Bowiechick stares into the camera, her deadpan monotone decidedly at odds with the fake glasses — a crude animation effect — that frame her adolescent eyes as she recounts how her boyfriend dumped her. The minute-plus video has been played more than 150,000 times by visitors to YouTube.com, where one also can see Bowiechick make balloon animals, talk about her dog and do a “crazy arms” dance.
Bowiechick has spawned parody clips and a cult of personality, with hundreds of other kids weighing in on her nuances through posts that redirect visitors to their own pages on YouTube, MySpace.com or some other homegrown hot dog stand in cyberland. Click on one, and you’ll soon find yourself spiraling down a rabbit hole of links, blogs and vlogs.
MySpace says it’s signing up 150,000 new users a day. YouTube claims that it is empowering users to become “the broadcasters of tomorrow” and, to that end, showcases “more than 70 million videos on the site daily.”
It’s clear that, at least for the twentysomething set, we’ve become a user-generated-content nation. The emerging medium combines the intimacy of a chat with friends with the distribution capabilities of mass media. Video, still photos, text explication and, often, a rockin’ soundtrack meld to make a potent creative cocktail that is unprecedented as a form of self-expression.
A 24-year-old cosmetologist with the screen name Forbidden has leveraged her MySpace home page — containing suggestive photos, comments and music for nearly 1 million online friends (the same number of eyeballs represented by one Nielsen Media Research TV ratings point) — into a flurry of class-B endorsements and appearances.
With so much attention turned toward one another, does anyone have time for television or movies? The consensus seems to be that traditional forms of entertainment — blockbuster films, books, magazines and TV shows — aren’t going anywhere. But that hasn’t stopped advertisers and big media firms from attempting to cut in on the homegrown action.
Even celebrities want a piece. What is ClickStar if not a social-networking Web site for Hollywood filmmakers?
“We call them artist-created channels,” ClickStar CEO James Ackerman says. “They’re genre channels that are curated, if you will, by major talent: Danny DeVito is doing Jersey Docs, a documentary channel; we’re developing a Golden Age of Movies channel with Peter Bogdanovich; Morgan (Freeman, a partner in ClickStar alongside Intel) will have his own channel.”
While the ClickStar service, expected to launch by year’s end, plans to sell downloadable movies, it will encourage user-generated content — which also will be curated.
A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 35% of U.S. Internet users — about 48 million people — have posted artwork, photos, comments or other content online. Among broadband users, that share rises to 42%. User-generated content is driven by young (mostly under-30) home high-speed users (many of them male, early-adopter technophiles), distributed evenly among income levels, according to the report, which goes on to describe the Internet as “the medium for creativity and the outlet for creativity.”
During the AlwaysOn Network’s OnHollywood 2006 conference in May, media entrepreneur Tony Perkins noted that 62% of online content viewed by 21-year-olds is generated by someone they know.
It is difficult to tell where the trend will lead. How sophisticated and lucrative will user-generated content become? What balance will be struck between consumer- and commercially generated fare?
Online platforms hosting user-generated content already have amassed audiences exceeding those for some traditional media platforms. Clearly, a new critical mass has been born.
Already clear in its nascent, exploding stage is that the Web video and text that the average Joe creates for consumption (and often endless replay) by an audience of one or millions — anytime, anywhere — will have an extraordinary effect on commercial media and entertainment worldwide, the extent of which cannot yet be comprehended. But many bright minds are trying to figure it out.
NBC has ordered Web and TV “scripts” to YouTube’s three-part video hit “Nobody’s Watching,” a comedy pilot created for (and rejected by) the WB Network by Bill Lawrence, a producer and writer on NBC’s “Scrubs.” Viacom has launched MTV Flux, an interactive channel comprised of user-generated videos, reviews and messages that have been screened but not altered. And Carson Daly recently signed young YouTube breakout comedian Brookers to develop TV and Web ideas using her quirky humor, creative camera angles and homespun production techniques.
“We’re seeing a hybridization of the Internet and TV models,” says Peter Winkler, managing director of global marketing at PricewaterhouseCoopers’ entertainment and media practice. “The big question is: What’s the business model? We see a lot of opportunity for social-networking sites to connect advertisers with a desirable demographic, a Web-savvy demographic.”
The problem, Winkler adds, is that there is no real control on posted content, which can make advertisers nervous — “so you’ve got the desire on the part of the advertisers and the media companies to have some control over content, but that impulse is directly at odds with the viral nature of the community.”
Winkler predicts that advertisers will concentrate on creating environments that link from a site’s content but live apart from it.
“What (new viral sites) have going for them is, there’s a lot of advertising that wants to move off of traditional media and onto the Internet, and frankly, there aren’t enough legacy sites,” he says. “There’s only so much capacity, and there’s only so much of a ‘hip factor’ to those more-established sites that have been around for a while.”
