Sunday, February 22, 2015

Notes from Podcamp: Fragmentation Nation

An interest, nay, preoccupation of mine for the past few years has been not just the fragmentation of the media marketplace, but the ultra-fragmentation. The podcasts, blogs, Instagram, Pinterest, and Vine accounts, music streaming services and Souncloud, YouTube channels, and  the rest of the sites, apps, and platforms that make it possible for anyone, anywhere to publish or broadcast their wares. And this is so much more than the fragmentation we came to know from, e.g, cable television or satellite radio. This is an exponential phenomenon that is often more than we can fathom -- and at the same time is becoming the norm. Trying to use a pie chart to illustrate the point is, for these purposes, essentially useless.

This week marks two years since I started writing this blog, and when I look back at the first post I am reminded of all the media forms that have emerged even since that time and also of how new intermediaries of the digital world are accumulating audience, and in turn, power in a way that the titans of the old broadcasting world did. Hopefully this is more than just ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, but I suppose time will tell.

Nevertheless, in this world of publishing plenty, of the millions of blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, and websites, catering to every niche out there, the new axiom seems to be:

if you can imagine it, it exists

Our media diet has gone from one of limited choices that were fed to us to one that grows unchecked each day on which we can gorge ourselves. How this works, from the perspectives of logistics, economics, production, and consumption is a work in progress, and is why I do this blog.

That’s why attending events like Podcamp, as I did this past weekend, can be so interesting. It’s an ‘unconference’, meaning it’s participant-driven, not organizationally or corporately driven, and is typically free to attend. I’ve gone to the last two held in Toronto, and in both cases about 1000 people converged on the campus of Ryerson to take in this ‘let’s put on a show’, with panels taking the place of song and dance numbers. Real stories from real people doing their blogs, vlogs, and podcasts, from reasons ranging from hobby to job.

Today Part 1 of some notes from Podcamp, followed by Part 2 in the days to come. 


A selection of Toronto Podcampers, February 2015

    
Just a few of the sessions on offer at Podcamp 2015

I popped in and out of a number of sessions but one that not only stood out, but also spoke to the larger themes of how we arrived at this point in the media timeline and where we might be headed, was hosted by James Wilkinson. James’ website describes his skill set as: Interaction Design, User Experience, Content Strategy, Social Media, Web Design, Creative Direction, Mobile Applications, Web Development ...which makes it reasonable to assume this guy knows what he’s talking about. (Note: You never really know at an unconference, so caveat emptor, etc).

The session was called “The future of content consumption”, but rather than being one of those bleary-eyed looks at a Jetsonian utopia, it was as much about the past as it was about what is to come. In framing the then vs. now James put things simply yet succinctly.  “Someone else used to create, someone else used to curate.”

As you'll note in the slides below, it took us thousands of years to get from smoke signals to the telegraph, but only about twenty to get from the rise of the consumer Internet in the mid 1990s to the social media juggernauts of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter -- and the device that changed everything, the iPhone.


Previously expensive, fairly specialized gear, all squeezed into one chocolate bar sized gadget.






The new norm is billions of pieces of content, made by us, made for us, recommended to us, targeted to us, or sought out by us, and across a panoply of screens that many own: phone, tablet, laptop, desktop computer, wearable device. There’s also the “Internet of things”, in which computing capabilities are embedded in objects ranging from appliances to clothing, furniture, and even pills. You probably don’t think about it, but today’s cars now have millions of lines of code in them.

A miniature Times Square at Toronto's Yonge Dundas Square
The takeaway: Get used to more connections, across more screens. And these screens include not just the ones in your pocket or your home, but also ones in public places. To this end, here’s a new acronym for you: DOOH. Which is not to be confused with Homer Simpson’s D’oh. DOOH stands for digital out of home, a type of digital signage found in outdoor, retail, and special event environments, that has the ability to communicate directly to us, and vice-versa. There already is, and will continue to be, an increasing seamlessness between our own screens and these screens. The digital signage at McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s or downtown plazas is just the beginning.


“The future is smart”, said Wilkinson. “And scary”, said an audience member.

Whether or not it’s as scary as some would lead us to believe is another one for the  “remains to be seen” file. There has always been techno-fear mongering and while some of it certainly has a basis, I’ll take the net benefits of technology over a world without it any day. It’s obviously a much larger debate, and one that I’m not going to get into here, but to grossly oversimplify things, it’s the price we pay for 'always on' media and on-demand information and entertainment...and the fact that we directly  ‘pay’ for very little of it. So payment takes other forms. Deal with it? Yes, we're all trying.


In Part 2 of this post, a look at the realities, and advantages, of working in a content niche. Coming Soon.

