Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Internet and the Old Maid (Part 1)

Netflix now officially has more subscribers than Comcast.  Click here and read the title if you don’t believe me.  While it’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison, it still warms the cockles of my cold, black heart to hear news like this.  To me, it’s a sign of the times.  The old gatekeepers of content will lose their power or be forced to adapt.  Either way, consumers win.  Awesome.

What exactly did old media provide?  First and foremost, they were publishers.  They filtered through the crap and put shows on TV, songs on the radio, movies on the film screen, etc.  That’s fine, but they used and still use their massive size to cross-promote crap.  If I’m watching a baseball game, there’s an approximately 0% chance that I want to hear about The Real Housewives of Orange County.  Much, much worse though is that their filters for content are not that good.

Take the case of Norm Macdonald.  As an aside, he has a new show that’s pretty good on Comedy Central, but I can’t watch it easily online.  I don’t own a television (and because I don’t, I’m legally obligated to mention it in every conversation), so it’s a pain in the ass to try to watch Norm’s new show.  The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and Southpark all have all their episodes online, but that’s not the case for other Comedy Central programming like Tosh.0 or Sports Show.  Why, old media, why?

But I digress.  Back in the 90s, Norm was riding high on SNL.  He was definitely a blue comedian and his humor was not for everyone.  Especially, not NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer.  Ohlmeyer fired Norm in 1997.  There are a lot of reasons that are put out there to explain the firing, but my favorite conspiracy theory is that Ohlmeyer and O.J. Simpson were good friends and that Norm was relentless with O.J. jokes.  After O.J. was found not guilty, Norm opened up with, “Well, it’s official.  Murder is legal in the state of California.”

The reasons for the firing aren’t as important as the fact that a lot of people still wanted to watch Norm perform, but could not.  After he was fired, Norm said he wasn’t allowed to work on other shows.  Old media reigned supreme, and the consumer suffered.

This is a pretty stark example, but even more nefarious are the subtle (or not so subtle) changes that old media forces upon content creators.  This is the reason we see the same crap year after year.  People are coming up with new and creative ideas, presenting them to old media, and old media sees that they’re good.  The new ideas just need a few small itty, bitty changes to make the new shows more similar to the successful old ones…

Would I do a better job filling the shoes of old media?  Probably not.  Now, filtering is hard.  Figuring out what will be a hit and what will be a bomb is certainly difficult.  As Stephen Dubner (of Freakonomics fame) reports at concerning the NFL draft:

But there's a dirty little secret that most people won't acknowledge, or don't even recognize. Selecting a player in the draft is essentially trying to predict the future, and human beings are simply not very good at it.

How do we know this?

First of all, there's this quote from Niels Bohr, the Nobel-winning physicist: "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." But don't take Bohr's word for it. Let's look at evidence from a couple of fields unrelated to the NFL draft: finance and politics.

In recent years, academic researchers have been charting the predictions made by high-ranking experts in those fields. What they've found is quite sobering. When it comes to describing how the future will unfold, the typical financial or political expert does about as well as a monkey with a dartboard. Even more sobering, experts who have a particular concentration of knowledge do even worse in that area; and the more famous an expert, the more likely he is to fail.

So people, and even (or especially?) experts are bad at predicting the future.  What will the American public love (Inception?  Seems too complicated), what will they hate (Atlas Shrugged Part 1?  Sure, now’s the time to capitalize on Ayn Rand and the tea partiers!)
, and what will they love to hate (Friday by Rebecca Black)?

That last link is what really gets to the heart of the matter.  Friday by Rebecca Black has over 125 million views by the time of this writing (and only ~350,000 likes compared to ~2,500,000 dislikes).  If Rebecca Black had written and performed Friday 10 years ago she would have been laughed out of the studio and the only people to have heard the song would have been her parents.  A lot of people would say that’s a good thing, but I disagree completely.

One of the greatest advancements of the Internet is that we filter our own shit, just like tilapia on a fish farm.  Sure, there are still big content producers.  But now the little guy is making stuff that is directly viewed by other little guys, without the old gatekeepers in the way.  And we decide what we like (or at least what we like to make fun of, in the case Ms. Black).

It’s not that the Internet acts as a great filter.  In fact, one could argue that it’s a poor one.  If you go on YouTube, there are millions and millions of videos with less than a hundred views.  99.9% are pure crap, but if we have to filter our own shit just so we don’t lose access to one more Norm Macdonald, I’ll consider it a huge win.  On the other hand, the top viewed or top rated of the day on YouTube are usually reasonably high quality fare.  So if consumers apply their own filters, they can find the good stuff without the need of the old gatekeepers and without the loss of the few diamonds in the rough.

And anyway, I take great pride in finding videos that have very few views that go on to rack up millions.  Is this deranged?  Probably, but every time I see a "Golden Voice" Homeless Man before he hits it big, I get a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

Next week I’ll look at some little guy content creators who made it big without the need of the old gatekeepers.

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