debbie millman

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Avon, Mary Kay, Tupperware, Levi’s, MTV and YouTube: A Continuum of Community

Reprinted from my post today on Speak Up

Back in April of this year, YouTube announced it had reached a milestone: viewers were watching more than 100 million videos per day on the site. Then, in July, Yahoo News reported that the “big four” television networks suffered the lowest weekly ratings ever. And on Monday afternoon, Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion in stock. Since its inception, YouTube has stated that it was more important for the company to build a community than to make a lot of money. And that is precisely the reason the sale of YouTube made its founders billionaires.

According to Rev2, three former PayPal employees, who, witnessing the boom of online grassroots video, realized the need for a service that made the process of uploading, watching and sharing videos hassle-free, founded YouTube. They registered the domain on February 15th, 2005 and developed the site over the following months from a garage in Menlo Park. In May 2005 they launched in a public beta, and in November, YouTube made its debut with $3.5 million of funding from Sequoia Capital.

Perhaps the popularity of YouTube lies in its self-explanatory name: proposing a convergence of “You” and “Television,” manifesting an online world as a vast community. But this is not the first online space manufactured as a community. MySpace, a site that started out as a "place for friends" has grown into the definitive social-networking phenomenon. The site hosts tens of millions of pages, with new users signing up every day in the hundreds of thousands. In October of last year, an industry poll claimed that MySpace had 12 billion unique page views, twice that of Google's 6.6 billion. No wonder Rupert Murdoch bought the brand for $650 million in cash. Even ebay founder Pierre Omidyar said he started eBay with its unique structure because “I believe in community, and bringing back community, because we’ve lost it a little bit in the modern world.”

At one time, the word community signified a kind of neighborhood, wherein those that inhabited this specific locality shared more than just a zip code. They had a series of commonalities that often included demographics, psychographics, cultural interests and physical companionship. It seems odd to refer to a website that virtually hosts millions of strangers a “community,” but frankly, there is no other description that fits this phenomenon more appropriately. What is not odd is the popularity of these “communities” and why humans need these communities in their lives so desperately.

Despite the striking dominance of the modern brain, civilized men and women are driven by the functions of our primitive brain, especially to tribalism and the need to be close to one another. In fact, human beings are very much like dogs in this manner: we are pack animals that thrive on companionship. From a scientific perspective, the need for our brains to connect with others comes from what is now considered “attachment theory” — a theory, or a group of theories, about the tendency to seek closeness to another person, to feel secure when that person is present, and to feel anxious when that person is absent. The origin of attachment theory can be traced to the publication of two 1958 papers: John Bowlby's "The Nature of the Child's Tie to his Mother," in which precursory concepts of "attachment" were introduced, and Harry Harlow's "The Nature of Love," which was based on the results of experiments which showed that infant monkeys preferred emotional attachment over food. When babies have no "relationship" they fail to thrive, in fact, they often die. And the worst punishment we can inflict on a person is to keep them in solitary confinement.

This need for human attachment comes from the limbic part of the brain, which seats all of our emotions and our basic needs. Interestingly, the word limbic derives it’s name from the Latin word for 'ring’ or ‘circle.” Further, mammals are "open" systems. We cannot exist without referencing other people. When in the company of family members, lovers and friends, our limbic brains resonate with theirs. This communication stabilizes us, and improves emotional well-being and health. It seems that the limbic brain needs to be in active relationship with others to be happy. Humans, quite simply, are deeply social creatures.

Yet, according to American Demographics , during the 1990s the number of people who live alone increased by 4.6 million to reach 27 million — a 21 percent increase. One-person households have had far higher growth rates and are now more numerous than married couples with kids. At least 1 in every 3 new households created during the 1990s was a single person. As a result, they are now 26 percent of U.S. households — more than 1 in every 4 — up from less than 1 in every 10 — in 1950. Further, according to the U.S. census, one third of all school age children in the United States are, for some part of the week, latch key kids—that is, they go home to an empty house or apartment. The total number may be between five and seven million children between five and 13 years old. Marian Wright Edelman, the director of the Children's Defense Fund , thinks it's close to 16 million children. The Census Bureau found that 15% were home alone before school, 76% after school and 9% at night. Presumably, the 9% have parents who work night shifts. One-half of all children in the country age 12 to 14 are home alone an average of seven hours a week.

