Friday, April 4, 2014

Remembering ROFLcon, or when the weird ruled the Internet

Spring brings with it many things. And in even numbered years, since 2008, it has meant ROFLcon. What’s ROFLcon, you ask? 

Yes, you read that correctly, it's a convention, as in an actual conference, with panels and schedules and speakers and booths, and it is devoted to the bizarre world of the anti-celebrities of the Internet. The people from viral videos, but before they were called that. The people who unknowingly launched catchphrases, facial expressions, and other minutiae later that were later picked up by other YouTubers, Facebookers, tweeters, or just regular folk. Sadly I could not make it to the inaugural ROFLcon, held in 2008, but was fortunate enough to be in Boston for both the 2010 and 2012 editions. And yes, there are pictures.

ROFLcon panel. That's Moot, founder of 4chan, the anything goes image bulletin board, on the left
ROFLcon participants: not shy about getting into the conference spirit
Wayfinding sign on MIT campus, ROFLcon 2012

And now here we are and it’s Spring 2014. After a punishing winter it has only recently occurred to me that the seasons are in fact turning, and it's an even-numbered year, so it follows to reason that it must be time for ROFLcon. I went to the website at and saw that the 2012 schedule was still up. Well…this isn’t very promising, I thought. So I did some additional searching and it looks like…well it looks like the party may actually be over. No ROFLcon this year and who knows, maybe no more ROFLcons at all. (insert dejected emoticon here). 

This is distressing on a number of levels. First of all ROFLcon was the greatest gathering of weirdos, and I say that in the most complimentary way possible, I have ever attended. It was a coming together of the gifted, the obsessive, the strange, and the completely accidental 'stars', and that's stars with a decidedly, and proudly, small 's'. And what all these people and things had in common was that they became this thing called “Internet famous”. A new category unto itself. There's famous, the old kind of Tom Cruise or Jennifer Aniston famous, and there's Internet famous, where you don't need anyone to green light your project, and conventional good looks and charms can actually work against you.

"Bear" aka the double rainbow guy in the hall at ROFLcon 2012
ROFLcon was a parallel universe of insider knowledge. It was a magical place where one could see people and things it was hard to believe were real, like the David after dentist kid, Antoine Dodson of ‘hide your kids, hide your wife’ fame, and the Double Rainbow guy. It was like cable access on a global scale and it was a cavalcade of stars more exciting, to me at least, than any Hollywood red carpet. 

'David after dentist' and his family, ROFLcon 2012
This post is therefore dedicated to those more na├»ve days of Internet culture, before viral videos were engineered, before content was heavily search engine optimized, and before YouTubers and bloggers were pursued as spokespeople for brands. It was a time when expectations were low to nil, and when completely unpredictable things could happen. In other words, when the Internet was a wild west, a place where corporate entities dared not tread. It was a time when broadcasters, studios, and major labels were still largely in charge and the gulf between those worlds was a welcome moat. It separated, and maybe even protected, the true geeks of the Internet, the wonderfully weird and wholly non-commercial, from the forces of industry. Now, things are changing. There's still a sublime randomness that can be found online but we are also seeing the arrival of mainstream market players. Bedroom beauty bloggers can become the face of a major cosmetics company and get their own line of makeup. A network of YouTube channels can be so attractive to traditional industry that Disney acquires them in a deal worth close to a billion dollars. And I think it's worth mentioning that this acquistion took place 2 weeks after Disney let go 700 employees from its own interactive division, which suggests to me that their in house way of doing interactive wasn’t working as well 50,000+ people with their own YouTube channels, doing their own thing -- whether it's comedy, cartoons, how to videos, or gaming tips -- and then turning the logistics and monetization over to a company called Maker Studios. The result: in excess of 5 billion views per month. And that acquisition by Disney.

But before considerations of millions of dollars and billions of views came into the picture there was another culture of the Internet. And now let us embark together on a look at the early days of unfettered YouTubing and LOLcat’ing with the ROFLcon 2012 opening keynote, delivered by Jonathan Zittrain. This guy is a force. Not only because he teaches at Harvard Law School and in the Harvard Dept. of Computer Science and has been on The Colbert Report a few times. But because he completely identifies with this audience and this audience completely identifies with. JZ, as he is affectionately known, was and is a net culture guy, okay ‘geek’, decades before that term got co-opted by the cool kids. The talk is on memes & society and it was honestly one of the most poignant conference talks I have ever seen (I see your TED talks and I raise you this keynote). 

