Saturday, October 18, 2014

Lessons learned at Buffer Festival 2014: People will pay

I have a number of things I want to share with you coming out of my attendance at this weekend’s Buffer Festival aka the gathering of the stars of YouTube and their fans. But I’m about to head out to observe the red carpet portion of the event; yes there’s a gala, where formal wear is expected of both fans and celebs (as per this special offer received via email) but I'm going in civilian garb as I'll merely be a spectator and will then likely come back home and blog some more. And in keeping with the egalitarian spirit of the festival, the red carpet is open to anyone. If you want to go to the Gala, it's a $50 ticket, plus however much that tux or gown rental runs you.

In the meantime I’d just like to say that one of the bigger surprises of this weekend has been seeing that in a time when people have either become accustomed to, or expect to, pay zip for their entertainment, the people of Buffer Festival are showing me that there are things for which they are happy to open their wallets.

In yesterday’s post I included this picture, taken yesterday around 5:30 pm at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (that’s the Canadian spelling, btw, for any non-Canadians reading who think I may have gone all French on them.)

You can’t see the beginning or the end of the queue, which gives you an idea of how long the line was. It was for what’s termed a “meetup”, and was one of three or four held each day of Buffer Festival. At the meetup people wait in line first to get into the theatre (again, Canadian spelling) and then a second time so they can form into a line to get their picture taken with the YouTube celebrity who’s there in the person. These pics are from the meetup for Rhett & Link, who I first discovered a couple of years ago for their low budget commercials made for local businesses.

“Our degrees our 2 years and our haircuts are 2 dollars"

YouTubers Rhett & Link, as the loving onslaught of
picture-seeking fans arrives
To get into the meetup you needed to have a ticket for the screening, which are the backbone of the Buffer Festival. And, even more ironically, the screenings were held at mega-cineplexes, those six level apocalypse-feeling places in the middle of downtown that one really has to wonder about the future of. 

Yes, people paid $15 to go to a cinema to watch YouTube videos they could watch for free at home or on their phone. The only difference was that the YouTubers on the screen were generally, but not always, present at the events.

So, naysayers, carp all you want, and say there’s no such thing as people willing to pay, that the Internet has ruined the entertainment industry, etc. Yes, the business models are still being worked out, but there are also tens of thousands of people making it work for themselves, and that’s on YouTube alone. What we can safely conclude is that there’s a new type of entertainment and a new type of performer resonating with people, and those are the ones that know how to be relatable and real more than professional and polished, the ones who understand the importance of cultivating relationships with their audience, and adding an actually sincere personal touch.

The walls of the Cineplex during Buffer Festival
adorned with posters promoting not movie stars, but YouTubers

One more data point from this weekend: In the world of YouTube, the superstars of the medium like Shay Carl, with over a billion views on his YouTube channel, take the time to meet individual fans and in these interactions compress the distance between performer and viewer.

And this is hardly an isolated incident. If you search on the hashtag #BufferFestival on Twitter you’ll see hundreds of tweets from people talking not just about the official meetups, but also about recognizing YouTubers on the streets of downtown Toronto this weekend. About being able to just go up and say hello to them, and being warmly greeted in return. You don’t get the Internet version of Tom Cruise’s bodyguards giving you double outstretched palms to keep you away. This, after all, is media made of the people and by the people and the etiquette and culture reflect it.

For more glimpses into the world of YouTubers and their fans at this weekend's Buffer Festival, here are two fan-created video diaries recently posted. Kind of a YouTube Parking Lot. Check them out here and here. Or for a view of the proceedings from the camera of a YouTuber, there's this little romp through a day at the fest.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The stars of YouTube: Buffer Festival 2014

I’ve been blogging so much lately I feel like I may need a full on A&E Intervention soon, but dammit, there’s lots going on, so blog I do. Today I am here to tell you that the “everybody’s famous” future has arrived. And not only that, it has a burgeoning industry to go along with it. I know this because I’m currently attending a festival of the stars, or more accurately ‘microstars’, of YouTube. It’s called Buffer Festival, and from this vantage point it has been most interesting to observe the trajectory of YouTube celebrities from the earliest days, when it was the domain of the weird, to the midpoint a few years ago when it was everyday people and their largely accidental viral videos, to today, the age of the intentional YouTube star who knows how to navigate through the new ecosystem of fan communities, brands, and multiple revenue streams.

