Death to “UGC”

So first of all, things aren’t right with the world when your former summer intern is getting quoted in more prominent publications than you are (and no, that’s not a totally shameless “look at me” non-sequitor, it’s more of a partially shameless “look at me” semi-sequitor – and way to go Gilbar!). But, this is just representative of the increasingly mainstream fascination with user-generated content, also called “UGC” by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. I ranted about this in a post a few months back which Randy reminded me of when we were chatting today and he lamented that those of us who hate this name (and it’s more than just the two of us) have yet to agree on something better. And then it dawned on me, we don’t need a new name because user-generated content no longer really exists.

“Huh?”

Bear with me here. This past weekend, I was hanging out with my dad, who is about as old school media as you can get. On our way to lunch on Saturday, he asked me if I saw continued growth in user-generated content/YouTube. My first reaction was to disambiguate the two; YouTube is far from the end-all, be-all of user-generated content. And in doing so, I had somewhat of an epiphany: the primary meaning of user-generated content has morphed. It is no longer really a description of the means of production (or more accurately, financing), it now symbolizes a certain aesthetic that we have come to associate with what user-generated content used to mean – content created by amateurs and offered free of charge.

The comparison that first springs to mind is what has happened to “Indie Film” in the age of Paris Hilton attending Sundance. When Miramax was acquired by Disney, did its films lose their street cred? And are Warner Independent Pictures or Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics producing and distributing “studio films” by definition? And wtf are we supposed to call movies from the new Weinstein Company!? When you try to categorize films by who paid for them, the original denotation of the independent vs studio distinction, it becomes readily apparent that these terms now mean something completely different – they represent a look, a feel, a sensibility that have come to connote artistic integrity and authentic expression contrasted against unabashed commercialism and pandering to the lowest common cultural denominator as established by some formula churned out by a program on a mid-level studio marketing flunky’s computer.

Similarly, user-generated content is now more of a style than a statement on the professional status of the producers. How else could you explain the example du jour, LonelyGirl15 – a YouTube distributed serial produced by professional filmmakers and starring paid actors that initially passed itself off as a teenage girl’s video blog? Or what about our boy Gilbar’s crew of begrudgingly amateur filmmakers who managed to produce a short of higher quality than some tv shows? (See, that earlier reference was relevant. Did I mention that I was quoted in AdWeek?) How about ZeFrank or the Ask A Ninja guys, who started producing content for fun but can now make a living off of it? When you think about it this way, “The Blair Witch Project” was really the first example of the potential of the user-generated content aesthetic.

Those who work with me know I’m fond of saying there are 3 types of content in the world: PBS (free to consumers); NBC (ad-sponsored); and HBO (consumer paid). There is also a *spectrum* of content producers: from those who do it for the love of the game to those who rely on it to finance the lavish lifestyles to which they’ve become accustomed. And finally, there are innumerable styles and techniques in a filmmaker’s bag of tricks designed to evoke specific responses from the audience. While user-generated content began as a reference to a perceived intersection of these three independent axes (namely, free content produced by amateurs with low fidelity DV cameras and choppy editing), that intersection now only represents a subset of what the term has quickly come to encompass in our vernacular. The three axes of business model, professional status, and production value have diverged and the distinctions that defined user-generated content have begun to break down (thanks in no small part to services like Revver that can give anyone an ad-sponsored business model). If user-generated content means anything now, it is merely a certain style of production that is associated with the origins of the term. �

And so, I hereby pronounce user-generated content dead as a business term. Any business person who continues to believe that they can just set up some submission UI and people will hand over the rights� to worthwhile content for free deserves his fate. Another saying of which I’m fond is: “you get what you pay for.” People who want to be part of the network in order to reap the benefit of value created at the edges had better start thinking harder about how they can contribute some value too.

How the Sausage, I mean Indie Film, is Made

This was originally part of the subsequent post that will appear shortly. But it turned into be a bit of a tangential rant, though one in which I invested some time and not a little bit of passion. So, here it is a standalone:

When you try to categorize films by who paid for them, the original denotation of the independent vs studio distinction, it becomes readily apparent that these terms now mean something completely different – they represent a look, a feel, a sensibility that have come to connote artistic integrity and authentic expression contrasted against unabashed commercialism and pandering to the lowest common cultural denominator as established by some formula churned out by a program on a mid-level studio marketing flunky’s computer.