I don’t expect you to watch all 53 minutes of the talk (though it would undoubtedly enrich your life) but I do encourage you to move the arrow around a bit so you can get the flavor of the talk. From the opening salvo, directed at the room of about 1,000 ROFLcon’ers, of "this is what makes the Internet sing…on all the off key notes" to insights such as “we look for pathos in the world and try to capture it” and we “act out against the unfunny cynicism of our mainstream institutions”, JZ’s talk is a manifesto for a world in which decisions about what is good, important, or funny, are increasingly not made by executives in offices but by everyday people. 

Now, we have additional complexities, such as a surge on the supply side and the challenge of getting noticed in a vast sea of options. The invisible hand of the Internet may not be what it once was, now that it is getting nudged and tugged by more conventional market forces, but there is still ample reason to remain optimistic about the new creative-industrial complex of the 21st century. And if you don't believe me, just keep reading this blog.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Vice: The billions in bro culture

Remember when Dennis Rodman went to North Korea for a personal appearance at the birthday celebrations for Kim Jong Un?

Or when software magnate and the world’s oldest 'dude' John McAfee went on the lam, sneaking out of Belize and into Guatemala after being bizarrely slapped with murder charges

Who was there for both of these wild walkabouts? Why, it was Vice, also referred to as “America's coolest counterculture brand and millennial marketing vehicle.”

About a week ago around the office coffee maker I was having a conversation with one of the bosses, about a project I’m currently working on, and he said to me..."oh, you might find this interesting", referring to an interview with one of the founders of Vice he had listened to in the car that morning. We were talking about how much content production and broadcasting had changed over the years and he said "then you have to find the interview with the Vice guy." And so I did.

“We stumbled upwards” is what Suroosh Alvi, Vice co-founder explained in the interview, and that phrase stuck with me. Indeed they did. Alvi was fresh out of heroin rehab when he and a group of friends started the company that seemed like little more than a middle finger to mainstream society. I remember Vice from its earliest incarnation in the mid-90s, when the then new Montreal-based alterna-paper filled the free racks at coffee places, record stores (yes, those existed then), and boutique-y skate shop slash art gallery places of my old hometown of Vancouver. I’ll give any free paper a try or two and so I did with Vice. And wa wa wee wa, as Borat would say. I felt almost embarrassed for the ink on the page. Sexist, juvenile, homophobic, racist, idiotic, and across the board offensive. Am I missing anything? No, I don’t think so.

I didn’t really think about Vice too much after that. I had heard rumblings that they had moved from Montreal to NYC and didn’t really have the need to pay much attention to them. A few little blips on the radar screen here and there, but that's it. And that makes perfect sense, as I’m not an 18-34 year old male of the bro persuasion, therefore their stuff really shouldn’t be reaching me. 

Until the John McAfee and Dennis Rodman incidents. Then everything changed. Vice was getting tons of attention. Because they were doing something truly different. And not just different in the offensive and boundary-pushing way that I remember. This was different in the I can't believe they're getting cameras into those places way. It was also around this time that media mogul Rupert Murdoch invested $70 million in the company, bringing Vice’s valuation to $1.4 billion

Also last week I came across a story about the new, reinvented Vice and posted it on Facebook. The torrent of comments that followed were illuminating. A sampling follows here. Meet Melissa, a Montrealer in her late 20s, Bill, a Vancouver-based writer and filmmaker, and Jesse, a television writer and producer now based in Los Angeles, with whom I used to hang out when we were neighbors and he was 10 or so. He was the absolute coolest kid. He wrote a screenplay when he was 11, he was into David Cronenberg movies, and I remember going to an all ages gig with him around the same time. I was so happy he chimed in on this post as Jesse would have been a teenager around the time that Vice showed up on the floors of indie retail in the mid 90s. Though I had lost touch with him when he was around 12, all these years later Jesse is an ideal commentator on the Vice phenomenon from back in the day (to use the overused bro term).

Great data from the field. "It seemed like it should be illegal". What more could kids want? And in the case of Vice they stayed in the game long enough for the world to catch up with them.

Obviously I had missed a huge chunk of their history. You don’t just go from being bad boys with a sex and drugs and rock and roll tabloid paper you give away for free to getting investment from Rupert Murdoch and a billion dollar plus valuation. You just don't. In addition to being a magazine and a website they are also record label, book publisher, TV and film production company, family of YouTube channels with hundreds of millions views, and live event producer. Their content and event partnerships include some of the world's biggest companies --  Intel, Time Warner, and Google, to name just three. By 2007 their revenues were reported to be $28 million (which just happens to work out to .02% of their billion dollar plus valuation, just six years later).