Related Posts: 

Podcasting: Art, Craft, or Reaching the Niches?
Podcasts outnumber Broadcasts 2-to-1 on iTunes charts

Friday, February 6, 2015

YouTubers in 2015 Part 2: A king of trivia and a girl-next-door beauty blogger

The celebration of the 10th anniversary of YouTube continues here on the blog, with Part 2 of a look at the state of YouTube creators aka 'YouTubers' in 2015. (Click here for Part 1, featuring one of the people behind the Annoying Orange, aka the unofficial cartoon of YouTube).

By now you may know about some of the biggest YouTube stars out there, such as PewDiePieSmosh, Jenna Marbles, and The Fine Brothers. These are people with millions of subscribers and billions of views, and while the names may not be familiar to you, the videos may well be. And if you have kids under 15 or so, that is almost definitely the case.


But these billionaires of YouTube views like The Fine Bros., producers of the "People React To..." videos, are the exception. More interesting -- to me at least -- is that there are about 6000 YouTubers each pulling in over a million views per month. At a recent digital content conference held in Toronto I had the opportunity to attend panels featuring assorted 'Tubers telling their tales and today, some nuggets from two more: Rachel Cooper of the RachhLoves channel and Matt Santoro, the guy on YouTube who does those 'amazing lists' videos that attract tens of millions of views per month.

First, let's hear from Rachel, one of about 50,000 beauty bloggers on YouTube.


For some it's a hobby, for some it's a part time job that supplements their income, and for some, such as Michelle Phan, it's been the path to getting their own makeup line with L'Oreal. For Rachel, recently married and with a baby daughter, it's a full time job, and one that now also employs her husband. She posts two videos per week, on a consistent schedule, and each video runs around 5 to 6 minutes. When she started posting videos a few years ago it wasn't about money, because nobody was making any. "It was about community and making friends online and just having fun" she told the crowd at the conference.

Rachel is part of the Style Haul network on YouTube, which is home to about 5000 YouTubers creating content related to beauty and fashion. While not everyone's YouTube MCN, or third party multi-channel network experience has been great, most notably the Annoying Orange's as explained in Part 1 post, Rachel says she's happy with hers. Among the things it brought her that she says she probably wouldn't have achieved on her own are increased visibility, opportunities for collaboration, a web series, and a deal with Unilever.

To me, personally, beauty bloggers' videos aren't interesting  (I still have no idea how to do a 'smoky eye'...maybe I should watch the channels once in a while?) but what is interesting is how many of them there are, and most come from the humblest of beginnings...literally shooting videos in their bathrooms with a headband on and a makeup palette and flat iron just a few inches away. And yet, they're able to pull in hundreds of thousands of subscribers and millions to billions of views. Whereas a previous generation of girls and young women flocked to magazines like Seventeen and Elle for beauty and fashion tips, today it's a much more fragmented landscape, spread across the 50,000+ beauty bloggers and their often niche areas of expertise. What is too various to be covered by mass market magazines and broadcast networks works perfectly for an army of YouTubing young women and their video selfies.

And if there's one thing the Internet has taught us it's that people love lists. So when it comes to lists of particularly mind-blowing facts, it shouldn't surprise us that one man can generate tens of millions of views per month doing videos that regale us with this trivia. Meet former accountant and now full time YouTube video maker Matt Santoro.


Matt told the audience that he didn't want to perpetuate the stereotype of one guy in his apartment making videos and throwing them up on YouTube, when in fact that's exactly what he does.  "If I had more funds I'd have more people...writers, social media person, editors...but I'm everything. If I had just a writer I could triple my production but I'm still just a 1-man show."

When he was posting one video a week Matt's monthly view count was around 23 million, he told the crowd at the conference. One he added a second video per week his monthly views jumped to 35 million and he says it's now closer to 40 million views per month.

The many obsessions of Matt Santoro, in easy to digest list form

"I get a lot of brand deal offers through my YouTube network The Collective (incidentally, the same network with which the Annoying Orange production team is embroiled in a lawsuit). They get me deals to do things like fly to L.A. to do the YouTube Super Bowl half-time show and I also do integrated brand stuff when it feels right, which means I tweet about things and post on social networks, but the number one thing for me is that it has to feel right. I value the trust I've built with my audience. That's the most important thing."

When asked how he keeps up with all the research, writing, production, marketing, and personal appearances that are part  being a 1-man show such as he is Matt ascribes it to two things: "empty bottles of vodka and a lot of crying."

