A lesson more than a century in the making Print
Youth Column
Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 -- 12:00 AM

One of the great things about living in a digital world is that media doesn't have to be mass in order to be affordable.

I'm sure some people read that and said, "Mass media is affordable, because it's made for the masses." In a way, that's true. All you need is a TV and an antenna and in most parts of the United States, you can receive several different channels in quality clearer than your nearest window.

The problem with mass media, however, is that it requires mass appeal. Profits pay for product; no audience means no profit, which means entertainment that's no longer affordable.

In the digital world, that equation is entirely different. Have an idea for a film and own a cellphone? You can be a movie director. Have an idea for a book and the discipline to write it? You can self-publish, even if every editor turns you down.

Want to make a video that shows nothing more than you standing in front of an elephant explaining that you like its trunk? YouTube was invented specifically for that purpose.

Well, not exactly, but that is an accurate description of the first YouTube video ever posted.

My point is that limits that previously held people back no longer exist.

This realization crystallized for me recently when I was watching a streaming channel on my television. The channel shows nothing but Charlie Chaplin films 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

A television channel that shows nothing but 100-year-old silent comedies; try finding that in a mass media world.

Let's put that into perspective. Today, I can turn on my television, pick a channel and in seconds watch a century-old movie made before the invention of the television I'm watching it on.

Actually, that's the wrong perspective.

Imagine you're Charlie Chaplin. You're a young, traveling actor seen nightly by only a few hundred people. You're only as popular as the word-of-mouth that precedes you.

Then, all of a sudden, you're invited to appear in movies. Instead of hundreds, your audience is millions. Almost immediately, you go from word-of-mouth success to being the most popular person on the planet.

Earlier I said that now is an amazing time because the limits that previously held people back no longer exist. Unfortunately, new limits always replace the old.

Chaplin faced the limit of audience size; until he appeared on film, few people knew who he was. I faced the limit of having a niche interest; I'm the member of an audience so small that, at times, I may be its only member.

Your limit is performer quantity. When everyone can make a movie, or publish a book or share a video, how do you stand out?

Or, to put it another way, imagine every movie and every book and every animal video is a grain of sand. Put together, that sand would be larger than the Sahara Desert.

How do you direct people to find your small grain of sand in a desert so large?

It's simple. Follow the example of Charlie Chaplin.

In a world where every actor appeared on stage, Chaplin was one of the first to appear on screen. In the early days of film, he was different than anything his audience had seen.

If you can choose to be only one thing, choose like Chaplin. Choose to be different. Don't accept the role of one grain among many. Find a way to become one grain among few.

Don't be afraid to stand out. Find a way to make your grain larger or smaller, or more yellow or more blue than the grains around you.

In the end, it's not what makes us similar that makes us great: We're great because of what makes us different.

Erick Rommel works for a nonprofit youth organization. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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