Wednesday, May 21, 2014

YouTube: When the going gets weird…

Each day I aspire to have what I call a YouTube miracle. It’s my own kind of religious experience, when I’m able to find, quite unexpectedly, footage that I thought could not possibly exist, never existed, or was long lost to the ravages of time. Examples: in the past week I have been able to find Iggy Pop interviewing the mysterious man of the electric violin, the late Nash the Slash, on an unidentified cable access show from the early 1980s . And if that wasn’t enough I then happened upon a video that consisted of nothing more than a still image of council housing, located somewhere in London, accompanied by the sounds of a pirate radio station that once emanated from the area in the 1990s.

Such videos have maybe a few hundred or a few thousand views. There’s no business model, in the conventional sense of the term, in this stuff. Just the wonders of living in a world where somewhere, it seems, someone has everything you could ever imagine. On Betamax, VHS, cassette, reel to reel, or whatever format. And for no reason other than they can, people are digitizing and uploading these gems. With any luck they will be found one day, by a grateful searcher such as myself. Is YouTube overflowing with this kind of bizarre material, with limited appeal, of middling audio or video quality, and possibly without rights clearances? Indeed it is. And that’s the miracle of it all. That though it’s owned by Google, a company with more power and resources than some countries, YouTube is still able to accommodate these artifacts from the margins, when the company could easily initiate a policy that anything that nets less than, say, 1,000 views within a year of being posted gets pulled from the pipeline. The YouTube that hasn’t done this is the YouTube I love.

On the other hand there’s a YouTube that desperately needs to steal advertising dollars from the world of broadcast television. The other week I caught wind of news that YouTube is starting to promote some of its personalities via traditional media, such as television, magazines, billboards, and subway ads. Of course there’s nothing wrong with this, nothing at all. Why not take some born on YouTube success stories, put some marketing dollars into them, and see if you can notch up the audience level from X to Y. Makes sense to me.

So, you may wonder, which YouTubers were chosen for this inaugural outside of YouTube marketing campaign? Did they choose the YouTubers with the most subscribers, or the most views? No, because that would be this guy, 24 year old Swede Felix Kjellberg, who goes by the moniker PewDiePie and does play by play of himself playing video games, puts the video up on YouTube and at present is averaging about 10 million views per day has 4.5 billion views in total, and is reported to be earning $4 million per year. Instead, they went further down to the view list, to people with a fraction of the views of PewDiePie, to a trio of young female YouTubers whose video landscapes cover food, fashion, hair, and makeup.

I speak of these people:

Beauty blogger Michelle Phan, who boasts 6.4 million subscribers, close to a billion views, and is also a spokesperson for L’Oreal and has her own line of makeup with them, called Em Cosmetics.

Food blogger Rosanna Pansino, with 2 million subscribers and over 300 million views for her videos that show you how to make things like Rubik Cube brownies and Captain America birthday cakes.

And the third YouTuber that's part of the current advertising-outside-of-YouTube campaign is self-described “fashion/beauty/fun” blogger Bethany Mota, with six million subscribers and about 500 million views. She's sort of a teenage/DIY version of Ladies Home Journal, with videos on topics like Easter food and fashion tips.

Outdoor ad for select YouTube channels 

According to this article, ads for these YouTube channels are appearing on television channels with strong youth audiences, such as the CW, and magazines that appeal to young women, such as Allure and Seventeen. Subway stations in NYC and Chicago are also carrying ads for these YouTube channels that skew heavily to a female youth demographic.

All of this got me thinking about how there is a huge chasm between the mainstream and the magical moments on YouTube. The former being videos on makeup, food, and decorating, which are really just five minute versions of the thirty minute TV shows we already know. The latter being things like the deep archival material that lives on the platform -- as referenced a few paragraphs ago -- and the bounty of fringe and outsider culture which for the first time has a chance to reach a global audience. Perhaps not a huge audience, in mainstream terms, but a worldwide one nonetheless.