"For the first four years I really didn't make any money. It really just blew up last year. What other job would you do for four years, make almost nothing, and still do it?  You do it because you love it. When I started  making the same I did as an accountant, by uploading 1 video per week, that's when I decided to take the plunge and do it full time. And people know it's not teams of people, yet if I don't post on the day of the week I usually do people are hitting refresh every minute and sending me tweets and emails saying "Matt, where's the video?"

Talking to and/or back to YouTubers? All part of the job in this world of direct-to-fan media and 2-way communication. Which is another way of saying this ain't your mama's TV show.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

YouTubers in 2015 Part 1: The appeal of the Annoying Orange

One of the aims of this blog, now 2 years into its existence, has been examining and then breaking down the economics of the creative industries in the digital era. Why? Because in a little over a decade we’ve gone from industries worth double and sometimes triple digits billions to revenues that are now valued at a fraction of that as people move from purchasing CDs, DVDs, movie tickets, books, newspapers, games, etc to streaming music, playing freemium gamesgetting news on the web and on apps, getting getting what used to be called radio through podcasts, and getting what used to be called TV shows and movies via Netflix, YouTube, or torrent sites.

Today’s post will be a kind of turbo history of YouTube, from its earliest days as a repository of nothing in particular — people’s home movies, random clips of trips, pets, and kids, illegal uploads of old commercials and TV shows and music videos — to today, where it accounts for more 18-34 year old viewers than any television network. 

The first video was posted to YouTube on April 23, 2005. In those days randomness ruled, as nobody knew what the platform was best suited for, and the wild west mentality of uploading things for which didn't hold licenses or copyright was on its way to becoming a new norm. Within a year and half of the chaos of the early days Google acquired the startup for $1.65 billion and today, just short of ten years since its inception, YouTube is a primary platform for a new generation.
This journey from digital dumping ground to entertainment industry power broker was very much on my mind recently when I attended a digital media conference in Toronto. And one thing that’s becoming increasingly clear is that we’re moving toward a world of (at least) two YouTubes. One is the world of the weird and quirky ‘Internet famous’and the other is the world of YouTubers of more mainstream and even corporate appeal. 

Yes, the eccentrics and anomalies are still there, and always will be, but as YouTube evolves and matures, we have the co-existence of the weirdo world of YouTube with the one that favours those with millions of views per videoas well as agents, managers, and video network affiliations Pioneering philosopher of the digital age David Weinberger has come up with a characterization for today’s interesting underbelly of YouTube. He calls it “mass net fame”, and explains here how the Internet in general and YouTube in particular “… enables mass marketing of culture, resulting in old style fame being foisted on us, as well as the Bieberization of talent that first emerges bottom-up and then gets absorbed and re-emitted by the mass media. The Net allows for both of these modalities simultaneously.”

With this cultural tug of war in mind I bring you highlights, in two parts, from the recent Digital Dialogue 2015 conference held in Toronto. Today, it’s the pulpy story of the Annoying Orange (at least I didn’t say juicy) and in the days to come I’ll follow up with a post on the day’s other panelists, amazing lists guy Matt Santoro and beauty blogger Rachel Cooper of the RachhLoves channel.




So, you may ask, who is this Annoying Orange? Well, as the name suggests, he is an orange, but not just any piece of citrus fruit. This one has 2.5 billion YouTube views and over 4 million subscribers and a kind of media empire comprised of sub-channels on YouTube devoted to characters from the series.

From the Annoying Orange camp we heard from Bob Jennings, producer, and voice actor for the series, most notably as Grapefruit.

On the origins of the Orange

Jennings, who got his degree in film from Boston’s Emerson College and had a day job at the American Film Institute, told the crowd it all goes back to January 2006 and the Wicked Awesome Films YouTube Channel. He and his friend Dane Boedigheimer uploaded a video. Jennings remembers: “Within two minutes we had a comment…from Australia…so I said I’m in!”

It was so early in YouTube’s history that there were no thoughts about money. People just made videos and uploaded them because they loved doing it. 





The Orange expands

When asked by the panel's moderator YouTube’s David Brown on the moment when he got hooked on YouTubing Jennings said: “On YouTube you don’t need permission. It’s a two-way stream with the audience. But things really started to pop in 2009. There was nothing like Annoying Orange online. Even our thumbnails didn’t look like anyone else’s. We got a huge young audience and it really became the unofficial cartoon of YouTube. Then other YouTubers like Shay Carl got in touch with us wanting to be involved and then James Caan called and wanted to a Sonny Corleone character talking to a grapefruit." 


                              James Caan takes on a new thespian challenge as Jalapeno

The Orange and its Audience

Jennings tells the crowd that the primary metric was number of views up until recently. Now it’s ‘watch time’, or how long viewers stick with your video, also where your videos get placed outside of YouTube (e.g. posted on Facebook, a primary driver of traffic to YouTube . "And actually gamers taught me a lot about making content that makes people keep coming back."