The weekly wranglings of the YouTube video podcast “Ask a Ninja,” starring two ski mask-sporting would-be actors, attract 1 million views, as well as the attention of top advertisers, TV producers and film studios. There’s even an 11-minute parody, “MySpace: The Movie” — sporting an original script and musical score — that has garnered more than 1 million views on YouTube this year, making its everyman creator a much-sought-after commodity by Hollywood elite.
“YouTube, StupidVideos.com, the Nine on Yahoo! — the world is changing,” Ackerman says. “Today, a college band who wants to reach out to a broader audience is not going to go sit on the doorstep of EMI, hoping someone will give them a chance — they’ll go to MySpace. If you try to bring a product to that age group in a way that is more traditional, they find it less interesting. You have to be part of their world.”
Even advertisers are striving to create content that looks and feels viral — and voila, it’s working. Hewlett-Packard recently presented a soccer-themed Internet campaign in Europe titled “Fingerskillz,” featuring fingers playing soccer.
“The fingers were the legs (and) the fingernails, boots,” says Satjiv Chahil, senior vp global marketing at HP’s personal systems group. “It was a viral thing, and people loved it. They spent an average of seven minutes viewing, and it was sent all over.”
Yahoo!, a major advertiser and venue for advertising, is leading the charge in soliciting college filmmakers to create ads, and Nielsen Analytics reports that mainstream advertisers such as Motorola, Sony and Warner Bros. Pictures are launching campaigns on popular consumer-created podcasts that are generating as many as 2 million monthly downloads and as much as $100,000 in monthly revenue.
Podcasts — digital multimedia files that can be played on speaker-equipped computers or downloaded to an iPod or other portable media player — are another form of personal media for which creation is dominated by individual entrepreneurial efforts. Content such as the “Ask a Ninja” monologues, “Tiki Bar TV” comedy sketches, the “Rocketboom” news roundup and the sitcomlike “It’s Jerry Time” top the list of recent iPod downloads.
Photo-driven e-mails and blogs, being peddled by Microsoft and its new MSN Spaces, also could emerge as forms of self-expression, but video games probably have been most successful to date in straddling the old- and new-media realms by making gamers a fundamental part of the creative process. The result has been fresh efforts including college student Brad Borne’s “Fancy Pants Adventure” and “Celebrity Smackdown,” popular offerings on AddictingGames.com.
But is it simply a matter of time before the bohemian artists of cyberspace demand to be paid like Hollywood stars? Lulu.tv, an Internet video cooperative, is paying filmmakers according to the page views and visits garnered by their works. Such compensation — also offered by many similar emerging platforms widely considered to be more-selective, slightly older-skewing services than YouTube and MySpace — is expected to become the norm.
TurnHere.com pays professional filmmakers to make shorts about geographic areas and posts the works by category and location or distributes them through its partners. The site pays about $500 for each video and anticipates creating 25,000 videos during its first year.
Revver.com, a YouTube wannabe, shares ad revenue from its user-generated video pages with its amateur participants. Other upstarts such as Blip.tv and Panjea.com share at least 50% of their ad revenue with users who create their content.
The people’s revolution now faces a huge dilemma of how to protect and collect. Although “protection,” in the truest sense of the word, is anathema to the viral nature of the netizen world, the traditional model — by which playback is monitored so that payment can be calculated for creators of original material — might prove untenable in the online stew.
Unlike the now-famous Grokster case, in which simple peer-to-peer file-sharing services came under fire, new platforms such as YouTube, Google Video and Revver are facilitating users’ video uploads by way of Internet-connected personal computers, portable devices and cell phones. Users’ access to all or part of other works, for incorporation into their own original “mash-ups,” can infringe on copyrights that have not yet been defined in cyberspace.
NBC Universal recently began to work with YouTube as “an entertainment destination partner” in the wake of the site’s unauthorized use of a clip from NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Viacom has gone a step further, recently agreeing to allow Google and its customers to use clips from MTV and other Viacom properties in exchange for a three-way sharing of ad revenue. The latter is the most ambitious deal to date for compensating copyright holders and incentivizing the legal use of entertainment video on the Web, though similar arrangements exist on other ad-supported sites including AOL, Brightcove and Revver.
As the novelty of immediate self-production and distribution on the Internet wears off, and entertainment and media companies accustomed to catering to the masses become less strained and disoriented, user-generated content will find its rightful place alongside commercially generated fare.
“It creates new challenges for economics,” Chahil says. “On one level, you can call it fractionalized; on another level, you can call it personalized. It’s certainly more targeted, so one person’s fractionalized is another person’s democratized. But as you create democratization, the old financial models have to adapt.”