When I was a kid New Years Eve fireworks consisted of a pack of roman candles, sparklers, Black Cat firecrackers, some bottle rockets and, if I was lucky, a couple of M80s (I think those are illegal now... may have been then for all I know. Still, they made a big bang!).
That was then, this is now.
My wife and I spent the New Years holiday with her son and his family who reside in a fairly well to do neighborhood on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, in a bedroom community of New Orleans known as Mandeville.
On New Years Eve night, you would have thought the entire neighborhood had decided to re-enact the famed Battle of New Orleans, for family on top of family served up a plethora of pyrotechnic displays, seemingly all with the intent of outdoing one other in terms of spectacularness. Honestly, I've never seen anything like it.
I learned that there are now kits for sale which contain enough fireworks to put on a display almost equal to what, in the past, you'd have to hire professionals to present. It seemed that at least one family out of five in the neighborhood (and we're talking 100s of homes) had purchased one too, for everywhere I looked there was an almost constant stream of explosive flashes of brilliant, multi-colored light. (I think I know how Francis Scott Key must have felt.) Certainly not everyone went to the same extent, but enough did for it to be overwhelming.
Somewhere during the course of the evening it dawned on me, this is not unlike what's happening in this new age of social media and user-generated content. Allow me to draw some parallels.
Word of mouth impact
Just as it used to be that fireworks produced for the masses were small in scale and impact as compared to those manufactured for pyrotechnic companies, so too were word of mouth recommendations. While WOM had influence, the reach was limited to only a few family, friends or coworkers.
About the most anyone could hope for in terms of getting their opinions more widely expressed was a letter to the editor in the local newspaper. The real power, whether in terms of pyrotechnics or publishing, lay in the hands of professionals. He who had the money had the impact.
Today, nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone with access to the Internet can be a publisher or pundit, and the level of reach and impact can be enormous. While not everyone has the same measure of influence, everyone now has the opportunity.
I mentioned that everywhere I looked fireworks were going off, and not just a few firecrackers either, but huge, prolonged displays. The same can be said of new media. There are well over 100 million blogs with more being created every day. MySpace and Facebook have multiplied millions of members and niche social networks are popping up everywhere. Add to that the number of videos being served up on YouTube or photos on Flickr. The noise level is just as deafening as the explosions taking place in that neighborhood the other night.
Not everyone presented their displays with equal degrees of artistry or engineering skill. My wife's grandkids shot their fireworks in a rather ad hoc manner with no thought given to sequencing or timing. Other families in the neighborhood seemed to take more care in such matters.
Similarly, compared to that created by professional journalists and videographers, much of the content produced today is very amateurish. But, it is an amateur economy in which we live. The cream rises to the top in terms of what's considered most useful and informative.
One family in the neighborhood, for example, had obviously given a great deal of time and attention (not to mention money) to producing their display, for it overshadowed all the rest. Their finale was on par with many professional productions I've seen over the years.
The old days are certainly gone. No longer do I have access to just a handful of firecrackers or bottle rockets to make some noise. I can buy a kit that is "guaranteed" to be spectacular (or so said the box; and it was). Thanks to new forms of conversational media, I can do the same there as well. Me, and an entire global neighborhood.
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