The sad irony is that this is also how most so-called “independent” films are now brought to market . How do I know? Because, I’ve witnessed it personally. I’ve sat in the room as studio marketing execs used the blunt instrument of focus group feedback to try to force a deeply complex and challenging film (out of respect, I won’t name the particular film, but you can figure it out pretty easily from my IMDb filmography) into one of their precast marketing plan molds. The result was a film that was targeted to a mainstream audience who were disappointed when it didn’t meet the expectations created by the marketing campaign and which was largely overlooked by the more niche audience that would have appreciated  it because they were turned off by the expectations created by the marketing campaign. But at least it made it into the theaters.

Two other films I worked on, “Chrystal” and “Winter Passing,” definitively demonstrated to me the lie of “independent” films. Because unless you actually go to one of the shrinking number of truly independent art house movie theaters or have a penchant for risk with your Netflix queue, every film you see has been brought to you in some part by one of the 6 major studios (Sony, Universal, Paramount, Disney, Warner Brothers, and Fox). And they have  universally cultivated a CYA culture among their employees that rewards the safer choice. When you have a film invited to Sundance, the only outcome more disappointing than leaving without a distribution deal is doing so with the complements of all the distributors: “Fantastic film guys, I really loved it; but, it’s just too risky.” As variables in the studio formula, artistic integrity and authentic expression are still second-class citizens.

Which is what brought me to the Internet. Contrary to the best pseudo-scientific efforts of studio marketing departments and their endless focus groups, consumers actually value hearing from people like them (as opposed to some idealized version manufactured in Burbank). If there’s anything that we should learn from the rise of reality television, YouTube, and user-generated content, it is that there is an audience for authenticity (though, no accounting for taste). Now it’s up to us to put them together with the people actually making good stuff.

We’re Hiring!

While most people reading this know where I work, relatively few actually know what I do. Well, I’m the Product Manager responsible for a little something we like to call Yahoo! Widgets. As many of you know, this is the result of last year’s acquisition of a company called Pixoria which made a product known as Konfabulator. And I am privileged to be working with much of the very talented Konfabulator team, including founder Arlo Rose and chief architect Ed Voas.

Those of you who have been keeping tabs over the last 15 months have noticed that not much has really changed since the acquisition – a new price (I guess that was kinda a big deal), a new name, a new purple paint job, and some new Yahoo! Widgets. But for a variety of reasons, Yahoo! was largely disinclined to mess with a good thing. That’s where I come in…

Since May, I have been working with the team to help figure out how we can use Yahoo!’s assets to create a better Widgets experience for consumers and developers. And we’re really starting to hit our stride. Our next release date is still a secret, but it’s not too far off (at least it feels that way when you’ve got deadlines looming) and we’re going to be unveiling some great new features. But, that’s just the beginning.

We have an exciting and ambitious roadmap ahead of us. And in order to achieve it, we need to grow the team. There are currently 5, count ’em 5, openings that we’re looking to fill yesterday:

Senior Visual Designer
Senior Product Manager
Widget Engine Developer
Widget Engine Developer
Widget Builder / Front-End Developer

So if you or someone you know is interested in one of these jobs , please apply online or email me at jstrauss -at- yahoo-inc.com.

The End is Nigh

I was in a meeting Tuesday with a Yahoo! executive, who I shall not name. He several times used the term “Web 3.0” in a way that makes me think that people are actually bandying this new meme about the boardroom without laughing. This was the first time I had heard anyone use “Web 3.0” in a non-ironic context, and I started having flashbacks of the scourge that was the “UGC” fad. So, I thought I’d speak my mind before this actually becomes a thing…or has it already?

It seems that our execs have been beaten (yet again) to the Web 3.0 party by Google (though this time, I don’t think we have anything to be ashamed of). And wait, on the same day, there’s an article about the first self-proclaimed Web 3.0 company I’ve heard of so far. WTF!? I don’t even know what this term means and I have seen it used 3 times on the first day I’ve ever heard of it – I hereby pronounce August 29, 2006 the birthday of Web 3.0…national holiday, anyone?

Though it doesn’t seem that anyone has actually agreed upon a definition for Web 3.0 (did we ever really have one for Web 2.0, anyway?), we here at Yahoo! aren’t ones to let a little detail like that get in the way of what we believe could be a huge viral marketing opportunity. While Crockford’s team continues to push the envelope with their Web 4.0 work, we of the Widgets team are focusing on the present. And so, I’m pleased to announce that Ed Voas, chief architect for Yahoo! Widgets, has been in discussions with the W9C to make the next release of the Yahoo! Widget Engine fully Web 3.0 compliant. Stay tuned…

Web 4.5 has now been officially superceded by Web Candle + Monkey.

