Happyjoel on the CBS Evening News

Cross-posted from the Snowball Factory blog

Last week, our friend (and first client) Joel Moss Levinson, aka Happyjoel, appeared in a CBS Evening News with Katie Couric segment called Cashing In on YouTube (watch it below). For Joel, this follows an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a profile in the New York Times, and (our personal favorite) being named an AccessHollywood.com Rising Star. As you can see in the clip below, the majority of this coverage has been driven by the novelty of Joel’s success. He’s a guy who subsists entirely by making amusing music videos for products for which he has no personal affinity — what news producer wouldn’t love this story?!

Watch CBS Videos Online

For us though, the real story isn’t the wackiness of Joel’s success but rather how he has achieved it. Of course, having the ability to come up with witty lyrics about how awesome watermelons are and the time and energy to scour the interwebs for brands looking to crowd-source their marketing are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. Michael Buckley, the other online video personality covered in the CBS News segment, told the NY Times “I was spending 40 hours a week on YouTube for over a year before I made a dime.” Like Michael, Joel does a lot more than just what you see on screen. Arguably, making the videos is the easy part (at least for someone like Joel) — the real challenge has been building and cultivating the loyal fan-base (or as Joel calls it, his “contest voting army”) that has made him such a newsworthy phenomenon.

As of this writing, Joel has:

Each of these relationship channels has different strengths and weaknesses, and we have achieved a good measure of success using them in concert through best practices and a substantial time commitment. But, the system is far from perfect. In addition to the redundant work required to build and maintain relationships through all these various channels, it is very difficult to identify and de-duplicate the individuals across them, and it is basically impossible to have a cohesive view of what is going on in your fan universe.

While 800 lbs brands like Britney Spears or 50 Cent have enough clout to ask their fans to sign up for new services, the rest of us need to find effective ways to reach our potential fans where they already live online. YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, and other popular social media services provide access to their huge existing audiences, but the relationships you build through them have to be on their terms. We’ve learned from experience in the trenches with clients like Joel and Handsome Donkey, and we’re hard at work on a solution that gives independent online media brands the best of both worlds: access to existing social media audiences with greater control over the fan relationships it generates. So, stay tuned!

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Consumption as Self-Expression, Lifestreaming, and the Social Signal:Noise Ratio

My buddy Hooman just wrote an insightful post expounding on a phrase I’ve been using for a long time now (and have yet to hear elsewhere, so let’s make it a meme baby!): consumption as self-expression. It’s a pretty self-explanatory phrase and examples include: Last.fm favorite artist or recently listened songs badges on your MySpace page (or their pretty cool Facebook app); publishing your Netflix queue via RSS; using a plug-in like Postalicious to add your Delicious bookmarks to your blog (as I do); or services like All Consuming. Each of these services has a primary value proposition to get you to give them your consumption information other than republishing it out to the world (i.e. Last.fm = discovering new music; Netflix = getting the movies delivered; Delicious = archiving bookmarks for personal reference; All Consuming = getting recommendations on other stuff you might like). But, the ability to share your consumption information back to your social network (or publish it to the world, if you so choose) is becoming an increasingly important secondary value proposition.

As an example of how powerful the self-expression value proposition has become, take Flixster, which became a top app on Facebook by getting people to re-enter much of the ratings information that they had already given to Netflix just so they could have a social experience around it with their friends. Apps like Flixster and What I’m Listening To (by Last.fm) finally start to address the forgotten backwater of the social network profile page that the “Interests” section has become. Like the appendix or the vestigial tail, the Favorite Books/TV Shows/Movies/Music fields on today’s social network profiles are left over from the first designs of Friendster (or maybe even before) and have done nothing but atrophy since. Unlike your tastes, these fields are static, and they’re totally disconnected from your consumption experiences. So, I’m all about the apps that have allowed me to leave the ‘Favorite Movies’ and ‘Favorite Music’ fields on my Facebook profile blank and instead show my friends what I’m actually watching and listening to.

That’s the good part of consumption as self-expression, IMHO. But, I’m increasingly finding a bad part too and it’s the growing (g33k) trend of lifestreaming. I see the value in wanting to broadcast a consolidated feed of everything public you’re doing across the web to those interested (in fact, I’ve already installed a lifestreaming plug-in on this blog and have yet to set it up — you can also use Friendfeed or MyBlogLog). I’m just not particularly interested in subscribing to anyone else’s. I may want to *pull* this information, when I’m trying to learn about what a person likes or has been up to, by visiting his Facebook page or blog. But, I have negative interest in having this information *pushed* to me at all times, a la Friendfeed, which I only use as a broadcast medium and not for consumption.

This is where the whole idea of the social signal:noise ration comes in. In his original post on which I commented, Hooman distinguishes between “machine-generated” and “human-generated” updates. The machine-generated ones are what I call consumption as self-expression, while the human-generated are the ones like blog posts, Flickr photos, or Twitter messages that require some kind of proactive communication on the part of the publisher. In my recent post about Twitter, I talked about how the on-demand nature of the Internet enables us to have a signal:noise ratio approaching infinity and how Twitter was the restorative “white noise of cyberspace.” But, I see full-on lifestreaming with machine-generated updates and all as going too far. So for now, I have imposed a crude filter to limit what noise I let in: if you didn’t take the time to generate the content yourself, I ain’t subscribing to it.