The Orange Moves to TV

In 2011 in one of the first deals to see a YouTuber move to television it was announced that Annoying Orange would be seen on cable television channel The Cartoon Network. But Jennings admits: “The show is way bigger online than on TV. The problem is we have the brand and advertising dollars backwards…with more of them going to TV when they really should be showing up online.”

The Orange joins a YouTube network, or MCN (multi-channel network)

For a lot of YouTubers the path to optimizing revenues is by way of an MCN, or network that aggregates thousands, if not tens of thousands, of YouTube channels, and strikes deals with brands and advertising agencies that are more favourable than deals available to an individual YouTuber. That’s the theory at least, and for some it pans out. Not so for the Orange, however. “The Collective (Annoying Orange’s network) hasn’t paid us for 5 months. The story is in the Hollywood Reporter if you want to know more. Now we’re in a legal battle.” Jennings continues: “So we just started our own company, New Media Trader, to connect brands with creators."

Click here for Part 2 of this YouTubers in 2015 post.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Jesse Brown, the 1-man thorn in the side of Canadian media

A fairly quick post tonight, just to bring you some notes and photos from tonight's event at the School of Journalism at Toronto's Ryerson University, where controversial blogger and podcaster Jesse Brown, the man responsible for breaking some of Canada's biggest media scandals in recent memory, did a talk entitled "The news, Jian, and me". Turns out the evening wasn't so much about the Jian Ghomeshi scandal as it was about Jesse's damn the torpedoes style of journalism and his views on the state of Canadian media, but that was fine by me. I've had more than enough Gho-media coverage and was happy to instead hear about how Jesse went from struggling freelancer to man of the moment in the Great White North.

L to R: April Lindgren, Jesse Brown, Greg Elmer

Brown was interviewed by Ryerson faculty members April Lindgren and Greg Elmer and also took questions from the audience. Heck, I even managed to grab the mike long enough to lob my softball question at the man of the evening. More on that in a bit. Ed. Note: As I was scribbling notes on my lap some of the following are not verbatim quotes, but I stand by them capturing the spirit of what was said tonight. (Don't sue me, ok?)


A few of Jesse Brown's hand gestures, Ryerson University, Toronto, January 20, 2015

Jesse Brown on his business model:

I have an aversion to doing things for free. This is not a vanity project about tossing grenades, so I sought a corporate sponsor, and the first guy I approached, from Freshbooks, said sure. He funded me for 6 months. And then when that ran out I went to companies like audible.com who sponsor podcasts, but they only throw a bit of money your way when somebody actually clicks through and signs up for their service so it wasn't enough to cover expenses.

The best sponsor would be a whiskey company because people now know when they come on the show that it's going to be a bit of a confessional. I really should have a two drink minimum.

As for the business model, I had to look at other ways to make this thing sustainable. I didn't want to do a Kickstarter, because that's a one-off lump sum of money. So I decided to use Patreon, where people pledge as little as $1 per month and as much as they want to, and they can quit any time. Within 24 hours I hit a funding level of $1000/month. Within a few week I was up to $4000/month, at which point I pledged to do (the blog and podcast) Canadaland full time. Now (as of late January 2015) I'm almost at $10,000/month and then I'll hire freelancers and will start another podcast, devoted exclusively to politics.

On the popularity of the Canadaland podcast & the Ghomeshi effect:

Pre-Ghomeshi I was getting about 17,000 downloads per week. That then spiked to about 250,000 downloads during the height of the scandal because it was something everybody wanted to know about. Now things have settled down to about 60,000 downloads for the two shows I do per week.

On his beef with media organizations in general, and CBC in particular

There's a sickness in media organizations...a set of rules for the 'stars' and another one for the rank and file. This has been festering for a long time and people want this stuff out. I'm a big supporter of public broadcasting but they (the CBC) have strayed wildly from their mandate. Why are they doing things like streaming music services, trying to compete with Pandora and Songza? And why are they trying to make stars? Strombo is a celebrity we never watched. Ghomeshi was on billboards with shows that weren't successful. It was only later, when they finally found the right platform for him (with "Q") that reality caught up with the manufactured celebrity.

