Have you noticed how many things are becoming… the same?
Let me explain.
A few years ago one of the sort-of-fact-based channels (TLC, Discovery in its many forms, History, A&E, National Geographic, even the Weather Channel now that NBC has gotten its hooks into it) had a show about fishing. It proved popular. Soon, everyone had some kind of show about fishing. (More, if we throw in that non-fishing show about the anti-whaling terrorists – and yeah, they're terrorists, even if they're terrorists with whose goals you agree.)
Then there was some show about hillbillies. Now there are a whole bunch of them, some based on moonshine production, some based on cutting down trees, some – many – based on catching reptiles in the South.
Soon some network will drop the pretense and come out with a show called "Stump-toothed In-bred Morons You're Better Than." It probably will feature mountain men who get all likkered up on moonshine and head down to the creek to fish for alligators with Honey Boo Boo for bait. In every case, the insertion of phony nicknames and ginned-up conflicts is necessary. It's important when invading the lives of people producers think are lesser than themselves to build around those people a morality play in support of the producers' fantasies of superiority.
I digress. The point is that once one network does one of these shows, the rest will follow, doing basically the same show. Then there are the "reality" shows that have nothing at all to do with reality. They are largely scripted, featuring non-actors in contrived situations.
Fine. That's television. It's not supposed to be real. Fair enough – but this is happening elsewhere, too, this desire to homogenize things, to establish "diversity" by imitation.
It has happened on the Internet, too, in the silly business of "social media." Here's an example:
Facebook's chief operating officer is a woman named Sheryl Sandberg. She has written a book, "Lean In," which is basically about how cool it is to be Sheryl Sandberg. That's fine. I'd write a book about how cool it is to be me, if it were cool to be me or I could at least convince a publisher that it were. Sandberg has been a Facebook executive since 2008, which is to say since before its (brief, we can hope) time as flavor of the month. She is cool.
Last summer, the once-a-contender-but-fading-fast Yahoo! got itself Marissa Mayer to be its chief executive officer. (The imitation has gotten to where executives now must have the same first and last initials, it seems.)
Marissa Mayer took office, issued an edict that all those Yahoo! people who were allowed to work at home must now work at the office or be fired, then said she would be going home now to have a baby. She had the baby, came back to work, and the baby is being raised in a nursery next to her office. I did not make any of that up.
But Marissa is no Sheryl. Sheryl is running the hottest property on the Internet right now, is published, is respected, is cool. Marissa, a slightly pudgy blonde lifetime geek girl with a tin ear, is running some backwater Internet also-ran. What to do?
Poor Marissa is doing the thing someone who isn't but desperately wants to be cool always does: imitate those who are the real thing. So she has decided to homogenize the various Yahoo! properties, and buy some more, and homogenize them, in a pitiful attempt to be like Facebook.
She spent $1.1 billion of other people's money to buy Tumblr, a cool-until-acquired-by-Yahoo! site made up in large part (though not entirely) of pornography copied from other sites. (It does have other stuff, and lots of it, but the porn is always nearby.) Without any warning to or consultation with its 80 million registered members (many of whom paid for the service), she converted Flickr, the Internet's premier photo display site, into a Facebook-ish, Tumblr-ish thing that resembles Windows 8 in both appearance and user backlash. People's carefully constructed sets and picture stories were all piled into one big lump, without their permission. Hello, Flick/Tumbl/r, one of the Internet's top-20 Facebook imitators.
And in case she had missed pissing off anyone, she announced at the big Flickr redesign rollout last week that "there's really no such thing as professional photographers anymore." No, just underage drinkers who want to post many fuzzy pieces of evidence that cell phones aren't very good cameras.
The nonexistent professional photographers fled en masse, many to a small but lovely site located in France called ipernity.com, whose staff of seven has been overwhelmed but has manged throughout to be calm, welcoming, friendly, and responsive, and they and their site are cool – in short, everything the new Yahoo! ain't. And the ipernity.com people will grow rich because they are who they are, not people trying to appear cool by trying to be something they're not.
That's the lesson, I think: imitation is an admission that you think you're behind, that you think whatever you are or have or produce isn't quite enough. And in the cases cited, the admission seems to be an accurate one.
You can't homogenize your way to success unless you're a dairy.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. His column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.