Intentional celebrity: YouTuber's booth
 at Buffer Festival's Industry Day

YouTube in the director's chair
 at Buffer Festival 2014
YouTube turns 10 this year and the little site that at first seemed like a repository for all that was ridiculous and/or a waste of time online will bring in about $5 billion in revenue this year. This means that for the first time it may actually be a profitable endeavor for parent company Google.

And along with this established path to profitability has come a brigade of young YouTubers, eager to make their mark in this new industry-outside-an-industry. They are essentially independent creators, some associated with MCNs (multi-channel networks), some not, and in both cases monetizing, aka getting paid, via advertising that runs before their videos, as well as by business opportunities they build on the foundation of their Internet famous-ness.

Yesterday was “industry day", the day before the full festival of screenings, meetups, and galas began, and I managed to stick my head into a few panels to glean some insights into this new face of YouTube.

Like the banner says, it’s now the business of YouTube, and to that end the conference rooms were filled with representatives from advertising agencies and talent agencies, from brands and broadcasters looking for the next big thing, and with tech companies and marketing consultants looking to mediate between them all.

Before I head to next panel I thought I would share a few pictures with you, along with a few nuggets from industry day, and then I’ll jump back onto the blog tomorrow with an update from today’s screenings and sessions. Yes, I've been watching YouTube videos in cinemas, actual movie theaters, which means a lot of giant talking heads videotaped in their bedrooms.

From the “Why is Hollywood Getting Involved” Panel:

 “We need to realize that the days of forcing people to go places and do things are over. Because if you do your job and you build an audience, and relationships, your fans will ‘show up’ and the money will go to where the audiences are online.”

“I’m reading a book now about the early days of ESPN, and not only did everyone laugh at those guys when they started, they did not have a clue about what they were doing. Today they’re the single most valuable media property in the world, and I can imagine a world where the things people are doing online end up the same way.”

“Audiences are migrating online. They’re shifting away from TV, they’re shifting away from movies. This was one of the worst summers for blockbuster movies.  And media buyers are now counselling their clients to spend 25% of their budgets on digital. This is a huge shift.”

Click here for Part 2 and/or in the meantime enjoy these candid snaps.

The Tim Horton's down the block from the event
got into the festival spirit

YouTubers showing their wares on the big screen earlier today
YouTuber Matt G124 getting mic'd up
for an interview with the CBC crew at TIFF Bell Lightbox,
one of the Buffer Festival venues

Fans queuing for the 'meetup' where they can get their picture taken
with assorted YouTubers. No autographs allowed. (Too time consuming)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The trouble with social

Despite the global hubbub the other week about the new ad-free social network Ello, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here if I suggest that the trouble with social media is not the ads. It’s not even the non-stop data collection grinding away in the background. The problem is all the noise. And you’re not just imagining it. The average number of Facebook friends has almost tripled in the past five years, bringing us to 338 for 2014.

*Note that these numbers are estimates, as averages vary from one region to the next; e.g. averages in the U.S. are higher than worldwide averages. These figures are generally representative of overall averages.

A template for a website, or a delicious dinner?
During this same period web design has gone from the bento box style grid to templates that are based on scrolling newsfeeds, like Facebook, or the parallel vertical columns of dashboards, like Tweetdeck. In other words, a zillion things happening all at once.

Unless you have a lifestyle or job that allows you to spend hours every day scrolling through the ever-growing feed you’re just not going to see it all. The inherent quality of a newsfeed is that it is always moving, and is ephemeral. If you miss it, that’s generally it; though I realize that the Facebook feed re-inserts items when comments are added, which drives most people crazy. But still, the point remains: the feed is a taskmaster, and really, ain’t nobody got time for that.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting to the point of Facebook fatigue. So does this mean I'll quit? No, I won’t. But, it does mean I am actively looking elsewhere for ways to unearth the myriad things I’m interested in online. I know they’re there...somewhere, I just don't always find the best paths to them. Serendipity is great if you've got all the time in the world. But again, ain't nobody got time for that.

