the social media unrevolution

Posted by on May 1, 2008 in blogosphere, cinema, corporatism, economics, media, technology, television, video, vision | 1 comment

Or How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Echo

T
he great promise of the internet was that it would level the information playing field by allowing equal access to all information, and facilitate the production of new information. The relationship between the two would, in theory, allow for a more democratic bottom up approach to solution based innovation. In a nutshell: we are stronger as a group, and the internet will allow us to function at a higher level to solve our problems.

Or so we thought.

The onslaught of investment during the dot com boom of the late 1990’s was rooted in the idea that the internet was a new form of television, and that if we apply those creative, financial and production processes directly, it’ll work. It didn’t, for lots of reasons but mostly because there was no monetary infrastructure for online content and web users didn’t want their MTV on the web, they wanted to connect with others via the web. So, the TV web went away and the social web rose up. And, revenue from ads began to pour in.

It’s important to remember that in 2001 everyone was still wondering how and if Amazon and then Google were going to be profitable. Ad revenue finally kicked in. But, unfortunately it was too late for the web TV movement. Sites such as pop.com and pseudo.com died from lack of revenue before web ads had become viable. It took a few years to figure out how to monetize it, figure out what worked and what didn’t, and for essential tech advances to come into play. (Front loading ads on video, bad idea. Clickable hot spots in video and embedding, good idea. Pop ups, bad idea. Banners and text ads, good idea. Ad sense, good. Subscription, bad.)

In the past four years the reintroduction of “social media” and “social networking” (which was the attraction of AOL back in the mid 90’s) applied in tandem with marketing and ad placement has become all the rage. And, the rush was on to create content to take advantage of this newest “revolution”.

Except, none of the best practices of producing video content that we know work in TV to attract an audience have been put into use. Some of this is due to the over reaction to user created content, and the assumption that low budget and thus low production value would translate into revenue. There was an assumption made by many involved in the web 2.0 movement that simply putting content out there would translate into financial gain if they could get the page hits. Not necessarily true it would appear. It’s a gamble given the rather nebulous manner in which most of the content distributors are handling revenue sharing; one person’s money train is another’s dripping faucet. A verifiable form of revenue sharing and accounting still needs to be set up and agreed upon in order for the big money to spend big money.

Among independent web content producer’s there has been a strong push to attract venture capital, with very little traction because of the lack of dealing with the reality that investors – whether in film, TV, or web – don’t merely want a return on their investment but also to see and understand that they are getting something tangible and valuable for their money. They want a simple value for value exchange. They want to see something great too. And, there seems to be a real lack of understanding of that basic rule by many content producers in the web 2.0 world. The governing rule is: just get it online, who cares what it looks like, people will watch. And, it’s not true.

The problem is so acute that Bill Cammack, an Emmy Award winning editor who knows of what he speaks, works in the web 2.0 area and realizes this is an issue, felt it necessary to video tape a how to shoot video 101 class and post it on his site.

I admire Bill’s patience, he does a nice job of laying out the basics, he has provided a real service, and it shines a light on the central issue that the web production community will have to aim higher in quality of production value and creative ideas if we are going to attract the big money and then begin to also nurture those relationships in the long term. I think that Bill understands this as well.

In the next few years the web landscape could change pretty dramatically. Social networking combined with video and mobile technology is going to create the next information movement. How we use it is the question. I agree with Deborah Schultz on this. We need to do more to make social media more viable, more useful, more informative and more entertaining. And, it begins with the community and the work. We need to be more innovative, more interesting and more professional.

At the moment, I’ve also become a bit disenfranchised with the web 2.0 community because on one hand it loves to play footsy with itself, it functions as a giant echo chamber looped onto itself. And, in some quarters, it’s turned nasty. It also feels way too much like the nascent independent film movement of the early 1990’s. Everyone was running around spending their own money on projects looking for an angel to come down and pave their way to creative and financial bliss. Now, I don’t have a problem with the work, or the dream, but in how it’s done. From two decades of experience what I do know is that the people who succeed are those that work on the craft and create compelling and professional content. It’s a real skill and an art. Forgetting that is deadly. If you endeavor to reach out, and communicate with others with skill, it works and people watch. And, when that occurs, the money follows. And, if you are lucky, a lot of money follows.

And, of course, since it involves money, which has its own pitfalls. By the late 90’s, the indie film industry was overtaken by the Hollywood “indie” studios. Even if you could raise your own money, make your film and get it into a major film festival, that didn’t guarantee that it would ever get into theaters. The studios had too many competing “indie” films of their own to release anyway. Many studios would buy up small film festival entrants and put them on the shelf to languish, just to ensure the film wouldn’t be released, its topic too close or too good to compete with something they’d already produced. Or even better, they’d manipulate the festival buzz on a given film to ensure that it did not find a buyer.

Today, the internet promises to provide a venue to equalize the distribution playing field a bit. But, it is important for web 2.0 producers and filmmakers looking to the web as a distribution model to realize that right now as I write, the big fish in Hollywood are planning to do the exact same thing in distribution online as they have done in theaters and TV. That is: control a good portion of it. And, access to the internet, with very few exceptions, is through corporations that are currently creating long term relationships with Hollywood studios and independent studios.

This is why the professional writers and producers are holding back in getting too deep into the web production world. The money isn’t in place, and the distribution is not in place. Thus, the atmosphere for many in the independent web production world is one of the wild west- no adults, free to do what you want, there’s always a seat at the bar and the drinks are all free. Thing is, you look around and it’s the same faces all looking for the same person: the one who has the wallet to pay for the drink.

There will be a user created world, a semi-professional world, and a professional world in the next web movement. Quality and money will be linked at the hip. A few in the first will make money, a few in the second will make money, and everyone in the third will make money. The big pay days will be there. The others will be seen as necessary to maintain viable communities online.

The interesting show to me would be one that combined those worlds to their greatest advantage. Democracy in action. At least for a little while until the next next web comes along.

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