zuckerberg. It’s to re-create that playbook. They’re all huge advertising marketing firms. All they’re doing is collecting data and then selling it, and they have an interface that’s wildly efficient, wildly efficient — unprecedented in its efficientness. …

When it comes to Google and Facebook, they could say: “OK, which demographics do you want to reach with which ads? How do you want to change the ad? So give us a trailer that appeals to women here; give us a trailer that appeals to married people here and a trailer that appeals to people under 25, and give me an urban trailer here and immigrant family trailer here.” They can just plug that all into the system and reach everybody with a custom marketing message, and get one check from the marketer. That’s what these companies are going for.

So all these kids who are involved in making YouTube channels, etc., they’re just part of that big machine, which is classify, organize everybody on the planet into buckets and then sell them to marketers.

And you’re still talking about sort of the traditional marketing, just putting an ad in front of somebody’s eyeballs. Now it seems to have evolved into you, the marketed-to, are doing the marketing for us.

Yeah. I mean, I think most of the content people consume is going to be user-generated. … Just think about your time that you spend online. If you had five hours a day, let’s say, of media consumption, how much of it is Walking Dead and Game of Thrones versus how much of it is reading your Twitter stream, blogs, your friends’ videos, etc.?

You know, maybe 50/50, maybe two-thirds, maybe one-third either way, depending on the individual. So a large swath of it is going to be this nonprofessional, user-generated [content]; a large portion of it is going to be the professionally generated.

But there’s a new class emerging which is like semipro, right in the middle, and that’s actually the most interesting part, because I think you’re going to see a lot of the top artists are going to come out of that new semipro, which is of the 100 people you know in your life, that one person that puts the most effort into their tweets, the one person who puts the most effort into their Instagrams and their Vines and their YouTube. … That person actually, like Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, they could actually become a career. And it’s going to be very interesting.

This is a better system and a more open and a more [meritorious], a better meritocracy than any system that’s existed before it. …

But there’s going to be a different taskmaster; there’s going to be a different person who wins. And it’s going to be the Silicon Valley companies who own these platforms — and these platforms are unstoppable. I mean, it’s unstoppable.

Amazon’s video production is unstoppable when you think about it. I mean, they’re going to be able to look at all these e-books created by individuals — and so some 15-, 16-, 17-year-old writes an e-book about zombies, and then another 20-year-old writes one, and then they look and see, well, what page did people give up reading the book. This one had a cutoff rate of page 15 on average, but this one people read to page 50 on average. Let’s option that one and make that into a TV series. That’s the power of data.

It used to be you had to have a nose for these things. Now these companies have data. … And whoever has the most data can figure out where the world is going and just be six months ahead or a year ahead or six days ahead or six hours ahead of everybody else. And that’s really what Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter [have]; they have data. They know trends before anybody else knows them. That means they can capitalize on them, whether it’s through marketing or creating content or creating features. …

So with the idea of the audience in mind, do these tech companies and app makers and all that, do they have to worry about being cool and marketing themselves in a way to a younger audience?

I think what the technology companies try to do is they try to keep a very low, low-key, “We’re just a platform; we make tools,” because they don’t want anybody to really realize they’re sucking all the value out of the ecosystem and getting paid a disproportionate amount. It doesn’t behoove Instagram or YouTube to talk about exactly how much money they’re making, exactly how much audience they’re capturing. But in the case of YouTube, if YouTube was a standalone company today, it would be one of the top Internet companies. …

So when a company like Yahoo buys Tumblr, what’s going on?

… Tumblr is youth culture. Tumblr is producing a large amount of content. It has incredibly long time per visit. Yahoo has an older audience who are checking their mail and then stumbling onto the homepage. That’s basically the flywheel that Yahoo has going. They need to get into this new flywheel of content creation and engagement, so Tumblr just gives them easy access to that.