That’s why this quote from one of the founders of a new site called Milq jumped out at me:

The Internet should make it easier to find what you’re not looking for

- Milq co-founder Don MacKinnon

Yes, yes, and yes. So I started googling the company, and read the handful of articles I could find online. Then I played around  on the site itself. It's a place where playlists of ideas are collaboratively created. A place where you don’t have to know exactly what you’re looking for in order to find the embarrassment of riches the Internet has to offer in the way of arts, entertainment, and cultural content. That means everything from movies to design to comedy, fashion, books, music, even sports, organized thematically using something that Milq calls 'beads'. It‘s not a social network, but more of a 'taste network', to use the phrase of one of the company's founders.

For example, there’s a bead called ‘hitting the bottle', devoted to scenes of over-imbibing.

You go into the bead and there you’ll find a community-curated playlist of clips on this theme. We're talking Scotty in a drinking game on an episode of Star Trek, exchange student Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, scenes from Withnail and I, and the inevitable clips from the Thin Man series of movies.  

And if you want to move laterally to other collections of thematically related clips, a series of related beads is offered in the margin, that looks like this:

Okay, this is working for me, I thought to myself. This is what I wish YouTube did for me, but does not. So I did a bit more rooting around and I discovered that Milq has two offices: one in New York, and one in Toronto. Well then, let’s get down to business. And so I did. I got in touch with Milq’s co-CEO Jordan Jacobs and within 48 hours I was in his office, overlooking the sprawling U of T campus, smack in the middle of downtown Toronto. What follows are highlights from that conversation.

If I like something it’s not because of an algorithm, it’s because of a person

JJ: The mid 90s dream of the Internet was everything all the time. We didn’t quite know how we were going to get there, but just the idea that we could potentially access everything on our screens was mind blowing. But, twenty years later we can see how feed-based information and sharing via Twitter and Facebook is not the answer. They’re not designed for discovery, they’re designed for self-expression, and those are two very different things. 

What we’re doing is designing for things that people don’t yet know they’ll love. And we’re not doing it with algorithms that make recommendations. There’s a real human at the source of every bead, and a real human at each point along the way as the bead attracts comments and additional links.. We use something called Machine Learning, which is a way for the system to teach itself as it goes, and U of T (pointing out his window) has one of the best programs in the world for it. 

The structure of the Internet has killed browsing

JJ: With anything that’s subjective – like movies, music, books, art – it’s almost impossible to find what you’re looking for online.  At best you’ll find what you already know you like. Or you’ll get overwhelmed by things like Spotify. Or you’ll just go back to the same handful of things you’ve always liked. When we were just starting out we would spend hours and hours together on Google Hangouts every day, asking ourselves ‘how do you do a content-centered network’? If there’s, say, a hip hop expert in Mozambique who knows something that nobody else does how do you bring what he knows to the surface? How do you architect something like that? And we came to the conclusion that you do it with collaboratively created playlists. And you add tons of metadata and you create influence graphs for each person who posts, comments, or clicks. And then on top of it you add that layer of machine learning, where the system learns from itself as it goes.

Achieving high quality on a massive scale

JJ: I remember when (our CTO) Tomi, who was one of the creators of Yahoo Answers, told us about how Yahoo spent something like $10 million on an advertising campaign for Yahoo answers in Times Square, after the site had been up and running. They wanted to make it bigger and better and thought that a big ad campaign was the way to do that.  And what happened? The user base went up. Okay, good. But -- the quality of the content went down. Way down. 

For Milq we don’t need a huge user base in order for this to work. We can handle a huge user base, and I hope we get a huge user base, but it’s not the most important thing.

When we made the rounds and talked to the VCs in Silicon Valley and then to people at places like Facebook, Google, and YouTube they thought we were out of our minds. Because right now, whether it’s Google or the VCs, they’re thinking ‘how do I make money?’ But that’s okay, because we self-funded at first, then tried the VC circuit, and then we went around to individual investors, some of whom are actually at places like Google or YouTube, and that’s when it worked. People like Tom Freston, former CEO of Viacom and the guy who founded MTV and gave money to Vice, when nobody would give them the time of day, came on board.