While people might be able to intellectually rationalize this behavior as necessary, our limbic brains have not yet become adept at accepting this. Because we humans are also quite clever, we find alternative communities wherever and whenever we can. Thus, the popularity of brands and websites providing community, companionship, a sense of belonging and like-minded mutuality.

However, while these sites may involve and leverage innovative technologies, YouTube and MySpace are not fundamentally unique in catering to the basic human need to connect. Humans have been responding to brands like this for years. In the 1950s community was created via Avon, Mary Kay and Tupperware parties, in the 1960s by participating in the Volkswagen movement, in the 1970s by dressing in Levi’s attire. In the 1980s, community became more culturally and linguistically savvy via participation in the MTV and Nike tribes, and in the 1990s it became more experiential via a Starbucks or eBay encounter. Now, in the beginning of the 21st century, you can acquire the traits of community by joining the MySpace and YouTube tribes. What these brands and communities have in common is not their business models or their return on investment prospects for shareholders, or even their level of success in the marketplace. What these communities share is this: they have provided what families and neighborhoods and loved ones once could but no longer do: camaraderie, connectivity, a sense of belonging, all the while allowing participants to be seen and heard and to feel important. Perhaps most profoundly, in a world of rampant insecurity, participation in these sites provides tangible proof of one’s own existence.

This is both a great success and a tragic failure. Our culture is now more technologically connected than it has ever been before, with more dialogue and exchange and communication. It’s just a shame that when visiting the vast community of YouTube, we are connecting with people we will likely never meet, in a place that doesn’t really exist, and in a community that will likely never know your name. At least your real one.


Blogger terra studio said...

well written, and exactly what's been on my mind lately. we must get coffee or drinks PRONTO forreal. a book you must go read, if you havent, is "bowling alone" ..

i wanted to buy into a co-op housing space here, but ultimately did not because it was not as "smart an investment move" as a single-family house was. i still wish i'd been able to do it. i just had a roommate for a month, even though my house is tiny by many modern, southern standards, and i'm debating getting another more deliberately because, quite frankly, it's nice having another human being around by default.

as someone who's been plugged into online communities since 1994, i'm curious to see how things are developing and transitioning.

zeitgeist indeed!

sorry for the choppy thought
xo eb

10/11/2006 12:44:00 PM  
Blogger MCALDWELLC said...

I had a VERY similar conversation with a friend today...about the limbic part of the brain. Yes, a strange conversation topic for a designer to have on a lovely Wednesday morning, but it is absolutely compelling stuff....and really getting (literally) inside of a person's head gives you SO much insight into what motivates alll kinds of behavior directly related to what we do.

Here is what I am curious about...given how we have evolved socially, as a culture in the past 50 years...where will that put our collective consciousness 50 years from now? I think there are some MAJOR things happening that are not even on most of our radars right now...personal/societal changes that we are seeing just the infancy stages of.

This is absolutely riveting stuff...great blog entry!

10/11/2006 08:49:00 PM  
Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

On the other hand, there are the smaller communities, what I call the little "circle jerks," like the one we've made of PC students, alumni, and faculty. Everyone feels they know each other before they ever meet in person. It seems to promote real-life relationships. For instance, my own mother had lunch with Minus-Five when she went to NY, and Mary C and Minus-Five talked on the phone regularly before they finally met in person. My college friend Kathy, who lives 2000 miles away, can feel a sense of community with the people I work (and blog) with, as well as feeling closer to me by being a part of my daily life and contacts.

It's all fascinating.

10/12/2006 07:40:00 AM  

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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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