Every so often a new technology enables creative people to do wonderful things. Gutenberg's printing press gave us newspapers and books. Edison's motion picture camera gave us films, and Farnsworth's picture tube gave us TV.
And the Internet?
We have a pretty good idea of what the Internet is doing to existing media businesses -- enabling wide-scale piracy on one hand and bringing studios huge new revenues from Netflix and Amazon on the other.
But we have absolutely no idea what it will do next for creative people and their audiences.
The Internet has created an amazingly fertile environment for new art forms like short-form video -- YouTube, Vine and Instagram. It's brought a new category of creators close to their audiences and made superstars out of people whose talents are simply humor, charm and enthusiasm, but whose followers number in the millions nonetheless.
And almost without exception, today's Internet stars come from outside the Hollywood farm system. They are kids, mostly, who have figured out how to make 140 characters and six-second videos wildly entertaining.
You can spend hours watching cable or you can bounce from one Vine to another and be just as entertained.
But how do these new online video things fit into the existing media world?
They don't, and we're making a mistake if we think these Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley inventions are just recruiting vehicles for traditional media.
We need to stop trying to make these new outlets conform to old ideas of media or we run the risk of squashing the creativity and invention that are just now beginning to flourish there.
Look at it from the audiences' point of view. According to Variety, YouTube and Vine stars are more popular with teens than their Beverly Hills brethren. But YouTube personalities are different from TV and movie stars, just as TV and movie stars are different from each other.
A YouTube star is no less stellar than a movie heartthrob simply because he hasn't "graduated" to the big screen. A Vine performer doesn't need to do a six-second host monologue on Saturday Night Live to be legit. On the contrary, these new stars enjoy a much more honest, closer relationship with their audiences than their Hollywood counterparts do with theirs. It's part of what defines them as entertainers in this world.
Agents and advertisers get it. They're creating business models to fund innovation on these new platforms, even at the expense of traditional media companies, as Omnicom advised its clients last week.
So the question must be asked... is the recently announced Smosh feature film deal a natural step in the evolution of these new stars or is it a pending disaster for the Smosh guys?
The temptation is understandable. Smosh has 19 million YouTube subscribers, so it's easy to imagine dollar signs in the eyes of producers as they run the box office projections.
But audiences have a hard time with TV actors who try to move into films. Will that journey not be even more difficult when it begins on YouTube? And can the honest audience relationship that is at the heart of YouTube success withstand the sterile, one-way experience of a film in a movie theater? If not, how long will those 19 million followers stick around?
The Smosh film might work; their material is highly produced by online standards, so a loosely-scripted film may not be too big a departure. But if taking these guys mainstream means they innovate less online, we're missing part of the promise of online video -- the chance for creative people to invent new forms of entertainment in these new media.
Not long ago, YouTube was filled with 14-year-old skateboarders posting videos of little interest to anyone outside their group of friends. Today YouTube, Vine and Instagram are full of great entertainment created by talented people who never would have had a chance in traditional media. Let's nurture these new performers, allow them to experiment, invent and grow in whatever medium they choose.
That makes much more sense than jamming them into roles and formats established decades ago to serve audiences with comparatively primitive expectations.
Television had a golden age because its pioneers were free to create. Let's leave YouTube and Vine and Instagram alone so they can have their golden ages too.