Screen of my Apple TV and what I see
when I click on 'Podcasts' on the menu.
Note Jesse's show Canadaland
is in the 2nd row, 2nd from left
Then it was open mike time, and I managed to get in there with my question, which had to do with how I came to know of his podcast. I mentioned that I had been out of Canada for close to 6 years, having returned in the past year, and that this summer I started exploring the podcast menu on my Apple TV and noticed that there was a show, in there with all the CBC and NPR shows, that was new to me so I clicked on it. I listened and it turned out it was a Marc Maron-like one-man show, and I always wondered how somebody without the profile or budgetary resources of the shows from big broadcasters/networks gets 'front paged'.

We tend to think that these things happen via algorithms or something equally cryptic, but in this case, apparently not. Jesse said he just made a point of finding out who was in charge of curating the podcasts for Apple/iTunes and that person was always on the lookout for new and interesting material and agreed to feature Canadaland on the front page of the podcasts menu. "Apple has been very supportive", said Jesse, before pointing out that an exchange student later contacted him after seeking out information about Canada on iTunes and thinking Canadaland was a show with information for newcomers to the country. "The two of us then worked on a story together about how exchange students get screwed when they come to Canada."

Still want to know more? 

For a live blog of the event courtesy of www.jsource.ca, click here.

For a feature length interview with Jesse Brown there's this new podcast, devoted to an examination of public broadcasting.


Related Post: When media scandals meet social media 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Podcasts vs. Broadcasts: Who's on top on the charts?

One of the things I love about life in these Internet times is that if I can imagine it, it probably exists. This has been the case on YouTube for several years and more recently in the world of podcasting. As a former radio person myself I was hoping this cornucopia of content would come to be with the advent of satellite radio in the early 2000s, but alas no. That, sadly, largely turned out to be a variation on the same old morning zoo formula, or, arguably worse yet, castaways from commercial radio. OK, yes, the odd interesting thing made it to satellite, but overall a hugely lost opportunity to do truly interesting things with at home and in-car audio that for the first time could break out of geographical boundaries, formats, and finite time slots. Oh well.


In between now and then I have done probably 99% of my listening online, whether it’s to music streaming services, radio stations that use the Internet for live broadcasting and archiving their shows, or to podcasts that live exclusively online. And why not. The world is now our audio oyster. Furthermore, I have no trouble confessing to being a binge listener. 

I love that so many podcasts defy categorization. They aren't exactly journalism or even entertainment in the way broadcasting has long defined entertainment…with genres and formats, timed and packaged and built around segments that move briskly from one shiny object (or audio equivalent) to the next. And what's more, the people tend to talk like, well, real people, and what would have once been considered bungles or outtakes are just left in..the coughs, the mistakes, the mispronunciations. It's about the content, not the slickness of the production, or the dulcet tones or ego of the announcer, and in this way it has opened up an entirely new universe of possibilities.


So along I went, listening to hours and hours of podcast accompaniments as I rode transit or pounded the pavement to and from meetings and events. Then, a few months ago, this happened: The mainstream media proclaimed that 2014 was the year podcasting officially broke through. After ten years of being around, and ironically, the same year the iPod classic was discontinued. There were now more than 1 billion podcast subscriptions and a monthly listenership of 75 million, a 300% increase from 2009.

But...why now? The easy answer is that all the pieces have come together, which is actually a complex network of people, technologies, and behaviours that generally require years to take root. As the world seems to love a listicle, let's go a bit deeper on this topic, but in an easy to digest, bullet pointed way.

5 reasons why podcasting broke in 2014
  • Internet access or sound file playability in cars
  • Distribution through personal recommendations on Facebook, Twitter, etc
  • Emergence of podcasting networks as filtering and discovery mechanisms
  • Smartphones and apps have turned our favourite small screen into portable personalized media machines, usable while we’re pedestrians, transit passengers, at work, and while driving, using the odd aux cable or technologies such as Bluetooth. 
  • Podcasts are multi-purpose media, encompassing everything from hobby to art form to educational outreach to product marketing and perhaps, most annoyingly, self-marketing, but what can you do. (Wait, I know. Not listen?)

Also, unlike satellite radio, they're mostly free and don't require additional subscriptions or equipment. But there’s podcasting and there’s podcasting, and until quite recently the podcast charts were dominated by shows that were radio shows that just happened to be made available as podcasts. Not the same thing. And not because I’m a pod purist, but because I’m interested in the what, why, and how of things outside the infrastructure of mainstream media finding their audiences in ways other than legacy systems and mass marketing. 

Now, yes, there were a handful of what I will call ‘podcast native’ shows that were always high in the iTunes charts, most notably Marc Maron’s provocative, one guy in his garage interview show WTF, and already established media personalities such as Adam Carolla who also rated highly. But for the most part the podcast charts were made up of public radio programs, with organizations such as NPR, CBC, and BBC  making up the bulk of entries.