What it also gives them is native advertising. So what Tumblr was working on before they got bought was getting brands to build Tumblr blogs, just short little updates, animated GIFs, content, funny images. And what’s going to happen is Yahoo! can now say, hey, make something funny on Tumblr, Red Bull, or some company that makes yoga pants — Lululemon, make something interesting, and we’ll put it on the Yahoo homepage or in Yahoo emails as content, as native advertising, and then get it to grow in that ecosystem. …

These Internet companies take a long to die. Yahoo and AOL just keep going because their audiences aren’t dead yet. But they’re trying desperately to try and get the younger audience to sort of recognize and engage with those brands. …

That will happen to Tumblr and Facebook. It’s already happening in a way to Facebook, where most young people look at Facebook and go, “Eww,” but when they look at Instagram, they go, “Ahh, that’s where I like to hangout,” not even realizing it’s the same company now.

And that is why Facebook overpaid for Instagram, because they knew if they didn’t get Instagram, Instagram would kill them. So for a company like Facebook, with $90 billion market cap, giving a billion dollars to Instagram, although it sounds silly for a company with 20 people, and you know, doesn’t have any revenue, it’s a 1 percent hedge against extinction. [It would] be like the dinosaurs paying 1 percent to get to stay on the planet. It’s a very easy, easy bet to make. …

It’s absolutely clear that Instagram will become a bigger company than Facebook, I think, because the demographics are going to be such that young people are never going to engage with Facebook. They consider it for old people. They consider it for people above 30. And the people who are above 30, yeah, they might stumble into Instagram, but they’re probably not going to be like, “Oh, I’ve got to take the time to rebuild my social network.” …

Why is a youth audience so valuable in the first place? They don’t have any money.

The youth audience is sort of where things are going, so if you’re launching a new product, you need them. But the youth audience is undermonetized when compared to the older audience. So if you have a brand that makes appliances or cars, obviously you’re not going for the youth audience.

But those people will eventually make a brand decision, sometime when they’re 17, 18, 19, 20 years old, when they start to get to college, when they start making brand decisions. So brands do want to get to them early. …

And there’s serious money here, right?

Young people do spend money on consumables — sodas and food, fast food, movies and media — but they don’t do the big-ticket items. So you do have a bifurcation that occurs in advertising where some people want to get the mom who makes the household decisions on purchasing and then other people want to get the young group that’s buying those consumables. It’s really two different markets. …

But how important is the selling of youth culture to —

The selling of youth culture, the influence youth culture has over adult culture, is very significant. A lot of adults are going to see Katy Perry concerts, and it’s their kids who are the Katy Perry fans, or Lady Gaga. …

Teens make big, influential decisions for families on movies and vacations and stuff like that — even cars, I’m sure. You know, teens have their say in what car their parents buy.

And like in our Hunger Games example that we’re following, it seems to me that the financial well-being of Lionsgate movie studio is really dependent on a bunch of kids retweeting little —

That’s another issue which is, products are determined to be winners and losers very quickly in social networks. So if a film sucks, it gets found out very quickly, and it gets killed in social media. …

It’s not like buying ads, where they get people walking out of the movies: “Oh, it’s the greatest movie I ever saw.” Now that’s been replaced with actually asking your friends, “What movie should I see this weekend?,” and making the decision on your Twitter or Facebook stream or your Instagram as to what you should consume this weekend.

That’s what really has marketers terrorized. You could spend $100 million marketing some bad film like Oblivion and it doesn’t go anywhere, because it’s not connecting with people on a real, authentic level. But then something that does connect with people — 50 Shades of Grey was one of those, or Hunger Games was one of those. When something does connect with people on social media, it just breaks out in a huge way. Or all the YouTube stars, iJustine or Jenna Marbles, connects, people share it.

Now, no studio was involved with the making of those stars. No big media company was, but they have millions of audience, so that’s going to be really scary for the big media companies. …

One of the guys we’re talking about is Tyler Oakley, who is sort of a YouTube breakout guy. Explain to me where the value is in a guy like that. …

One of the things that’s happening on YouTube in general is when a young artist connects with an audience, they can very quickly amass tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Once they’ve amassed hundreds of thousands of subscribers, if they publish on a regular basis, they can come up in search engines and get very popular very quickly, get magnified. And then brands obviously want to just infiltrate that whole little sphere and ecosystem that the artist has created, somehow inject their product or service into it.