I’ve been tracking some of this data on spreadsheets for a while now, so I see the prolific activity that is happening in strange and still largely unknown corners of YouTube. Material that has unmistakably found a consistent audience of, say, tens to hundreds of thousands views per day, maybe not millions per day, but not a trivial amount. With the right systems in place could these slim niches become fatter niches, or perhaps break out beyond the category of niche and into something more substantial, though still shy of blockbuster status? This is not a problem of the inherent appeal or quality of the content but, rather, a problem of matching the right content to the right people. There are undoubtedly people, who, if they knew YouTube channel X existed would be likely to enjoy what is has to offer. But at present there is no perfect system for bringing audiences and viewers together.

Broadcasting is an imperfect system, but a powerful one. What will YouTube’s television, magazine, and billboard promotion of already popular YouTubers tell us? Most likely that middle of the road content that is already popular at the level of a few billion aggregate views can become even more popular. From a business point of view this may well solve some of YouTube’s immediate concerns, such as the ability to charge television-like prices for its ads. But what a shame that YouTube didn’t extend (or hasn’t yet, to give them the benefit of the doubt) its current experiment to its cornucopia of less obvious, less mainstream material.

As Internet and legal scholar Tim Wu has put it, the titans of the Internet era, such as Amazon, Google, YouTube (owned by Google), and eBay are “big dogs with long tails”, meaning that their businesses are predicated on, and depend on, a proliferation of both the big markets at one end of the spectrum and the niche markets that are able to exist in these digital, small incremental cost, times. So, while YouTube’s current experiment, of promoting already popular, mainstream-appeal content creators is likely to make this form of popular culture even more popular the boat that’s being missed, I believe, is the creation of a system that brings more of the platform’s ‘unpopular culture’, for want of a better term, to the surface. This could, in turn, transform thousands and thousands of slim niches into thousands of thousands of mid-sized ones. And who knows, hidden in that haystack could be the next Vice, whose journey from the absolute margins of popular culture to billion dollar media empire is told in this earlier blog post. With fewer way stations than ever between audiences and creators the unlikely is now more likely to happen. The question now becomes, will the unlikely ever get the helping hand of marketing dollars, to bump it up from unpopular culture to somewhat popular culture? And how much does that matter? With small enough production budgets can big enough audiences be just that, big enough? And maybe, just maybe, this opportunity lies not within YouTube/Google but within the entrepreneurial community, who may see a future in thousands of small sparks, not just a few massive bonfires.

Bonus plug section: For those interested in learning more about YouTube's challenges in attracting TV dollars and big name brands I recently co-authored a business school case on the topic, which can be found here.

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North America's first YouTube FanFest: Fans love YouTube & YouTube loves its fans
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Monday, May 5, 2014

Social media and its positive effects on negative charisma

I have been thinking lately about this thing called negative charisma. It sounds like a contradiction of terms because you might think, and rightly so, that the negative would cancel out the charisma. One is a positive, the other is a negative, therefore we end up back where we started. But it turns out that’s not always the case. So, one wonders, what exactly is this negative charisma, this paradoxical thing that can so blatantly defy the rules of mathematics?

Negative charisma is a quality that explains how people who are physically, psychologically, and/or ideologically unattractive still manage to capture our attention. Think Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David: Patron saint of negative charisma?

...Or people who can walk into a room and magically tick off half the people in it, without uttering a word.  And don't pretend you haven't encountered such folks. I have thought about such qualities a fair bit as for as long as I can remember have held an interest in the things that fall just outside of the defined categories. The things that don’t quite make it, either because they are too provocative and boundary-pushing, or aren’t provocative in the right way, or simply aren’t deemed good enough…however ‘good’ is defined at that particular time by the person doing the defining.

In a world of few broadcast networks and mass and largely undifferentiated audiences, negative charisma was pretty much the kiss of death. It didn’t look good, it didn’t make people feel good, and generally was something most people did not want to be associated with. Sure, there were exceptions, but for the most part there wasn’t much of a career to build on the ability to turn people off. I think this is a fine example of where and how Internet-distributed content differs. You may have heard the phrase “made for social media” used, to describe people who, regardless of their actions, have a gift for garnering attention. 

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford would be a prime example of such a talent. Though repeatedly under attack in the media and often captured in stills and video in states of inebriation and intoxication related to a variety of substances, he never shied away from the camera. Ford kept on posing for ‘selfies’ with seemingly everyone he encountered, his image circulating almost non-stop on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Whether it was election season or not Mr. Ford kept on putting his arm around people he’d just met and mugging for their smartphone, and in turn putting the image into the orbit of everyone in their social networks.