So how did they do it? As is often the case, it wasn’t just one thing. At a time when everyone else was putting money into platforms that produced no original content, they placed their bet on original content. And content that nobody else was touching. Their terrain was almost exclusively the stuff way out on the periphery. And they had grown up, moving from misogynistic and racist jokes alongside the underbelly of rock and roll culture to 'extreme journalism' and travelogues of some of the world's weirdest and most dangerous places.

Their timing and choice of place was also good. When they left Montreal in 1999 they relocated Brooklyn, and not just anywhere in Brooklyn, but Williamsburg, the neighbourhood we can thank for all things hipster, including the word itself. But in 1999 it was proto-hipster and the Vice crew got in on the ground floor. 

Also on the rise at this time was what I’ll call ‘bro culture’. Beavis and Butthead and Tom Green paved the way for Jackass' Johnny Knoxville Jackass, which paved the way for Tosh.0, Epic MealTime, Man. Vs. Food, Riff Raff, and before we knew it we were surrounded by all things 'epic' and 'fail'.

And as all this was happening media executives were watching. One in particular, Tom Freston, one of the creators of MTV and former CEO of Viacom was watching particularly closely. He completely got what the Vice crew were doing and helped open doors that led to a a round of investment estimated to be between $50 and $100 million in 2011. Global advertising giant WPP and media merchant bank The Raine Group were behind the cash infusion, along with Freston himself. Later that year Vice surpassed $100 million in revenue for the first time. 

Fast forward three more years, to today, and Vice has 35 foreign bureaus, with a stable of more than 4,000 contributors. The company is expected to make $500 million in revenue this year, with a profit margin of 25 to 30%, unusually high for a media company. Is this mostly advertising revenue, which we always hear is the magic bullet for online and media companies? No it isn't. Vice's revenue base is extremely diversified. Sure there is some revenue from advertising, but they make most of their money  from licensing their content, for TV, film, mobile, and online, as well as through sponsorships and partnerships with the likes of Sony, Nike, Google, Intel, Dell, and Microsoft (even though the relationship with Microsoft didn't quite work out.

Yes, the one time dictionary definition of underground culture is in demand with the most deep-pocketed and straight-laced of corporate entities. Vice proved that they know how to talk to a demographic that had either given up on mainstream media, or had tuned out entirely. They made out of control and bad for you their brand. They went everywhere kids were. Not to the safe center, but to the margins. And in the end the safe center ended up coming to them.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Podcasting: Art, Craft, or Reaching the Niches?

I spent this weekend at an event called Podcamp held on the campus of Ryerson in Toronto. Despite the name, Podcamp is about more than podcasting, but I’ve been thinking a lot about podcasting lately, so most of the sessions I attended had something to do with that. 

So…what do we know about podcasting, generally speaking? At its most basic it’s an audio file, that can be recorded on a laptop, a tablet, or even a phone, then uploaded to the web, and made available to anyone and everyone via aggregator sites such as Podcast Alley  and Castroller and sold or given away for free on iTunes. Globally there are about 250,000 podcasts available via iTunes (and a small number that don’t use the iTunes store). Most podcasts are free and last summer iTunes reached the milestone of 1 billion podcast subscriptions. For comparison purposes, there are reported to be over 150 million blogs on the Internet, so do with those numbers what you will. (Ed. Note: The fast math: there are 1/4 of 1 million podcasts and 150 million blogs, so the proportion of podcasts to blogs is something like .0016%, though I urge you to check my calculation and decimal points. I'm a blogger, not a statistician dammit).

So, you ask, and rightly so, is podcasting radio, but on a platform that is available to anyone? Is it for amateurs who maybe have their eye on becoming professional one day? Is it for hobbyists? Are podcasts the ‘zines of audio, there to capture the nooks and crannies of culture not mainstream enough to warrant coverage in the world of broadcast or commercial publishing? It depends who you ask, but to me the great podcasting hope is that it can deliver to listeners the things otherwise not available, for reasons of geography, for reasons of subject matter, or for reasons of style or format.

At one time we were limited in our listening by geography, and that changed first, in a limited way, with shortwave radio, and on a larger scale when radio stations began streaming their broadcasts on the Internet. At other times we were limited in our listening according to what was deemed popular enough, or ‘good enough’, to attract a large audience. This was the law of the land as broadcasting infrastructures cost a lot to operate and there was a fixed amount of space on the radio dial. Podcasting removes not just the infrastructure cost but the dial is well. Welcome to the world of infinite air time and space.