And now we’ve got broadcasters coming to us, and people with these huge storehouses of content that they don’t know how to get out there. They’re saying to us: ‘we have a huge problem’.

What it looks like in action

Film Festivals

JJ: Every year film festivals are tasked with having to completely rebuild their websites, starting from scratch. What’s playing where, at what times, what are reviewers saying, which films are most popular, who’s getting interviewed, etc., for hundreds of films.  What we’re able to do is offer something that builds around themes, about the way people think and talk about movies…not according to names of directors or their countries of origin. Here’s an example of what we did with TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) and another example of what we did with the Tribeca Film Festival. 

Bands on Tour

JJ: Kings of Leon used the site for a “what song should we cover”, put out to fans on their last tour. Instead of a tweet or Facebook post they got a dynamic playlist, with links to Soundcloud, YouTube, Vimeo, etc. And anyone can jump in at any time.

Beads for Books

JJ: We just announced a partnership with Simon & Schuster, and a few authors have already started beads, like Walter Isaacson, the Steve Jobs biographer. He just started a Great Digital Innovations bead, and Anna Todd, who has over a billion reads of her fan fiction on the band One Direction on Wattpad, has started a bead too. And, of course, anyone can post audio or video related to their favorite books and start their own beads.

What you wish watercooler talk was like

JJ: Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, started this bead: Metaphors for Failure. You’ll find things like the original ad for the Edsel, the SNL sketch on the launch of, newsreel footage of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the launch of New Coke.

And now back to me, your unembedded blogger. Moving from one metaphor to another, there are a lot of beads in the world that could benefit from being brought together on a string. As Milq’s Jordan Jacobs put it: “in a way we’re kind of building the great library of Alexandria online.” And while things still aren’t perfectly intuitive at Milq -- there’s a bit of a learning curve when you go to the site and try to figure out how to best make it work for you -- bear in mind that the site has only been out of beta since September, so these are still very early days. (I’m guessing the first few months at the library of Alexandria were a bit rough going too.)

The Great Library of Alexandria.
How they rolled pre-wifi and Wikipedia

The larger point for me is that all the gems that live online, the things that we may not even know we’re interested in, to echo the comment of Milq co-founder Don MacKinnon highlighted earlier in this post, are pulled out of their hiding places online and brought to the surface. And this, I believe, is the next phase of where things are going online.

We know that the wisdom of the crowd works pretty darn well online, because we already have the prerequisites, like extreme heterogeneity of opinion, non-economic actors, community policing, and the ability for anyone to chime in with a viewpoint. Just look at Wikipedia. Written by no one in particular, with labor supplied voluntarily and free of charged, editorial oversight by the community only, and results as, if not more accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica. Should it work? Absolutely not. Does it work? Indisputably yes.

And then there's Google, whose stated mission is to organize the world's information. I can't imagine life without it now, but I have to say it works a charm for things like finding general information, or news, or reviews of electronics or suggestions for headache remedies, but is decidedly less helpful when it comes to things involving value judgements or tastes. Just look at Google-owned YouTube, a modern day miracle in terms of the bounty it holds, to be sure, but if you sit down in front of your screen and just go to you're not that likely to get matched to the content most interesting to you. And it's not that YouTube hasn't tried to fill this gap. They have. Sadly, we only have to look to YouTube's original channel experiment of 2011 to 2013 to see that investing a reported $300 million on about 200 individual YouTube channels didn't go very far in terms of solving the problem.

I would say this is because they were still thinking largely in terms of television tropes, of favoring traditional media stars, and of organizing programming by channels and subscriptions to those channels.

And really, isn't a channel:

a) just another form of more or less linear programming
b) something that lives within a walled garden environment

And aren't these exactly the kinds of things the online environment was supposed to liberate us from?

Maybe that Internet we dreamed about in the mid 1990s, the one that would make anything and everything we could imagine available to us, in a way that is both efficient and a little bit transcendent, is now a few steps closer. But we're all going to have to kick in, because coming up with a captivating list of metaphors for failure is not something that can or should be left to just one person.