So, in the context of the breakthrough of podcasting so widely reported over the past few months I decided to run an quick analysis of the top podcasts to see if and how the ratio of broadcast to podcast native has changed over the years. As I am back living in Canada I used the iTunes chart as my data source, but the ratios for the US charts are almost identical. I broke down the top podcasts into categories of podcast native, shows that originated as broadcasts, shows that are hybrids, and added a few notes here and there. Oh, and these jpg's can be clicked on to be enlarged because I completely get that spreadsheet legibility is challenging in this format.


And if you don't have the time or inclination to do the math yourself, here's the quick tally: Podcasts, once the gangly, misfit younger sibling of professionally produced radio shows, now outnumber broadcasts 2 to 1 on the charts. We have 7 shows from NPR, 2 from CBC, and 1from Global News. Everything else on the chart is podcast native, or born on the Internet.  I should also mention that iTunes statistics are but a single measure of podcast consumption, as not everyone listens through iTunes, and the algorithm is a mix of downloads, subscribers, and possibly reviews...Apple doesn't say. Nonetheless they're standard, and as such are a reasonable indicator of the landscape.

But more importantly, what conclusions can we draw from this admittedly quick and dirty analysis? It seems pretty safe to say that the major media brands will likely continue to be well represented on these charts. They are home to high quality productions, skilled hosts and reporters, and excellent distribution networks. More interesting is that as time goes we're seeing the polished productions of the legacy institutions taking a backseat to things that start as hobbies, obsessions, or what the heck projects, and end up proving that there are gaps in the marketplace that the pros could not or would not see. And that there is, in fact, entertainment without an entertainment industry.


This post also appeared on Medium.

Related Posts: 
Notes from Podcamp 2015: Fragmentation Nation
Podcasting: Art, craft, or reaching the niches?

Erratum: Thanks to broadcaster & podcaster Dan Misener for pointing out the following regarding his show: He writes: "A quick correction re: #28 in your list. Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids began as an indie podcast, then aired for a summer on CBC Radio, and is now once again an indie affair."

Monday, December 29, 2014

The top posts of 2014: Pebble, Pornography & Piracy, Vice Media...and a few more

In a year of disappearing aircraft, hoax viral videos, and celebrity body parts allegedly ‘breaking the Internet’, it’s good to have a few things we can believe in. Like this blog. And in the absence of one of those auto-generated year in review things that Facebook has, I decided to handcraft one of my own. So here's to this blog's year that was, as reflected in click count. (Yes, some things are popularity contests.)

When I write a post I honestly have no idea which ones will get piles of clicks, which will get lightly retweeted or shared, and which will take on a life of their own and circulate well beyond my immediate group of friends, colleagues, and contacts. Case in point: the most popular post on the blog, still, every damn day, is almost two years old. It's the one in which I break down how much money Macklemore made. Yes, Macklemore the white rapper guy who went all the way to #1 in 2013 with his catchy jam Thrift Shop — now at more than 628 million views on YouTube, I might add —and showed the world that you could get to #1 without a label, buying in promotional and distribution services on a la carte basis. The Macklemore machine began its roll into the mainstream in late 2012 and if you asked me if I thought people would still be interested in the story in late 2014 I would have said not many. Yet, every day, people are googling his name and ending up on my blog. (btw Macklemore’s real name is Ben Haggerty, which explains that showing up as one of the search terms that brought people to this blog).




I mention this because, as I break out the most popular posts of the year I would be remiss not to include the oldie but goodie that is the Macklemore steamroller. The rest of the posts listed here were written in 2014, and here they are in reverse order of popularity.

Let's get started with this post from November 2014, on the challenges the pornography industry has had to deal with it in the digital environment. Like all other content industries it's rife with piracy but has the added feature of the ability of people to just set up a webcam at home and entirely bypass the industry. Remember when porn was the only thing people would pay for on the Internet? 

The 'good old days' of monetized online pornography

Well those days are over, and have been for some time now. If you missed this post, here it is again for your enjoyment. It’s a feature interview with intellectual property scholar Kate Darling, and I must say that one of the most interesting things I learned doing this interview is that a good number of the people in the industry got into it after their jewelry store at the mall failed.

The next most popular post was this one, inspired by the dispute between Amazon and the publisher Hachette, without just being more of the same about it...i.e. Amazon is the big bad guy, Hachette is the good guy, and therefore Goliath is bullying David. If only it were that easy.


The initial post turned into a series that used the dispute as a jumping off point for a look at the book publishing industry in a time of online book selling, eBooks, and self-publishing.