On Net Anti-Neutrality

So, I pledged to post once a week and I’m a few days behind on my first deadline. I’m blaming my tardiness on the fact that I only got Internet access at my new apartment yesterday – 2.5 months after moving. While I did waste some time in actually initiating the process, the length and complexity of getting my AT&T Yahoo! DSL set up was truly absurd.

*** WARNING: The following will only be marginally, if at all, interesting to anyone not involved in technology-related fields. ***

If this video represents one of the most compelling arguments for the incapacity of our regulators to make the monumentally important decisions surrounding the issue of Net Neutrality, I think my DSL experience is pretty good anecdotal evidence for why the Telcos shouldn’t be left to decide what consumers’ Internet experiences should be. More on that in a moment, but first enjoy the funny:

Ok, now on to the scary…

STRIKE 1: Building a Shitty Website

So, it starts with ordering a new phone line. Of course as a child of the Internet, I start online. Diving into the 25+ screen (no joke!) order flow for a new phone line, I’m only a little miffed the first time when I encounter an error page that tells me “We’re sorry, but one of our systems is temporarily unavailable.” My annoyance continues to grow as I repeatedly encounter errors at various points in the order flow over the next few days (the most painful ones being those that happen towards the end of the flow, only after I have already entered every imaginable piece of personal information – FOR THE 18TH TIME!!!).

After several days worth of failed attempts, I finally break down and decide to just do it via the phone on my next ride up the Peninsula. Well, that idea lasts about 20 min of being on hold while a soothing voice reminds me that not only can I do all of this on their website but it’ll cost me $40 less that way. So, I’m back where I started – just more pissed off.

The fact that this is AT&T’s primary customer acquisition vehicle for their most profitable business and this is the best website they can build is a frightening harbinger of the potential of an Internet controlled by Telcos.

STRIKE 2: The Internet Never Closes

A side-effect of this repeated viewing is that I actually bothered to read the full text of the error page, which goes on past the above quoted to say:

“Our systems are usually available daily from 6 am to midnight Pacific time. If you have received this message during our regular operating hours, we are experiencing technical difficulties and are working to correct them as quickly as possible.”

WTF!? Have you ever heard of a website that’s only available 18 hrs a day by design? Do I need to say more about how clueless this is?

STRIKE 3: OMFG!!!

I didn’t do a full QA cycle on the AT&T order website (but, I probably did more than they have ever done), so I can’t tell you exactly what the problem was. But when I finally was able to successfully complete the online order flow for my phone line and DSL, I was reduced to using Internet Explorer (instead of Firefox), the corporate LAN (instead of wireless), and it was between the hours of 6am and midnight PT (instead of any frickin’ time I want!!!).

So, then the install fun begins. A week or so after my order is placed, AT&T activates my line remotely and sends me the modem/router in the mail. When I get home and set up the equipment, it doesn’t work. I follow the instructions for troubleshooting, which includes inserting the back-up CD and running a diagnostic. When this fails, I call tech support. Tech support answers relatively quickly, runs me through another set of diagnostics and determines that they need to transfer me to “Level 2 Support.” Level 2 Support runs me through some of the same stuff and then determines that he needs to loop in the Maintenance Center. After some back-and-forths between them with me listening in, they determine that someone else is required to solve the problem and it will take several hours. They tell me they’ll call me when it’s fixed.

They call and say it’s fixed, I get home and it’s not fixed. I call back and tell them it’s still busted, and they say they’ll call me back again when it’s fixed.� They call and say it’s fixed, I get home and the hardware seems to be working fine, but my computer still can’t seem to connect to the Internet. I quickly exhaust my troubleshooting options, and am forced to call support again. (Throughout all of my tech support calls, I got relatively short hold times and courteous, if not fully informed, service – this is more AT&T’s problem than mine, as I estimate that support costs for my install probably reached at least $100, and I’m only paying them $12.99 a month.) The operator bumps me around to 3 more people before they find someone who can help me. This fact is made even more disconcerting by the revelation that the final issue to be resolved was relatively simple (if brain-dead stupid) and quite common.