Go ahead, touch that dial, you now have choices. Lots of choices.

Which brings up back to the Podcamp event. One of the sessions was led by two guys who, for 25 years, helmed morning radio shows in one of the biggest markets in North America. In such jobs it is not uncommon to have a good run of anywhere from a few to 10 years, only to get let go due to a change in station format or the less precise “change in direction”, often used at the uncomfortable meeting in the program director’s office. They either get picked up by a competing station, change markets/cities….or become realtors.

Seriously, that’s what usually happens. Nonetheless, morning shows are prestigious jobs with pay rates, according to some googling and asking around that I’ve done, that tend to be in the $300,000 - $500,000 per year range, with the rate of pay going higher, even into the 7 figure range for those deemed to be star talent. If they can bring in the numbers aka listeners it translates to ad dollars and that's what radio is ultimately selling. As someone enlightened me during my first commercial radio job in the 1980s: Music? That's what we play in between the ads.

Anyway, this is the professional merry go round that the morning radio guys on the panel had been on for years, getting hired, getting let go, getting wooed back, getting offered new perks, that’s just how it goes. And then in their mid 50s they got let go again and that time seemed scarier than previous times. But this time they had another way to be on the air, so to speak, without being on the air at a radio station, and that was via podcasting. So that’s what they did. They set up a basic studio and did their show and made it available online. It was basically the same thing they did on their radio show, but with more swearing. That’s one of the ways they described it.  At the Podcamp panel one audience member asked them what their podcast is about, what its values are. The response: “We’re trying not to starve.”*

And this is the point at which part of me wanted to scream “Please!!!” Instead, I took my time collecting my things and eventually left the room, in search of something more illuminating. Jump cut to the session I attended today, hosted by a guy who works as a teacher and does six different podcast series, which you can check out here. In all he’s done about 1000 podcast episodes over a 6 year period. Some series have 100 to 200 episodes,  another has about 500 episodes.  

And why does he do them? “I do all the podcasts I do because I love doing them”, he said. “I don’t take ads, I don’t do marketing, To me podcasting is not a marketing tool, it’s an artistic process.” This was quite different from much of the rhetoric heard over the weekend – about finding your authentic voice, becoming a marketing affiliate, optimizing for search, etc -- so I started jotting down quotes verbatim. He continued: “If what you’re doing brings you joy, feedback doesn’t matter,  page views don’t matter, uniques don’t matter, page rank doesn’t matter, SEO (search engine optimization) doesn’t matter…even listeners don’t matter…much."

"People aren’t used to hearing the word ‘joy’ any more", he pointed out. "They think it makes you vulnerable. But as far as I’m concerned, f!@# it. Podcasting brings me joy. Press record, press publish, nothing else is necessary for a podcast to exist…any hurdles beyond this are fixable or fictional. Regardless of how many people hear it the week you put it out…your podcast is always there. Your potential refreshes constantly. If I talk about Mork & Mindy on my podcast and somebody searches on that, they might find my podcast."

And to those who might be a bit podcast-shy, his advice: “You’re not that great but you’re not as bad as you think.  And you want to know what ‘authentic’ is…it’s stumbling the first couple of times. Podcasting is not radio…it is its own medium.”

As an example he points to the podcast of a guy named Mark who does the Mark. My Words. podcast a few times a week. He records it on his phone, during his walk to work, which, judging on the length of the podcast, seems to be a six to eight minute walk. That’s the whole podcast. A guy walking to work and talking about things that are on his mind. 

One of the most successful podcasts out there, Marc Maron’s WTFstarted in a not dissimilar fashion. After 25+ years as a comedian, the attendant drug and alcohol problems, and on the brink of a second divorce and the financial ruin that can accompany such life milestones, his manager informed him he was ‘unbookable’. Maron then retreated to his garage, where he set up his laptop and a mike and a small table and started doing a combination of monologues and interviews, with friends famous and not so famous. The whole thing was often a therapy session for all involved. And that included listeners. Downloads grew exponentially. Maron started doing the podcast in September 2009. By January 2011 he was getting 230,000 downloads per week, by January 2012 the weekly number had jumped to almost 700,000 downloads. At the end of 2013 WTF hit 100 million total downloads.

I believe the enormous popularity of Maron’s podcast comes from how unlike it is to what people are used to hearing. Whether it was on radio shows, TV shows, at live comedy shows, or even on podcasts. And that is what podcasting, in my mind, is purpose built for. The personalities, the topics, and more abstractly, the textures, that don’t fit into other mediums. In a word, difference. 

