The Next Big Thing
COM is creating a new division in emerging media studies
By Amy Laskowski
Above photo by Katherine Taylor
Jay Adelson built the Internet as you know it. Whether it was helping to launch the uber-popular content-sharing web service Digg, used by 40 million people a month at its peak, co-founding Revision3, a web television network that was purchased by the Discovery Channel in May 2012 for a reported $30 million, or being at the helm of Equinix, a billion-dollar Internet infrastructure company, Adelson has made his career out of envisioning what the next big thing would be. And his work has changed the way that the public uses both the Web and media.
“My route to success was driven by passion—not other people’s definition of success and certainly not corporate ass-kissing,” Adelson (’92) said as he delivered the College of Communication’s convocation address in May—20 years after he left the halls of COM. “My success is about going forward, finding what moves me, and just jumping in.”
Adelson grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and came to BU to study broadcasting and film, with a concentration in computer science. He moved to California after graduation with the intention of becoming a post-production sound engineer but instead made the unorthodox decision to work at a web infrastructure company. At the time, scientists and the military were the only ones using the Internet. There were no web browsers or text messaging.
His career skyrocketed in the 1990s as he joined startups and created startups of his own. Over the next two decades, Adelson—named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the country in 2008—either founded, ran, or funded companies that have changed the world. First he was at Netcom, one of the very first Internet service providers, becoming director of network operations in 1993. From there he went to Digital Equipment and was involved in the Palo Alto Internet Exchange, where Internet service providers exchange data between their networks. He co-founded Equinix in 1998, Digg in 2004, and Revision3 in 2005. In 2010 he became CEO of SimpleGeo, a company that gives infrastructure tools to developers who want to add location services to their smartphone apps. Adelson was even tapped by the government for help with cyber security measures following 9/11.
Adelson is a model for COM students who are figuring out how to combine different media and art forms to create something unique. To help students tap into the burgeoning field represented in career paths such as his, the College is starting a new program: the Division of Emerging Media Studies, which will launch in January 2013.
The program is born out of the idea that digital technology is not done changing everything, as Adelson proves again and again with each new company or service he gets behind. Journalists, who once produced words that appeared only in newspapers, now produce audio and video to accompany their words online. Copywriters still create ads that appear in magazines, but now they consider how those ads will work in a viral campaign on Facebook and Twitter. The former stand-alone worlds of film, television, print journalism, advertising and public relations are fast converging on the Web to deliver content.
“As a college, we must orient ourselves, our curriculum, and our direction toward the place where we believe that technology is going to be taking professional communication,” says Tom Fiedler (’71), dean of the College. “The importance that we’re placing on the new division of emerging media comes directly from the hope that it will be a perpetual motion machine, constantly pulling the College forward and bringing ideas back to the professions that we serve.”
A Catalyst for Change
The professorship will be funded by a gift from the Feld Family Foundation, a private philanthropic organization administered by the Feld family: Kenneth Feld (SMG’70) and Bonnie Feld (CAS’73), and their daughters, Alana Feld Hackel (’02), Nicole Feld and Juliette Feld.
“My parents went to BU; I went to BU; and I met my husband at BU. So the University is a very special place for my family,” says Hackel, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Feld Motor Sports, Disney on Ice, and Disney Live! “The way we communicate today is so different from what it was just a few years ago and is constantly changing, so we felt that there was a need for a new media program at COM. This program will set COM apart by giving students the resources to be ahead of the curve in modern communication.”
Fiedler, former executive editor of the Miami Herald, says the Feld gift is a catalyst for change within the College. “The plan is for these students to conduct research alongside faculty about where the next new thing is coming from,” he says. “These ideas will begin to influence the thinking of everyone else in the school.” Eventually, says Fiedler, all of the College’s courses related to new media will be integrated into the center, so that, for example, the advertising department’s search engine optimization class would be available to students from journalism, film & television, and mass communication. The program will also develop new classes, and the Feld Professor will oversee the development of that curriculum.
Additionally, the Feld Professor will serve as the liaison between COM and two dual programs that are also innovators in the digital world. The first is COM’s master’s program in media ventures—offered jointly with the School of Management—in which graduate students learn to become entrepreneurs in the digital world. The second is the Advanced Internet Media Studies program in New York City, which will provide internships for BU undergraduates in the innovation labs of some of the biggest communication firms.
While similar programs exist at MIT’s Media Lab, Fiedler says what will differentiate COM’s program from others is that COM will “do the kind of research in media that has an applicable component to it,” Fiedler says. “The program is our attempt to peer over the horizon and bring some ideas back to the professions that we serve, which would create an energy that will be very powerful. This isn’t just theory that spins off so far in the atmosphere.”
Fiedler believes that graduates of the Emerging Media Studies program will be “extremely employable” both in the professional world and in academia, saying that hiring managers are hungry for someone who understands communication as it is applied and as it might evolve. “Think of all of the major communications companies—BBDO in the advertising world, Ketchum in PR, or NBCUniversal,” Fiedler says. “All of them are trying to find the next thing that digital media are going to deliver so they can take advantage of it. It’s a fascinating time.”
Create with Passion
COM students have a unique perspective that will serve them well in a future of emerging and converging media, says Adelson. “COM students can express an idea in a number of different ways, and their passion will be easy to pick up if you’re the audience, whether it’s advertising, journalism, filmmaking or mass communications,” he explains. “I’m absolutely an example of this, but so is everyone I’ve hired, everyone that I’ve funded, everyone that I’ve gotten behind. This is a common thread. They were able to express themselves.”
For those who want to be media entrepreneurs and develop the next social media platform or invent a new location-based service that rivals Foursquare, Adelson points to a show he created on his Revision3 network called Ask Jay. He films short videos on viewer-submitted questions on topics like essential software for startups or protecting intellectual property. One example that stood out for him was advice from a venture capitalist who said when he gave money that he was really looking for people who knew their subject but more importantly were truly passionate about what they were pitching.
With that in mind, Adelson’s message to COM graduates last spring was all about the idea of qualification. Even with all of his success, he said he didn’t always feel qualified to lead a company or be labeled as an expert. But he learned that passion for something is what really set him apart.
“Want to be qualified?” Adelson asks. “Create with passion and people will notice you, accept you and follow you. Create with passion and you’ll not only scale corporate ladders but they will disappear …. In the end it will be your passion, not your ability to follow rules, that will qualify you.”
Patrick L. Kennedy contributed reporting to this article.