So they’ll come to them with free product; they’ll come to them and pay them to do stuff. And all of a sudden, somebody who was just posting videos looking into their webcam giving their opinion is now making $10,000 a month and has half a million fans. This is very powerful stuff that didn’t exist before, and it’s happening on a pretty routine basis.

Now, it’s not millions of dollars. There might be a couple of edge cases where some YouTube star made a million dollars. But they’re not living in huge houses in the Hollywood Hills yet. But they’re establishing brands that could become the next Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitts, where they could wind up in movies, they could wind up hosting television shows, they could wind up being the next Conan O’Briens. I believe that, and so there’s going to be a huge opportunity for them if they consistently publish and they can have that audience transfer from youth culture into young adult culture into adult culture. …

“Selling out is not selling out anymore; it’s sort of getting the brass ring.”

Is there a generational thing here? Gen Xers our age would possibly find it abhorring to sell out to Taco Bell, whereas the concept of selling out —

Yeah, selling out is not selling out anymore; it’s sort of getting the brass ring. It’s like if you get Taco Bell to sponsor your stuff, it’s like, “Hey, look, I’m important enough that Taco Bell realizes you’re an important audience to reach, so let’s all geek out about Taco Bell for a video. I don’t care. I’m getting paid, right?” …

These YouTube stars will regularly get cars, computers, vacations, whatever it is, because they’re influencers. And their influence is very deep, like any other young musical star in the ’80s or ’90s. This is a way to get to those young people. …

And the audience is kind of like: “Right on. Take Taco Bell’s money, suckers. Taco Bell gave you money to make your videos. Awesome. We want to see more videos.” … These young people are very savvy. … You’ll see in the comments: “Right on. Take that money. Get paid.” You know, it’s kind of cool to get paid like that and sell out now.

Now, are the marketers suckers?

No, everybody, they’re all in on it. It’s like when Michael Jackson did Pepsi or Jay-Z’s concert tour is sponsored by X car or something like that, it’s considered normal. It’s part of the process of an artist getting paid. … This young generation’s like: “Yeah, bring it on. Whatever you want. Your check cashed, I’ll talk about your brand. Let’s go.” …

The most important [thing] young people need to realize is audience equals power. If they can build an audience and own an audience, as they go into this new world where we’ll have less jobs and — you know, the opportunity will be very polarized. Some people are going to get massive salaries, and some people are going to get the really bad jobs. The bigger your audience and the deeper your connection with it, the more opportunity you’re going to have in your life.

I have young people come up to me and go, “I’m interested in breaking into this specific arena.” I say: “Where’s your social media presence? Show me your blog about that topic. So you really care about aviation? Where’s your blog about aviation? OK, where’s your Twitter handle? What is your brand? What does your personal brand mean, and how have you curated it? Let me see your LinkedIn page. Let me see your Twitter. Does your Twitter have a background that says that you’re a pilot? … How do we know through your online presence that you’re passionate about the topic you’re passionate about?” …

This is the new resume. Coming to your next company or opportunity with an audience means you’re valuable. Coming without an audience, coming without the ability to amplify whatever your employer or project you’re working on, that means you’re going to be weak and not needed. …

So getting likes is not a frivolous thing.

I think building a genuine, authentic audience that connects with you is not frivolous at all. These are going to be your constituents throughout your life. They’re going to follow you and track you for life. So the people who are following your Twitter handle are going to be the ones who tell you, “Hey, by the way, I know somebody who might want to work with your company,” or, “I might have a job opportunity,” or, “I might have a movie opportunity, or a part in a movie.”

It’s all going to occur through this social media, which seems very frivolous, but if you build up this large, authentic audience and you have the ability to reach them, people will hire you for films. I mean, Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian, you can debate how talented they are. What you can’t debate is when Lindsay Lohan does an independent Kickstarter film, it’s going to get a massive amount of attention. So she’s bankable because of social media. …

This is the future for all businesspeople is to have some connection, whether you’re a lawyer or an accountant or an artist.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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