Commercial radio, in a word, is about sameness. Why? Because mainstream media is built to hit the middle of the bullseye. The point of doing so is to capture the largest possible chunk of the market, and then getting to charge the highest prices for advertising. That’s how the system works, and understanding that is important for people wondering why they can’t crack it. It’s largely a system based on common denominator (you can add the word ‘lowest’ in front of the phrase if you’d like, it’s up to you) and not offending people. And that’s how the Black Eyed Peas end up holding the record for the top selling digital single

And here’s where things get challenging. For all the amazing podcasts out there, for the time being at least, most of us will hear about only a handful of them. The logjam seems to be on the marketing and promo side, and marketing and promotion for independently produced podcasts is usually done on a low budget or no budget basis. Word of mouth and social media curation are a start, but we still have a list of top podcasts that is primarily an on demand version of popular radio shows, and a few star podcasters, like Adam Carolla and Joe Rogan, both of whom come from broadcast and comedy backgrounds. Not exactly cottage industries. Still, a better situation than the old model of broadcast for the many, but, admittedly, an imperfect system.

If you're wondering about what the listenership numbers look like for podcasts, a spokesperson for the largest podcast hosting company revealed the following: As of Fall 2013 a single podcast episode that been available online for 30 days averaged 141 downloads. If you're getting 3,400 downloads you're in the top 10%, with 9,000 downloads you're in the top 5% and if you're getting 50,000 downloads or more per episode, congratulations, you're a 1 percenter of the podcast world. And this is despite the fact that a recent study by the Pew Research Center reported that 27% of U.S. Internet users aged 18 and over have downloaded podcasts.

But in between the guy who records his podcast into his phone while walking to work and the one percenters is a cornucopia of audio splendor. The Fogelnest Files, Overthinking ItHarmontown, The Mental Illness Happy Hour and who knows how many more that I've never heard. Shows that would probably never get onto 'real' radio, for reasons that don't even matter any more, and are there for your pod pleasure. Just remember to tell people when you hear something good. For now that's probably one of the most effective things we can do.

Until then, I'll point you to some of the best networks for podcasts:

An interesting loop...these guys went from success in traditional broadcasting to staying ‘on the air’ via podcasting. They then ended up getting back on the air, ‘terrestrial radio’ as it’s called in industry circles, and now their podcast is an edit of their nightly radio show.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

YouTube: The new supermarket of style

Supermarket of style is a term I encountered around Y2K while living in England. It was being used to describe a mixing and matching of imagery and identity that flew in the face of many of the accepted ideas about subcultures and scenes. Rather than adhere to a single look or motif, there emerged a new tendency to bring together elements that previously would have been the conceptual equivalents of oil and water. Rigid ideas of fashion had given way to less rule-bound, more individualistic combinations.

And looking at a list of the most viewed videos of 2013 on YouTube led me to think about styles of entertainment in a similar way. Where there was once a certain amount of cohesion and predictability to the things that were popular there is now huge variation. Some of this is because YouTube, unlike radio or television, transcends borders; and some of this may be because YouTube works on the self-serve model, not the broadcast model, so demographic segments aren't as delineated as they once were.

What we end up with in the case of the year's most viewed artists on YouTube is a list that sent me to the search box several times. So here's what I'm thinking...why don't we do a walk through of them together and see what we learn as we make our way down the aisles of this new supermarket of style.

At first glance the average person would probably look at the list to the left and go okay, Psy, the Gangnam guy, first person to crack a billion views on YouTube, so not a big surprise. Though Gangnam was a 2012 phenomenon he had some follow up songs and videos in 2013, one of which, "Gentleman", has received over 600 million views. Compared to Gangnam, only a modest hit, but how about letting a viral video star catch a break.

Next on the list, Macklemore. Check, same thing. Everyone knows his breakthrough hit "Thrift Shop" (chronicled in detail right here on the blog) and the various follow up songs. Same for Bruno Mars, who is one of the finest pop stars of our time, as evidenced in his 2014 Superbowl halftime show performance. So far so good. 