Coming in just above the Amazon vs Hachette post was this one, about how traditional news
Graphic courtesy @terraloire
organizations do their job in the environment of the social media circus. In this case around a scandal involving a prominent Canadian broadcaster...but you don’t have to be Canadian to care (though it helps). For this post I called on Andrew Lundy, Vice President, Digital, at The Canadian Press and he helped dissect the role of legacy media organizations at a time when the throngs are tweeting up a storm and no green lighting by editors or producers is necessary.

The next most popular post of the year was about, as one reader put it: “horseshit as the new journalism”. This was the year that sites like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Gawker, and similar 'gotcha news' sites went full tilt with the clickbait. It didn’t matter if it was true or not, it only mattered that you clicked. And, wouldn’t you know it, people clicked quite vigorously on the blog post about this phenomenon, so it was quite a satisfying meta moment.

Not actually Egypt in the snow. But on the Internet, it was.


Okay, it’s getting exciting now, as we move on to the second most popular post of the year, and for this one we examined the triumph of the bro media empire Vice, now valued at several billion dollars. This post goes all the way back to Vice’s earliest days as a free, across-the-board offensive, alt-culture paper, and traces their journey to deals with Rupert Murdoch, HBO, and other powerful players in the media pantheon.

                                 


     And now… it’s time for this blog's most popular post of 2014...

   
                                    

....And it is this one, about the evolution of the Pebble smart watch. Not only was it the most popular post here, it also went all the way to #1 on Reddit in the discussion group about Pebble. (And yes, the two are related.)

What a tale the Pebble is. It went from a student project to the most successful Kickstarter campaign to date. And they beat the Apple iWatch to market too. It all started because the company founder wanted to be able to get email notifications on his watch when he was riding his bike.

The Pebble Smart Watch,
now with tens of thousands of apps
that make it go where no watch has gone before

And there you have it, the most popular posts from 2014 on the Demassed blog. In the new year you can look forward to posts about changes that are afoot in the worlds of podcasting and YouTube, and in March I’m scheduled to participate in a panel at SXSW Interactive  and hope to hit as many panels and keynotes as I can and report back here.

In the meantime, happy new year, and please accept this lovely calendar as my way of saying thanks for your clicks, comments, retweets, and shares. (You've been doing that, right?)


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Moving targets in the marketplace: learning lessons from Pong

“It’s easy to look back on Atari as a huge success, but we had no money. Ever. Investors looked at the video game business as being really specious.” These are the words of Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari, and regarded by many as one of the fathers of the video game industry. Bushnell spoke in Toronto recently, sharing with the audience his life of serial entrepreneurship, from some of the earliest video games like Pong, to the themed restaurant chain Chuck E. Cheese's, to more recent ventures such as anti-aging games and educational software. Oh, and he gave a college dropout named Steve Jobs his first job after ditching higher education, but more on that in a bit.

Though this blog has aimed to keep its focus on the effects of digital technologies and networks on the creative industries, today we’re going to stray from this theme, ever so slightly, and look at the earliest days of an industry that has become embedded in the devices on our desks, in our living rooms, and in our pockets. An industry that started out as a side interest of ham radio operators and electronics tinkerers and eventually became a global market worth over $100 billion.

From Pong to Breakout and meeting a young Steve Jobs along the way

According to Bushnell, his original plan upon founding Atari in 1972 was to be a research facility that then licensed games to manufacturers. “We had no money”, he reminded the crowd, so that was the option he saw that was open. Atari’s first game was based on a two dimensional tennis bat and ball (albeit square ball, which apparently was cheaper to render) and was called Pong. It became the first commercially successful video game.

But — there’s a but. Of the 150,000 Pong games released to the market, Atari did only 35,000 of them, as the patents weren't yet completed and knock-offs and copies started popping up in arcades, bars, and bowling alleys across America. 

Bushnell’s response: “We decided we were going to bankrupt the people who copied us.” And so they did. Nobody loves a good prank as much as a bunch of engineers. Bear in mind that the early video games, until about 1975 or so, had no program running in them. They were circuit boards that could play a game. From Atari’s HQ in Sunnyvale, California Bushnell was in the thick of that sector, with all the microprocessor plants just down the block. And so, Bushnell was able to have his competitors supplied with circuit boards which he stuffed with the wrong microprocessors. “And then we threw a champagne party to celebrate their demise.”

Steve Jobs, relegated to the night shift
A few years prior a recent dropout from Oregon’s Reed College decided that Atari was the coolest place to work. So he showed up at the office in the then nascent Silicon Valley and informed Bushnell that he wasn’t leaving until he was hired. Remembers Bushnell: “He didn’t shower, he smelled bad, and if he thought you were dumb he would tell you.” Not exactly a team player, so Jobs was put on the engineering night shift...which didn’t actually exist. “But I knew that his friend, Steve Wozniak aka Woz, who worked at HP, would start hanging around, which is exactly what happened.” 


