Andrew Keen on New Media

We all deserve a second chance in life. Now we can get it on the web
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The Independent Online

"There are no second acts in American lives." Thus wrote F Scott Fitzgerald in his unfinished Hollywood novel The Last Tycoon. But Fitzgerald couldn't have been more incorrect. Contemporary America is actually a second-act nation – a self-improvement country, a community of immigrants seeking to reinvent themselves, a country of born-again Christians, a place of infinite mobility and perpetual personal change where everyone seems to be on a miraculous diet or pursuing their own unique spiritual quest or following a personalised fitness regime or trying to engineer change in somebody else.

Every day is New Year's Eve in America. In this land of second acts, a massively profitable economy has developed around achieving change – an economy of personal growth gurus, of new-age diet and fitness experts, an ecosystem of doctors, therapists, shrinks, personal trainers and quacks.

According to entrepreneur Ariane de Bonvoisin, who I interviewed last week, this economy is worth $26bn (£13bn) a year. The New York City-based de Bonvoisin is the founder, CEO and "Chief Change Optimist" of the life change portal website First30Days.com as well as the author of a new book called: The First 30 Days: Your Guide to Any Change (and loving your life more). De Bonvoisin is seeking to become the Martha Stewart of the change economy. Her strategy is to build an "integrated media platform" which, while initially driven by internet revenue, will also eventually incorporate the sales of books, television and radio shows about personal change.

De Bonvoisin is no stranger to change herself. A child prodigy of French-Belgium descent who began her undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics at the age of 16 and who graduated from Stanford University's prestigious Business School by the age of 22, she held very senior executive roles at Sony, Time Warner and Bertelsmann before having her own dramatic change epiphany in 2001 when she ditched her illustrious career and spent the next few years trekking around the world. Now, however, de Bonvoisin is back from her travels. Why, I asked, did she start her new business "First 30 Days"? She explained to me that this is a metaphor for gently introducing people to the idea of change. Funded by a $5m-Series A round of angel investment, the First30Days.com website certainly is a very ambitious attempt to establish a change portal on the internet. Launched this February and already endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, it is currently attracting three to four thousand new users each day and has won over major advertisers such as Citibank, Monster.com and MetLife.

The friendly, easy-to-navigate website features 400 professional experts on 53 different change subjects – on everything from quitting smoking to reducing debt to adopting a child. But what I really like about First30 Days.com is that it hasn't fallen prey to the Web 2.0 conceit of a user-generated media world in which anyone with an internet connection is automatically considered to be an authority. In contrast, all the official experts on the website have been carefully vetted by First30Days' gatekeepers, so visitors can feel confident that they won't be take advantage of by unscrupulous change merchants.

Not surprisingly, given her international background and the semi-autobiographical nature of the business, de Bonvoisin believes that the desire for personal change is universal and that the website will be a global hit. But, while I think First30Days.com will do very well in America, I'm not persuaded that the business is exportable around the world. Perhaps it's not surprising that First 30 Day's Chief Change Optimist hasn't found a publisher yet for her book in England – a nation, to borrow the famous words of F Scott Fitzgerald, where there generally aren't any second acts in people's lives.

How can a company make money if it gives away its products?

In May, I went to the San Francisco studios of the internet television network Revision 3 to appear on an irreverent chat show popSiren. While I was impressed by the professional quality of the company's high-tech television studio and charmed by the young lady who interviewed me, I remained unconvinced by the company's business model.

So how, exactly, is the venture capital-backed and currently unprofitable Revision 3 – which gives away all its shows for free on the internet – supposed to make money? According to company's chief executive, Jim Louderback, who I interviewed last week, Revision 3's business model goes "back to the future" of pioneering American television programmes such as The Ed Sullivan Show. Like these classic TV shows, Revision 3 is selling creative sponsorships and product placement deals (as opposed to the more standardised 30-second advertising slots of the mature television economy). Companies that have invested their brands in Revision 3 content include Virgin America, HBO, Bank of America and Hewlett-Packard.

Louderback acknowledged that, while Revision 3 broadcasts more than 20 different internet shows, it is mainly dependent on two hit shows for the majority of its income. Of the 5 million videos it delivers over the internet each month, 1.2 million of these are for its short-form technology show Tekzilla, while 1.1 million are for the long-form Diggnation – a popular internet show presented by mercurial Digg.com founder Kevin Rose and the zany comic Alex Albrecht.

So, is Revision 3 for real? Louderback, of course, thinks it is, claiming that it will eventually morph into a new media version of a network like ESPN or Discovery. But I'm dubious. My sense is that Revision 3 is a noble, but fundamentally flawed experiment in a very immature medium. Video shows like Tekzilla and Diggnation are too self-referential and idiosyncratic to become mainstream media hits. And, unlike Louderback, I'm sceptical that the new business model for internet television will turn out to be the old models of product placement or sponsorship.

I was intrigued to discover that the keynote speaker at next week's Visual Web Convention in London is Lord David Puttnam, the producer of movies such as Chariots of Fire, Midnight's Children and Bugsy Malone and currently President of Unicef UK. What, I wondered, did Puttnam know about the internet and why was the distinguished Labour peer speaking at an event designed for Web 2.0 idealists? So I interviewed Puttnam. We met at the Cinnamon Club, a breakfast club around the corner from Westminster. It turns out that his passion is for the educational potential of new media. He confessed to me that his own schooling, as a boy growing up in north London, was undermined by the poor quality of some of his teachers, particularly in the sciences.

The interactive educational potential of the internet, he told me, represents an opportunity for us to break away from "a thousand years of didacticism".

Idealistic words. I expect that Puttnam's speech next week will be equally inspirational.

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