And then things start to get a bit surprising. I knew EDM (Electronic Dance Music) sensation Skrillex was popular, I just didn't realize he was that popular. Over 1.3 billion views on YouTube and many of the videos aren't even videos, they're just montages or stills set to music. Next, we have Boyce Avenue. Who? Yes, I asked the same thing. Turns out they have 5 million subscribers on YouTube, over 1 billion views, and according to a claim on their YouTube channel are 'the most viewed independent band in the world'. They first made their mark doing cover songs on YouTube and now have moved on to doing their own compositions, a similar path taken by YouTube stars Karmin. (Ed. Note: For more on the phenomenon of cover songs on YouTube, see this earlier blog post.

Then the fun really gets going with Matty B. He's a 10 year old boy who seems to be the Pat Boone of kid rap and pop, covering songs by One Direction, Maroon 5, Robin Thicke, Rihanna, and more. Roll your eyes all you want, but the kid has 2 million subscribers, 800 million views, and is currently on a U.S. tour

Next up Ylvis. What's a Ylvis? How is it even pronounced? I have no idea. Apparently Ylvis is everywhere, but haven't been on my radar. They're the biggest thing to come out of Norway since A-ha, and I can say wholeheartedly I don't get it. 

After the little kid and the Norwegian guys in the Davy Crockett caps we have Lindsey Stirling. A cute ragamuffin of a violinist, and again with the cover songs. LMFAO, Macklemore, Imagine Dragons, and more. Haven't heard of her either? No matter. She's got 4.2 million YouTube subscribers and more than 540 million views.

Moving to the last two on the list...up next is Big Bang. I know what you're thinking. Never heard of them either. But isn't that why we're here? To find out what those darn kids are doing on their iPads, or more accurately, your iPad.  Big Bang is a K-Pop, or Korean Pop, group, with close to 800 million YouTube views. This is their most popular video, currently closing in on 100 million views.

And finally, coming in at number 10 we have The Lonely Island. The name didn't ring a bell but the material did. This is the comedy troupe of Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg and two of his friends from Junior High, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Remember "I"m on a boat", featuring T-Pain? That was them. Those Andy Samberg/Justin Timberlake digital shorts seen on SNL? That was them too. In 2013 The Lonely Islanders set the acronym of the decade to song, and gave us this.

So, to review, in our YouTube Top 10 for 2013 we have:

-  3 bona fide pop stars, the kind you hear on the radio and see on TV (Psy, Macklemore, Bruno Mars)
-  3 people or groups who found large scale YouTube fame primarily doing cover songs (Boyce Avenue, Matty B, and Lindsey Stirling)
-  Electronica/EDM whiz Skrillex
-  Those Norwegians singing about foxes 
-  1 Korean pop powerhouse
-  1 American comedy troupe, built around a TV star.

Many think of streaming music services such as Spotify and Pandora as the radio of today but I think it's YouTube that may have the most valid claim to this mantle; and if this most viewed artists of 2013 list is any indication the platform is bringing us more genres, more variety, and more unexpected hits than any radio station, or streaming service, ever has or ever could. 

A big part of the beauty of demassified  media is that we, the audience, now have the ability to vote with our clicks. And as a demassified, dispersed audience we can participate in the making and proliferation of hits, large and small. That means the videos mentioned in this post, but also the millions of videos clicked on daily that may only get thousands of views, but are still able to reach a larger audience than they ever could in the broadcast/mass media environment. That is not to say the field is completely leveled or that there is an absence of marketing machinery behind a number of these YouTube stars. There often is. The Internet is not a magical shower of nonstop pixie dust. But it does play an important role in populating the shelf space in the supermarket of style with almost endless choices.

Related Posts: 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On reaching 50,000 page views

Hello dear readers.

Just a quick note to mark another blog milestone: 50,000 page views! So won't you join me in raising a glass to commemorate this joyous day.

And like they say in Grammy acceptance speeches (if they're nice, that is), I couldn't have done it without you. So thanks to you and you and you for the clicks and comments and shares and retweets over the past year. Each and every one is appreciated.

The Demassed maintenance crew at the official 50,000 page view celebration, held earlier today

In the spring you can look forward to better weather and an exclusive interview with legal scholar and MIT Media Lab intellectual property research specialist Kate Darling. The topic is how the adult entertainment industry has adjusted to reduced intellectual property protections online, the subject of a qualitative study she recently completed.

Upcoming blog interviewee Kate Darling

Yes, Internet porn comes to the blog. But not gratuitously. That means you can read the interview and not have to judge yourself. Oh, and I'm told the interview will also be available as a podcast on Radio Berkman, so stay tuned.