And, even that may not be enough. As the circle of people I follow on Twitter has expanded (and I *only follow people I’ve actually met*), I’m finding even that increasingly annoying and less the valuable randomness generator it used to be. Over beers today, Jeffrey suggested maybe as more people start using Twitter and the average number of people being followed grows, there will be less “updates on what I ate or when I went to the bathroom.” Whether it’s some kind of social networking mores or a technical solution like Laurie’s Havoc algorithm (ask him about it), we’re definitely going to need something to steer the social web back to a more sustainable signal:noise ratio.

MySpace Revolt in the NYT

[Originally posted on my 360 blog]

As predicted, MySpace users are getting pissed off that the social network they originally chose for its openness is now denying them access to the best of breed services they desire.

There will never again be *one* destination that provides *everything* a user wants and needs. The only way to be ubiquitous is to be completely open and allow users to use your product (whether it be a homepage on which they can embed any service they choose, or a service they can embed in any homepage they choose) how they see fit. Openness is now a viable basis of competition, and you will be undercut by a more open competitor if you are too closed. 

MySpace thinks that they built YouTube, and maybe they did. But, where would MySpace be without all those users embedding and watching YouTube videos on MySpace long before there was a MySpace video player? A smaller piece of the pie can be worth more, if the pie itself is made bigger by allowing distributed innovation to create value for your consumers in ways that you can’t or wouldn’t.

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Community “Products”

Rant Alert!

I just finished the first of my three planned white papers last night, and decided to let it percolate a bit before moving on to the next two. It is currently a six-page screed on microeconomic theory in the digital age, and I will likely post some portions of it here soon. In the meantime, I thought I would catch up on some blogosphere surfing and MyWeb bookmarking (come on Yahoo! marketing, where’s the verb for that? MyWebbing? Gong!). And after reading through a couple of posts linked to from Kareem’s highly-underrated blog, something just snapped.

I work at Yahoo!. We are the leading community on the internet both in size and breadth of tools. And, we have some brilliant people who really get community (shouts out to: Ian, Michael, Russell, Randy, Stewart, Caterina, Danah, and Cameron, among others). But we also have some people who seriously don’t get it. They see community as a means to an end, not the end in itself. They are jealous of MySpace and Facebook and whatever the next big fad will be, because of their rapid audience growth.

Audience is what matters to these people because audience is what you sell in conventional advertising [oh, wtf…I’ll succumb to the 1.0/2.0 cliché – I guess it’s only a cliché because it works], let’s call it advertising 1.0. As Google has taught the world, advertising 2.0 is about selling intent. In the pre-digital age, audience put through a number of filters (like content association, demographic information, etc) was used as a proxy for intent. Advertisers weren’t really happy with this approximation, because they knew it was an inefficient means of buying what they really wanted – access to consumers with a certain intent. But, that was the best that conventional media could do, so advertisers settled. As John Wanamaker said approximately a hundred years ago, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” I won’t go further into advertising 2.0 other than to say that it is coming faster and faster. What makes advertising 2.0 relevant to this particular rant is the fact that it favors monetization of communities, not just audiences.

Getting back to the people who don’t get the “it” of communities; the way you can tell these people is that they talk about “user-generated content” way too much – they treat it as some kind of panacea that will fix the problems inherent with trying to port conventional media business models to the internet. The worst of these offenders use the term so much that they have taken to saving time by abbreviating it…from this day forth, I vow to walk out of any meeting in which someone actually uses the term “UGC” in anything but an ironic context. (Ok, I probably won’t really do that if there are executives present…but, that person will be put on my moron list).

Derek Powazek puts it much more eloquently than I ever could:

User: One who uses. Like, you know, a junkie.
Generated: Like a generator, engine. Like, you know, a robot.
Content: Something that fills a box. Like, you know, packing peanuts.

So what’s user-generated content? Junkies robotically filling boxes with packing peanuts. Lovely.

Calling the beautiful, amazing, brilliant things people create online “user-generated content” is like sliding up to your lady, putting your arm around her and whispering, “Hey baby, let’s have intercourse.”

Amen brother! Derek goes on to suggest the term “Authentic Media,” which I like a lot and hope gets memeified. Authentic media definitely jibes a lot more with all the web and media 2.0 theory around which people are beginning to coalesce.

Anyway, back to the rant at hand. The reason I ironically titled the post “Community ‘Products'” (yes, my over use of quotation marks is often meant to denote irony), is that I don’t believe big companies can succeed at community products. Big companies, like Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, and even AOL, contribute most to the community value chain by building community platforms, on which the community builds its own products. Isn’t that the real underlying goal of online communities, to incite scalable self-sustaining user-behavior? If you define the product as what the end-user actually consumes, the value of any community product to a given individual user tends to be proportional to its focus on his interests. On social networking sites, like Friendster, Yahoo! 360, MySpace, Facebook, etc, what the end user consumes is a combination of content produced by the host, the community, and himself. The more that product management rests in the hands of that user, the more focused the product will be on that user’s

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