Wozniak and Jobs worked on a 1-player game called Breakout, one of the three dozen or so arcade games that followed in the wake of Pong. Ultimately the duo saw bigger things on the horizon and decided to strike out on their own and start a hardware company. Nolan Bushnell was one of the people they approached to invest in their new venture. Woz and Jobs offered Bushnell one third of their company for $50,000. “I said no”, remembers Bushnell. He takes a breath, then shrugs. “I regret that.”

Jobs and Woz went on their way, and we all know what happened there. So now, back we go to the story of Pong. Bushnell recalls: “We realized we were selling coin-operated games, that would earn about 15 to 20 thousand in coin drops. It was a good business but it didn’t take a genius to figure out we were at the wrong end of the equation.” And that epiphany is what led Bushnell to two ideas: a play-at-home version of Pong, which he would release in 1975, and a foray into the restaurant business, which took place in 1977.
Play-at-home version of Pong,
retailed through Sears'
Sporting Goods department 

So Bushnell and his team created a play-at-home console version of the crazily popular arcade game Pong, and hit the road with it. First stop: the annual toy show in NYC. “We sold zero”, remembers Bushnell. Next he tried Radio Shack. Not interested. Then he approached department stores. Also not interested. Finally, he got a meeting with Sears’ sporting goods department. At the time home ping pong tables were a hot item and the buyer saw an opportunity with an electronic home version of Pong. “He asked me how many we could build. I said 25,000 — not having a clue if we could. He then came in with an order for 150,000, and we found out that we sucked down the complete world supply of knobs — so we used aluminum, wood, bakelite, plastic, whatever we could get our hands on. And that year we sold 240,000 Pong games.”


On the inspiration for Chuck E. Cheese's, where pizza collided with the fun palace

Hot on the heels of the success of the play-at-home version of Pong, Bushnell followed up on part two of his epiphany, the one about holding the wrong end of the stick by putting games into other people’s arcades. He would build his own venue. But this wasn’t just an arcade. This was a new category of eatery meets entertainment meets a warehouse-sized space filled with kids. And it would be called Chuck E. Cheese’s, where a combination of people inside mouse mascot costumes high-fived the miniature customers and giant animatronic animals performed the hits of the day. Where thousands of square feet of arcade games, rides, and jungle gyms were there for the playing, climbing, and jumping pleasure of groups of kids with dribs and drabs of tomato sauce and ice cream still fresh on their hands and shirts. It also seems to have become a popular place for adults to get into knock down, drag out fist fights.

But back to our story. So, was Chuck E. Cheese's a slam dunk for Bushnell? Again, the answer would be no.“We got the size totally wrong”, he admits. “We started with 5,000 square feet. Too small. We then went to 25,000 square feet. Too big. And it turned out 12,000 square feet was the right size. Another thing we got wrong was temperature control. We didn’t realize that with the heat load of games, people, and pizza ovens it was often 110F in there (40C). The problem of the hellfire level of temperature was eventually solved, but other problems weren’t as easy to address. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s the video game industry was growing rapidly, and people didn’t need to go to arcades or themed restaurants to play them. By 1984 Bushnell had no choice but to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sell off the assets. Chuck E. Cheese's managed to survive under different management and ownership, but for Bushnell it ended up being a giant money pit.

                               

But fret not. Bushnell is a serial enterpreneur, so the story didn’t end there. In fact it not only went on, it continues today, despite rollercoaster highs and lows, getting banned from companies he started, and making and losing several fortunes.

For the purposes of this blog, let's think about Pong in the context of changing economics and power structures and the evaporation of many of the traditional revenue streams for software-based products. In this way the story of Pong can be looked at as one in which the company stayed alert to not just new contexts for its products but also occupying new spaces in the value chain. Is it in licensing? Is it in software? Is it in hardware? Is it in the consumer/home market? Is it in the restaurant business? Of course the tricky part here is that a video game company knows a lot about electronics and software, and less about, say, operating a chain of 12,000 square foot themed restaurants. But, as it turned out, these were all necessary steps in getting us to today's gazillion dollar a year game industry...and in the entrepreneurial journey of Nolan Bushnell, who thought about the process as much as he did the product, and as a result remains in the game today.

And now I’ll leave you with this, the advice for today's youth Bushnell shared with the audience at the recent talk in Toronto. I don’t think any of these things are part of any curriculum (is typing still taught at high school?), but probably should be.



With thanks to Martin Goldberg for additional information & clarifications about the history of Atari.