And to help us prepare for that interview, let's go back to a spacey 1977, and a song that would inspire a film of the same name, 20 years later.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The perpetual now and the authority of everyone

A while back on the blog I came up with, or at least thought I came up with, the term instant nostalgia, in an attemtpt to describe the phenomenon of the more than 10,000 versions of cover songs uploaded daily to YouTube, most of which are contemporary hit songs. Remember when cover songs used to equal oldies, or classic rock? Remember when we thought of time as marching forward, with a generally common understanding that history meant something that had happened at least, say, five years ago? Well apparently no more. History now equals five minutes ago, if not five seconds ago. It's partly the technologies, but it's partly us. Yes, there are billions of camera-equipped mobile phones on the planet. And applications such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat, the latter which erases history almost as quickly as it ordains it, making photos available for a matter of seconds before disappearing forever (security breaches notwithstanding, of course). This perpetual now, it turns out, is more appealing to us than any past or future. Probably because it is the mediated equivalent of crack cocaine, spurring the release of feel good brain chemicals and keeping us encsonced in the loop of the action itself. Interruptions take the place of sequence. Interruptions become the flow.

Earlier this week my friend and research colleague Elizabeth Watkins sent around an email announcing the publication of her article on 'hyperhistory'. It's the idea that in our current environment of digital, networked, ubiquitous information, concepts such as 'narrative', 'history', 'memory', and 'authority' get a serious shake up. Using YouTube as an example Elizabeth concludes that " entirely new now is made possible through billions of individual view counts, [opening] the doorway for innovative shapes of history to be drawn." She continues: "Without a structure of regulation, chaos would render this tidal wave tough to navigate. Who decides how YouTube people read and sift through YouTube videos?...In broadcast media, editorial control is concentrated among editors, producers, and stakeholders...These authorities use popular stories to create a narrative arc, embedded with ideology and the concerns of capital, and then distribute them through products like periodicals and broadcast news...Online, however, the process of editorial influence and audience is decentralized and dispersed back to the community of users."

Aaron Smith, another friend and research colleague (I know what you're thinking....these people are really not spending enough time watching reality TV) sent me some of his thoughts on Elizabeth's piece. I thought to myself, why not take one person's musings and throw them up on the blog, as a kind of on-ramp for a discussion of these points. With his permission I'm sharing those comments here, and hope that you, the interested and interesting reader, will pipe up with some comments and opinions as well.

Aaron wrote:

"Everything today is about the right now to the point where even our history is created in the now. That was the major point from your piece I hadn't thought about. History is being written without the space to reflect, to process, to contextualize. But I believe that space is important - that space between "memory and history" Why? Because equally important to what is remembered is what is forgotten. And even with "distributed authorship", structures of power and control shape collective memory (and collective forgetting) in ways that seem like the democratized voice of the people but in reality are not.

Without a voice of authority to filter the material of memory into a vehicle of shared cultural identity, then to whom does the task of organization fall? The users. Yes and no, right? Most users aren't scouring YouTube for content (I don't think) - they're finding videos from content aggregators or from their friends. Those content aggregators have their own ideologies - i.e. Huffington Post vs. Daily Beast - and those in turn shape who views them.

Likewise, I think users generally hold a bias towards videos that are more shareable than others - i.e. things that will be popular with their friends. And often times YouTube messages get spread based on an existing infrastructure. Invisible Children had a massive built-in network of social activists to distribute the Kony 2012 video, making it much easier for the campaign to go viral. So I would argue this is not a fully democratic process where every YouTube video has an equal chance to join our collective memory. The process of constructing hyperhistory is contingent upon the conditions for certain videos to spread and unlike television and broadcast media, those conditions vary immensely.

That's where your work in the economics of attention comes in. Also, how does Reddit compare with YouTube in terms of hyperhistory? I would say it's more democratic in terms of what popular content is shown, but harder to search through the archives and find things no longer relevant. At one point, you liken Wikipedia to YouTube. This is an interesting comparison. I think Wikipedia is designed with the goal of creating a collective memory, a written hyperhistory. YouTube doesn't feel the same way to me. There is not much care about getting things right or about accuracy or about deciding what's in and what's out on a debate page. Instead, everything gets to be included but not everything gets to be important. There is no public debate about what is worthy of YouTube's front page or what should be featured in YouTube's algorithm. That is decided for us. Should we have a place that handles such matters? A place where users can even discuss what videos should be representative of our history?

