Category Archives:
Digital Media

Plants vs. Zombies

Despite working in digital media forever, and most recently mobile video, I didn’t buy an iPhone until this year. I stuck with the most embarrassing of all phones—the Blackberry—for long after I could justify the merit of the one feature I loved: a physical keyboard.  Unless I met with a particular kind of invective, I was generally not wracked with shame in my supposed Luddism whenever I placed my phone on the table for a meeting. At least it broke the ice. Far more embarrassing was pulling out my Blackberry at a show or a party to take a photo. In San Francisco, it was akin to leprosy. So much for radical inclusion.

For me, the physical keyboard was an effective tool for writing quickly in less than ideal circumstances—under the table, in my pocket, while driving, after a night of heavy drinking (why does this sound kinkier than it is?). And anyway, doesn’t a real man hail a cab, call their dates, and put their phone away at dinner? In ignoring the iPhone, was I a dinosaur? Was I no different from the aging writer in 1990 who clung to his typewriter as a terribly heavy and ineffective life preserver while the good ship Word Perfect motored on past? We aren’t all going to be Tom Robbins with his lovely Remington SL-3.

My iPhone is better, but I miss having the keyboard for what the keys represent: production of ideas, not consumption of others. Freedom, not servitude. The apps lined up on my iPhone remind me of the hospital scene in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, based on McDonald’s cash registers, where a nurse can push one key for a broken arm and another for a severed head. Virtual keyboards suggest words that I don’t intend to use, and difficult though it may be to believe, I do think those words are dumber than the ones I planned to write myself. And all these app stores are walled gardens, yet still filled with weeds, and not the wonderful kind that fight back against zombies. (My favorite is the Starfruit! Cute and vicious.)

The relationship between society and technology runs one way and then back again, as James Boyle discussed in Shamans, Software, and Spleens.  We create technology in an implicitly codified world as Larry Lessig wrote in Code, but influence goes back and forth—as we use technology, we reshape our perspective, explicitly and implicitly. Isn’t it best though to limit the number of things that change our perspective without us knowing? There’s a good chance that we’ll opt with our reptilian brains for that which is easy or wrong, because it’s easy, or because it’s popular. What happens when the one tool in our hand all the time is great for reading but not so great for writing? What happens when our wide webby world is guarded by an Apple gatekeeper? To harken back to another post, thoughtlessness can lead to dehumanization. Lack of attention can lead to less moral choices.

Okay, yeah, I’ve gone way too far again in my polemic. Heck, I used Uber myself for the first time today, and the virtual keyboards are getting better. Nevertheless, here’s a vote in favor of more wild growing brambly plants, like the blackberry, and fewer zombies!

P.S. At some point, I’d like to discuss one excellent book that deals with this subject, The Future of the Internet by Jonathan Zittrain, while also contrasting it with two that I feel miss the mark, You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier (who seems to have good philosophical intentions) and To Save Everything: Click Here by Evgeny Morozov (who strikes one as reasonable for thirty pages before he decides to settle every academic grudge he’s ever had for the next three hundred).

P.P.S. Upon some googling, it seems like Morozov has gotten himself into some hot water recently and will have additional academic grudges to settle. Eep.

YouTube: Meet the New Boss

One of my projects over the past few months has been working with the Internet and Interactive Entertainment research team at Jefferies & Co. on in-depth industry research.  The latest report I helped write was on YouTube, and if you are in the content business, especially involved with a Multi-Channel Network (MCN) or thinking about investing in one, I would recommend a close read as it relates to MCN viability in building higher margin businesses.

One of my stock lines about the digital media industry in the aughts has been: media companies should have acted more like ad networks, and ad networks should have acted more like media companies. The short version of this is that both types of companies are in the business of aggregating audience attention against which they sell advertising. (I have a long version with “the math” if anyone wants to hear it.) To compete in a world where digital platforms claim outlandish reach figures, media companies needed a larger audience to sell to traditional brand advertisers (and video too, of course). At the same time, ad networks which usually had large reach needed greater control over content to sell to brand advertisers so as to boost pricing, margin, and prevent being squeezed out by programmatic as the world shifted in response to practically infinite inventory.

So following this strategy, media companies would use their valuable brand umbrella to sell media that wasn’t their own (like an ad network), managing margin and inventory risk against their own content creation. And ad networks would invest in owning content and building audience to manage inventory risk and drive CPM and margin upwards. Both parties could use whatever programmatic stuff they wanted, but in the high CPM brand/video world this would be more likely private exchange selling than it was buying inventory on shitty public exchanges or audience through nefarious development engines.  I unsuccessfully pushed for building audience tools and owning content when I was still at Rhythm while watching the rise of the MCNs with more than a little interest. With the benefit of time spent not looking for some way to win (or survive), I’m pretty sure that the path from network to media company is difficult to impossible.

MCNs are not unlike online video ad networks themselves, but represent one evolutionary step toward a media company due to its talent relationships. An MCN will put together sales contracts to represent individual content creators. An MCN will provide technology support, usually in the form of marketing and analytics to drive audience. And maybe an MCN will bring content creators in as employees or fund and produce the content under its auspices. Their very existence owes somewhat to rules YouTube put in place for ad networks selling against content creator inventory in the first place. As a result, MCNs hold a closer relationship to the talent than a premium ad network does (see also Tremor, Yume, etc.) while aggregating similar volume and generating a similar gross margin to an ad network due to the “YouTube Tax” of roughly 45%.

The argument that MCNs can grow their margin completely rests on them acting more like media companies and finding higher CPM, higher margin distribution for their talent relationships. I love this idea because I wanted to do it, but now I’m hard pressed to think of any network over the years that has made that transition and also seen a significant exit. There are too many pressures in low-end, programmatic, ad tech, and there is too much competition in traditional media.  Sometimes strategic ideas just don’t make sense given a time window, capital requirements, and return requirements. That Disney would pay $950 million for Maker to accelerate something they could have done themselves still baffles me. Disney could have had access to the same talent pipeline with a little work, and at some point the venture capital financing engine will get tired of funding MCN losses resulting in lower acquisition values.

There’s definitely a business for content creators on YouTube, although I think increasingly it means handing over monetization to YouTube and trusting in their sales team. In terms of the MCNs, the only company making a lot of money on YouTube is YouTube, and the smartest media company, in my opinion, has been Dreamworks who has made small, targeted investments in YouTube with a specific audience and content personality.  I do keep discussing the idea of building YouTube without YouTube with those in the industry, but my fear is that we’d end up doing what YouTube has done: replace one media gatekeeper with another… meet the new boss, same as the old boss. It’s what Jonathan Zittrain, Woody Allen, and CBS have been trying to tell for so long.

Read more about YouTube here.