 But not everybody has a career in politics on their mind. Some just want to get attention, and to see if they can turn whatever talents they possess, even if it’s a talent for making people alternately think such thoughts as ‘what a despicable character’ or ‘this guy is nuts’. Which brings us to 20 year old Michael Kittrell of Grayson, Georgia⁠, population 2700. Kitrell, whose YouTube channel is called CopperCab, is one foul-mouthed and angry young man. He is a defiant and, if you don’t mind me saying so, kind of doughy redhead. In his videos he delivers monologues to the camera, in which we see him flying into some pretty extreme rages, screaming and spitting and sometimes issuing threats to commenters. It feels like the spectacle of wrestling meets your loudmouth neighbor.

And as they are inclined to do, the crew at South Park jumped into the ring by incorporating the ranting redhead from the Internet into one of their own story lines.

And those autotune the news guys the Gregory Brothers then immortalized the angry ginger in song and in video, creating an iTunes hit and a video that’s received over 6 million views

Kittrell himself has four YouTube channels and close to 150 million views across them. And view counters don’t lie. There’s an audience for what he’s putting out there. He himself revealed that he has earned a lot of money from his YouTube videos.

The phenomenon of the angry ginger on YouTube, which started in early 2010, eventually became big enough to get noticed by reality TV show producer David Weintraub (Celebrity Rehab, Sober House). Hoping that things do indeed happen in threes Weintraub likely figured Honey Boo Boo, that’s one, Duck Dynasty, that’s two, and YouTube’s CopperCab aka Michael Kittrell for the trifecta. And just like that, Kittrell, along with his Grandma Mema, his Uncle John, and his Aunt Dee Dee, were offered their own reality show. The posse packed their bags and headed to Los Angeles with the goal of capitalizing on Kittrell’s YouTube fame and seeing how far things could go. Hollywood Hillbillies debuted on the U.S. cable channel Reelz in January 2014 and after an initial brief run received an order for ten new episodes to be broadcast in the summer of 2014.

The angry ginger's grandma: happy to have hot water
The Los Angeles Times called the show “…at once celebratory and dismissive of both rural Georgia and Los Angeles. Still, Grandma Mema’s wants are modest. “I didn’t have heat in this house till I got this show!”, she exclaimed. “I had a hot water heater put in…I was really in a mess until I got this show.”⁠

Will Hollywood Hillbillies become a TV classic? Or have a ten year run? Probably not, but in the example of this journey from the CopperCab channel on YouTube to the Hollywood Hillbillies reality show we see the ability of YouTube to provide a viable platform for talent scouting. What began on the margins with no budget and probably no plan was given a shot at mainstream success just a few years later. And yes, the concept has been significantly retooled in the hands of television producers and we meet quite a different version of the angry ginger in front of the Hollywood cameras than we met in front of his own camera, or possibly phone, in small town Georgia. But the fact remains that a product and a market were created in a way that no one would have expected. And both were able to be developed and tested in an environment that had zero cost to the uploader and zero cost to the broadcaster. (The Internet bandwidth and streaming costs are borne by Google-owned YouTube, so while YouTube may still not be turning a profit, having a parent company with annual revenues in excess of $50 billion makes it all possible.) Still, there was no guarantee that what worked in the environment of YouTube — i.e. short, on demand clips that are viewed and re-viewed, publicly commented upon, and then shared on social media — would work in the environment of television, but the risk is greatly reduced with the level of awareness that comes with 150 million views. And don’t forget the bonus bumps that come from the references and parodies on South Park and from the Gregory Brothers. Both contain the most vital ingredient in the social media secret sauce, and that’s the currency derived from talking about and sharing a piece of content.

Kittrell may have been made for social media, where the laughing at, not laughing with, ‘car crash’ quotient goes a long way, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his fifteen minutes end there. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned for this summer’s run of Hollywood Hillbillies and keep our eyes open for any future appearances from the guy who took his ranting in the backyard, negative charisma game all the way to the big city. And with more than just a little showbiz grooming along the way. 

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