In addition to not having a say in shaping YouTube's filtering process, here's another issue: when the act of participation is a function of "viewing" a video, the credentials of the person viewing are rendered useless. The "vote" has no substance to it. Views - even at aggregate scale -- grant something popular, not something important. YouTube seems to be "self-regulating" towards music videos, ironic videos, and cute cats - that's what is most popular. What happens to “alternative” histories now - pieces of histories that may not be popular enough to be viewed a million times? Are the videos that receive the most views and "likes" representative of our history? What say do oppressed people -- people without access to the Internet or without the literacy to produce videos -- have in the production of hyperhistory?

I think there are still boundaries on YouTube, as with other places on the web, defined by "geography, ideology, and capital." Arguably they matter more than ever, since countries have different sensitivities, governments different regulations, and YouTube has an incentive to personalize based on your location. Given these boundaries, can we trust these privatized tools alone to pave the way for new models of historiography or should the public develop platforms where the very process of inclusion and exclusion is under constant debate, just like the production of our cultural history and memory has been for thousands of years."

Ed. Note: If you're interested in further pondering the concept of 'now-ism', here's a 2013 interview on the topic with Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On digital trickery

It all started with this post from a Facebook friend:

The article being discussed is this one, which appeared in Esquire recently. The basic premise is that in an environment of digital, social, and networked information being first is often valued more than being right. This on its own flies in the face of what we have come to understand journalism is, and what we have come to expect from the people and institutions in which we invest both trust and authority. 

But wait there's more, because the business model of today's Internet is predicated on attracting eyeballs and shares, even if it is with 'click bait' or 'link bait'. It all monetizes, and the person that gets there first gets the most clicks and shares and retweets. Everyone else gets the sloppy seconds and the rest, well I guess it gets sorted out by the gladiators in the comments section.

The hands of very few are clean in these click olympics. Even the writer of the piece in Esquire admits: "Give me the viral pictures, and I’ll give you the truth. And then, after an appropriate waiting period, I’ll give you the other truth, and capitalize on that traffic too. It’s almost a perfect callback to William Randolph Hearst’s infamous declaration on the eve of the Spanish-American War, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Even more fitting, historians don’t think he ever said anything like that. Then as now, it’s the myth that plays, not the reality. Today it just plays on an exponentially larger stage."

Though true virality happens about as often as lightning strikes, it is still the thing everyone online chases, because the wins, when they happen, are big wins. Think of it like the rows of people seated at the Las Vegas slot machines with the yogurt pails full of nickels, waiting for that one big win, and you've got a reasonable analogy for what most publishers and marketers are trying to accomplish online.

For some, the definition of a 'win' begins and ends with the metrics. If X number of people click or share on a piece of content, it's a win. Whether there's quality, integrity, or truth is beside the point. And increasingly stories are designed to lure online readers in exactly this way. If it can evoke an OMG or WTF in the body of the tweet, it is much more likely to get prime placement on the screen.

Companies such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy and to a lesser extent Gawker owe their existence and their good fortune to the quirk of human nature that drives us to circulate this kind of content. Sometimes it is digital water cooler, a can-you-believe-this story, and sometimes it is, to use my Facebook friend Sean's term 'digital horseshit', i.e. untrue but clickworthy.

This was was the case with this story about the recent snowfall on the Sphinx in Egypt. It's not that there wasn't snow in Egypt. There was. The most snow in over a century, no less.

Giza, Egypt? Nope. Japanese theme park? Yup.

It's just that it was easier and faster to run a bogus picture from a Japanese theme park than it was to get a real one from a journalist at the Cairo bureau, or just some person with an iPhone in the area. Plus the real photo probably wouldn't have been as attention grabbing as the fake one. The fake photo got retweeted and shared thousands of times, maybe more, and in the process brought in the dollars that accompany the diversion of traffic online. And when we aren't paying for content online we pay with our eyeballs' value to advertisers.

In a time when attention is one of the few things we do not have a surplus of it is not surprising that hijacking it has become the name of game for some online businesses. In the music business leaking has become one of the new forms marketing, and in the content business the same might be said for harmless hoaxes. In the words of one John Lydon, ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Ed. Note: And a week later, this story circulated, about people in China resorting to watching the sun rise on a giant screen as the smog is so thick the actual sun cannot be seen. Time, CBS, Huffington Post, and the Daily Mail all ran (with) the story. H/T @AaronSmith50. (Metaphor alert: The click smog is so thick, the actual story cannot be seen).

Here comes the sun in China...delivered on the big screen. Happened? Again, no.

And still one more this story develops...

From the 'for every action on the Internet there is an opposing action' department, meet Downworthy, the plug-in that dials down the sensationalistic headlines of the culprit sites noted in this post.