I have something to get off my chest: At 3 a.m. recently in a smoky dance club in Valencia, Spain, I had a beery epiphany about The End of the Media World As We Know It as I watched Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, snake through the crowd as part of an ad hoc conga line -- the sight of which also triggered a flashback.
Jimmy didn't make me sign a non-disclosure agreement (more on that in a moment) so I can tell you that, both inside and outside of a conga line, he is an enthusiastic and fearless dancer. Yes, he looks like a geek version of Chuck Norris, but it turns out that many of the female attendees of the after-party of the annual Festival of Media conference (where, a day earlier, Jimmy gave the keynote address and I gave a talk and sat on a panel) are into geek Chuck Norris.
At one point when Jimmy, sans posse, took a break from working the dance floor, I offered to buy him a beer. He declined -- "I'm pacing myself," he said as he gestured to the drink he'd been nursing -- but he did let me buy him a bottled water. And so it was that I found myself chit-chatting in the dead of the night with the guy who changed the internet. (Nonprofit Wikipedia, launched in 2001, is today one of most popular websites in the world, with more than 15 million articles in 270-plus languages.) Jimmy and I talked about Wikia (his for-profit web hosting service for wikis), Twitter, "Glee" (which is huge on both Twitter and Wikia) ... and a blond gal who kept flirting and dancing with him earlier in the night. (Jimmy, who is single, wasn't sure if she was single. He thought she might have a boyfriend, he told me, because at one point he saw her ask a guy friend to go get something out of her purse. I told Jimmy that a guy who was nice enough to do that was maybe just her gay sidekick.)
Anyway! Talking to Jimmy, I thought: It's funny media people don't hate this guy. OK, I imagine some do despise him -- the staff of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance -- but on the media-conference circuit Jimmy is not only a beloved figure but something of a rock star. Even though Wikipedia, with its 68 million monthly unique visitors, surely draws a ton of traffic that would otherwise go to ad-supported reference and news sites. Strange, isn't it? Lots of media people -- newspaper people especially -- know to hate Craig Newmark, who gets plenty of blame for destroying the newspaper economy by single-handedly decimating the classified advertising business with his Craigslist site, but Jimmy "Wikipedia" Wales gets a pass for giving away a bottomless well of full-blown content.
Cue my conga-related flashback. First I should tell you that when I worked for Oprah Winfrey -- I was consulting executive editor on the launch of her magazine, which debuted 10 years ago -- I signed a non-disclosure agreement. Everybody who works for Oprah does. But since it was widely reported (accurately) at the time that the magazine's launch was, uh, difficult -- Oprah and her publishing partner, Hearst, had very different ideas about the platonic ideal of a mass-market women's magazine -- I'm not violating my NDA in restating that common knowledge here.
That said, because I don't want Oprah's goons (as David Letterman used to call her people) to come after me, I should probably not tell you that Oprah herself was a delight: a charming, funny, sensitive, straight-shooter of a boss. (One of the best bosses or consulting clients I've ever had, actually.) And because of my NDA, I can neither confirm nor deny that after we shipped the first issue of O: The Oprah Magazine to the printer, Oprah, worried about her stressed-out staff, flew all of us down to Miami on a private jet. I can neither confirm nor deny that she put everybody -- including the magazine's intern -- up at a fancy hotel, where hand-written thank-you notes from Oprah awaited each of us in our rooms. I can neither confirm nor deny that she threw a dinner party for us at her home (at the time Oprah had a sprawling condo on Fisher Island, a private enclave just off the coast of Miami). I can neither confirm nor deny that after dinner a lot of us got a little tipsy, and that at some point an impromptu dance party broke out thanks to Oprah having cranked Paul Simon's glorious "Graceland" album. I can neither confirm nor deny that at one point I found myself in a conga line that propelled out of Oprah's living room, out onto her balcony, and back into her condo through the patio doors of her bedroom. I can neither confirm nor deny that I found myself thinking, Oh my God, I'm in the middle of a drunk-ass conga line that is at this very moment snaking through Oprah Winfrey's bedroom!
Now, never mind the surrealism of finding myself, almost exactly 10 years later, amidst another drunken conga line with another global media legend. I promised you a beery ephipany, and it has to do with what, in the new media order, constitutes unfair competition. A site that rather benevolently offers free classifieds? A site that assembles a volunteer work force to create a quasi-utopian free storehouse of knowledge for the betterment of all mankind? Hell, if you're an old-media person who's going to bash Craig Newmark, then you should hate on Jimmy Wales, too -- and Oprah Winfrey while you're at it! Oprah, after all, has drawn billions of dollars' worth of attention to herself and her assorted enterprises by sheer force of personality -- no doubt draining tons of mindshare and advertising revenue away from her less Oprahrific competitors. Totally unfair.
In the annals of media, someone has always had an unfair leg up -- by virtue of ingenuity, and/or by being in the right place at the right time, and/or by being a brilliant entertainer, hustler, organizer, thinker, what have you.
But when you get right down to it, audiences want what they want. It's just a fact of human nature, I suppose, that sometimes people hear the right song and can't help but dance to it. Hating on the DJ is about as pointless as hating music itself.
May the best conga line win.
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.