Monday, November 29, 2010

Making Money Internet

As part of the ongoing Mashable Awards, we’re taking a closer look at each of the nomination categories. This is “Must-Follow Personality.” Be sure to nominate your favorites and join us for the Gala in Las Vegas! Sponsorships are available. Please contact for more information.

In a world where social media and pop culture collide, 2009 might’ve been most remembered for a certain race to 1 million followers. While 2010 has had its share of popularity contests too, we’ve also seen a myriad of innovative uses of digital media that have both catapulted some previously unknowns to “must follow” status and re-invented the careers of others.

Whether it was playing a key role in shaping the news, creating online personas that went viral and became much more, or using the class='blippr-nobr'>Internetclass="blippr-nobr">Internet to connect with fans in new ways, several personalities stood out in terms of leveraging social media in irresistibly catchy ways.

Below, we take a look at some of those people who have made a major splash in the online world in the past year.

1. Ben Folds

While it looks like Chatroulette’s 15 minutes of fame might be up, no one was a bigger part of that 15 minutes than musician Ben Folds.

Inspired by chatroulette improv piano guy “Merton,” the singer-songwriter began broadcasting improv piano tunes from his concerts onto the random video chat site, and quickly saw himself become a big part of one of the year’s top memes.

Because Merton rather closely resembled Folds, speculation ran rampant that the two were actually the same guy. Numerous YouTube videos — some of them originating here on Mashable — added fuel to the fire, though the fable was ultimately disproved once and for all (we think) in a video that the two created together last month.

What started as a clever play on a pop culture phenomenon ultimately became a blueprint for sustaining social media buzz.

2. Conan O’Brien

When Conan O’Brien took over as host of The Tonight Show in mid-2009, one of his first sketches poked fun at Twitter for its banality. Little did he know at the time that mere months later, he’d become the center of a massive user-created digital movement (“Team Coco”) as NBC pivoted to shift Tonight Show hosting responsibilities back to Jay Leno.

Following his ouster, Conan quickly moved to capitalize on his Internet momentum, establishing a Twitter account that would serve as his comedic outlet while he sorted out his next career move, which he ultimately decided would be a new show on TBS.

Whereas Conan’s Tonight Show played the traditional willfully ignorant-of-technology card, Conan’s new show has made social media the centerpiece of a campaign to try and get the masses to shift their late night viewing habits to cable. As a result, we’ll soon find out if digital loyalty translates to television ratings.

3. BPGlobalPR

This year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in recent times, and the company’s much-maligned handling of it had some speculating that bankruptcy might be imminent for the petroleum giant.

Providing comic relief through the whole ordeal, however, was @BPGlobalPR, a satirical Twitter account pretending to be BP’s public relations department. With updates like “Sadly we can no longer certify our oil as Dolphin Safe,” the account quickly amassed tens of thousands of followers.

As for his inspiration, the man behind the account, “Terry,” told Mashable in an interview that “They pay people like me a TON of money to make it look like they’re doing stuff, but really we don’t have to do much except talk. Our talking buys them time to figure out how they are going to sweep it all under the rug and go back to making lots of money.”

While BP eventually closed the oil leak and activity on the @BPGlobalPR account has slowed, the feed served the dual role of both entertaining and reminding the world that BP was not doing a very good job at either closing the leak or communicating effectively with the public.

4. Dan Savage

In recent months, one of the most prominent social issues in America has been the bullying of gay teenagers. In response, sex advice columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage launched the “Its Get Better” YouTube channel, where everyday people have uploaded hundreds of videos providing encouragement and inspiration to gay teens, telling them they have much to look forward to.

It didn’t take long for the channel to go viral with openly gay celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres contributing video messages. Within about a month of launching, the channel attracted a video from President Obama broadcasting the “It Gets Better” message.

The campaign has been nothing short of inspiring, and we will be following Savage to see how he uses his various social media channels –- which also include a popular blog, Twitter feed, and podcast –- to raise awareness for important LGBT issues going forward.

5. Darren Rovell

It’s been a spectacular year for stories about the business of sports, and sitting at the center of it has been CNBC’s sports business reporter Darren Rovell.

There was simply no better feed to follow on Twitter than Rovell’s as the world of Tiger Woods came crashing down following a car-accident-turned-sex-scandal turned tens of millions of dollars in lost endorsement deals.

Then, when LeBron James made the universally mocked decision of broadcasting “The Decision” on ESPN, Rovell again was the point man for assessing brand and consumer response as one of the world’s most highly paid and previously admired athletes suddenly became one of the sporting world’s biggest villains.

In between, Rovell’s Twitter feed and blog has broken news on everything from TV ratings to jersey sales to free agency moves. To an extent, he’s also made the business of reporting on sports sexy, as evidenced by some of the competitors he’s now attracting.

What’s Your Take?

Which personalities do you follow via social media? Let us know in the comments or nominate them for the Mashable Awards.

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Heard any good jokes lately? This headline was making the internet rounds yesterday:

"Sen. Conrad: Extend All Tax Cuts; Time to Get 'Serious' About Deficit."

It's easy to see the humor in that. It's almost like saying you're serious about saving money but don't want to put any more pennies into the piggy bank. But here's what isn't so funny: Most reporters and politicians agree that Kent Conrad is "serious."

So-called "deficit hawks" like Conrad, Erskine Bowles, and Alan Simpson aren't just unserious. They're radicals. Their positions are an extreme departure from the philosophy of government that's guided American policy for a century. They're promoting an upward redistribution of wealth that would change the shape of our society forever. They're want to weaken a social contract that's existed since the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and dismantle the economic principles we've had since Teddy Roosevelt.