It turns out that the normal installation flow sends users to a registration page that changes some settings on the modem to allow it to access the Internet. However when a user breaks from the normal installation flow for any reason, including to enter the standard troubleshooting flow (i.e. running the included back-up CD as instructed by the manual), this registration page becomes unreachable except by direct navigation – none of which is documented in any of the included materials, nor apparently in the standard tech support training materials. All of this essentially means that as soon as a user encounters *ANY* issue with their install, they will need to call customer care at some point in order to connect to the Internet.

This is a really long way of saying: OMFG!!! What is wrong with you people!? Do you want to be put out of business?

In Conclusion, Do Something People!

This process illustrated to me how ingrained the culture of the captive audience is in a big Telco. Any company with such a pervasive lack of respect for user experience, and thus the user, should not be left to decide how the entire Internet should be presented to consumers. And to those who choose to make an argument that the efficiencies of the free market will sort everything out in the end, I point to this as an illustration of the ineptitude of legacy monopolies in pursuing even their own economic best interests – for it would take a first year consultant about 5 minutes to save AT&T what is probably millions of dollars a year in customer care costs due to sub-optimal installation processes.

Net Neutrality is a serious issue, both for our industry and, most importantly, for consumers. And like most important issues of our time, entrenched special interests are gaming the system to advance their agenda below the radar of a population that can only seem to be motivated to act after it’s too late. The above Daily Show clip of Ted Stevens is hilarious, but it should also be horrifying: a man who was born in 1923 and represents 0.24% of the American people is Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has oversight of the regulation of, among other things, telecommunications, global climate change, space, science, technology, economic development, and sports (yes, sports – see the whole list here). It would be bad enough if Senator Stevens was just uninformed on and out of touch with the areas of his responsibility, but it seems apparent that what little instruction he is taking on these matters is relatively one-sided. So, please join me in helping to educate our elected representatives on the importance of a free and open Internet.

I’m Baaaack!!!

Last week, I was taking stock of things and decided I should start really blogging again. Life should be settling down a little bit more for me in the near future (will explain more in a forthcoming post), and I miss the emotional and creative outlet that this blog has provided in the past.

Ironically in the few days since this private resolution, I have received some feedback from others regarding my blog (at Zoe‘s  Sweet 16, someone complimented me on my “image blog,” which totally reinforced my decision to start writing more – it’s not supposed to be a photoblog; and since then, I have had several people close to me discuss some recent posts – this one in particular).

Thus, I’m putting this out here so I’ll have to do it (just like I *had* to move to the Mission Image ). Starting next week, I pledge to post something of a length that requires a computer keyboard at least once a week.

Stay tuned for more mindless drivel.

The Yahoo! Intern ARC

Thanks Gilbar for really stepping up this summer, and for instantiating one of the more niche ARCs to date. You will be missed. We all wish you the best of luck back at the lawyer factory, and there’s always a place for you back here in nerdland (at least as long as we have anything to say about it).

– the Go Desktop product collective

Instinct

I have recently passed through three discrete stages of trusting my own instincts: believing too much that they’re right; believing too little that they’re right; and believing that they’re right, but feeling like nobody really cares about what’s right.

None of these extreme states are ideal, but I can safely say that I’ve found the third to be the most demoralizing. I subscribe to the philosophy that truly great success requires an unreasonable degree of self-confidence, otherwise no one would attempt anything beyond ordinary. And, the risk of reaching for the stars is that when you fall short it hurts a lot more – but to me that’s worth the risk. On the other hand, admitting that you don’t know enough to be certain is the first step in learning the things required to have reasonable faith in yourself going forward. And, that’s not such a bad thing either.

The final option reinforces a somewhat Nihilist phase I’m finding myself in – it’s essentially the “I’d rather be lucky than good” school of thought. Earlier today, I read how Steve Case told Charlie Rose that the AOL Time-Warner merger was a mistake and apologized to shareholders. He said he still stood by the idea behind the deal, but he had subsequently realized the importance of execution. Einstein said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. But, how much of it is circumstance – pure dumb, right-place-at-the-right-time, luck? I think inspiration and hard work are necessary but not sufficient criteria for success. And, I do believe that “you make your own luck” to the extent that being aggressive offers one more chances to succeed (and fail). But, what about the things beyond one’s own control that really make or break success?

It seems like the world keeps trying to remind me that real life isn’t a meritocracy. I think I’m trying not to listen because I don’t know how to play a game without rules.