You can call it a joke if you want. But, to paraphrase Elvis Costello, it's got "a punchline you can feel."

Roger Hickey and I pointed out on Wednesday that most Americans (including most Republicans) oppose any cuts to Social Security benefits. They want the payroll tax cap lifted instead, which is a fiscally sound approach. But the Republican leadership would rather cut benefits than inconvenience the wealthy, and Democrats like Conrad agree. So the "serious" position in Washington is to split the difference between them.

What happens if you recommend the solution that most people (including most Republicans) want? People say you're an "extremist." No, seriously. And nothing you can do will change that. You can point out that Social Security is self funded and they'll roll their eyes. You can have the most qualified actuary in the nation prove that your solution works, and they'll never even acknowledge that your solution exists. (Peter Orszag and Alice Rivlin have both practiced this form of rebuttal by non-acknowledgement -- which seems to be the public policy equivalent of an Amish shunning.)

If all that makes you a little exasperated, they'll observe that you're not just an extremist, you're a shrill extremist. Which, of course, proves you're not "serious."

Consider this snippet of media repartee, captured by the always-serious Digby, about the Bowles/Simpson "deficit reduction" proposal:

JIM LEHRER: Well, Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, said, this is -- just right off the top, is unacceptable, right?

LORI MONTGOMERY (Washington Post): Simply unacceptable, that's exactly what she said.

There's an interesting dynamic developing ... Many of the members, except for the most liberal members, the champions of Social Security, are very reluctant to outright criticize this thing ...

They're calling it a serious effort, something that they have to respect ... It's like, you know: This is a serious plan .. these very extreme reactions are coming from the far end of the party, of each party. I think that there is a middle ground that is going to try to massage this thing, and -- and could bring this whole debate back to life...

In this clip a prominent journalist is saying that it's "serious" to solve the deficit problem by cutting a program that doesn't contribute to the deficit. She's lauding "serious" people for finding the "middle ground" -- between what the public doesn't want and what it really, really doesn't want. And she's marginalizing anyone who thinks otherwise as "extreme," "liberal", and from the "far end" of the party. (Remember: Most Republicans polled don't like this idea either.).

Then there's Jon Cowan of Third Way, who writes: "It's now time to put up or shut up, in short to lead or leave. This (the Erskine/Bowles proposal) is the first real leadership test for both parties in a divided capitol: will they embrace the Fiscal Commission recommendations, or cop out and pick the plan apart?"

Leaving aside the misstatement of fact -- the Bowles/Simpson proposal doesn't come from the "Fiscal Commission," a group that would never endorse such extreme positions -- let's consider the nature of this "leadership test." As the perpetually unserious Paul Krugman observes, this proposal "represents a major transfer of income upward, from the middle class to a small minority of wealthy Americans." This drain on middle-class income to benefit the wealthy is the through-line that links Bowles and Simpson to Conrad and the other so-called "deficit hawks." Jon Cowan's position is that this upward redistribution of wealth doesn't even warrant public debate, and that politicians who submit to it without protest have passed a "leadership test."

Now, as it happens I've met Jon Cowan. He's a very nice, very bright guy. But this is another example of the unserious nature of "serious" thinking in Washington. Pols must "put up or shut up" -- but it's not the public who decides what gets "put up." And if you speak up for what most people (including most Republicans) want, that's a "cop out." You're "picking the plan apart." C'mon now: Do you want to be a leader or a decision-dodging nitpicker?

I'm gonna have to go with "nitpicker." If that's the new term for representing the people's wishes and acting in their best interests, I'd say we need a lot more nitpickers in Washington.

None of this is really "serious." It's play-acting, dress-up. It's like wearing daddy's overlarge clothes and repeating how-mommy-talks-in-the-office words that sound important, even though you don't know what they mean. We're talking tough, we're making the hard decisions, we're rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. Except we're not doing any of those things. This radical position is becoming the new Washington consensus. Going along with the crowd is easy, comfortable, and convenient.

The problem isn't Lori Montgomery or Jon Cowan. They're probably driven by the best of motives: the desire to work together, to collaborate, to go beyond rigid ideological boundaries to solve problems. But collaboration and bipartisanship are means, not ends. They're ways of getting things done, not the things themselves. When a culture prizes the method more it does the results, it's gone astray.

The "unserious" truth is this: Simpson and Bowles, like Conrad, would accelerate an upward restribution of wealth that's already rolling ahead like a freight train. They'd pay for it by taking money out of the pockets of soldiers, lower- and middle-income college students, and the elderly. That's a debate we need to have, and it's not a "leadership test" to run from it.

So, you want to hear an old joke? A drunk goes into a restaurant and orders a cup of coffee and a bun. The waiter says "I'm sorry, sir, we're all out of buns." The drunk thinks for a second and says, "Okay, I'll have a cup of tea and a bun." The waiter says "Sorry, we're out of buns." The drunk says "Fine, I'll have a glass of orange juice and a bun." After a few more exchanges like this the waiter loses his temper: "How many times do I have to tell you we're out of buns? No buns! No buns! No buns!"

The drunk says "Jeez, pal, if you're going to get so upset I'll just have the bun."

These so-called "deficit hawks" are the drunk, the public is the waiter, and the "bun" is any policy that benefits the wealthy at the expense of middle- and lower-income people. No matter how many times voters say that's not on the menu, they're going to keep ordering it. And they may very well get it.

But seriously, folks.


Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""

Website: Eskow and Associates

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