The Internet Matures

I love South Park for its humor and its evolution. Its easily the best of these animated social satires which form a uniquely American art form, but it goes further and serves as an excellent document of the last nineteen years of history. Particularly it covers, and skewers, opinion as they actually occurred and shows the changes overtime. Hindsight is 20/20, only of course it’s not, and far too often people contradict their past statements and beliefs show their intelligence and predictive skills. Venezuela’s social and economic collapse is exemplary in that their system had a great many mainstream boosters in liberal countries who now pretend they never did. Corn ethanol also had a great many boosters before hard proof of it as grossly uneconomical, and even destructive, became common knowledge. So it can be particularly important to look at events as they were viewed at the time to understand the reactions.

The internet has drawn popular fascination from its very infancy which lent itself to wild speculation even as many quarters did not really take it seriously. Some success stories came from the period of the infamous Dotcom bust, and many ventures would only really gain traction after so many crashed and burned; however the Internet’s impact only grew over time and hit its stride just a few years later. YouTube became very large very quickly, but just as quickly traditional media became incredibly territorial about their products, and resisted the trend even when the added exposure only increased the popularity of the originals. In this case copyright should not have even applied as small clips posted online did not devalue anything, full episodes remain another matter entirely since they can and often do remove the incentive for viewers to support a TV show or film by paying for it or watching sponsored adds. Saturday Night Live ended up in the lurch because its format lent itself to sharing and going viral online, and that increased its popularity but the parent company came down against the online viewers with the full weight of their legal department which only hurt the show. This happened all over the place as the old giants could not understand how events were unfolding which they could not truly shape. An especially odd case of this came in 2008 when as part of the marketing campaign for Tropic Thunder Ben Stiller Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr made a hilarious skit of themselves trying to create a viral video to promote their movie and when the clip actually went viral MTV (where the clip was first aired) cried bloody murder and tried to suppress it putting them at odds with the people who made the skit in the first place. Very slowly networks started making websites for their shows into more than just perfunctory galleries serving little more purpose than listing when the next episode would air, and started actually streaming a couple episodes at a time to wet audience appetite for more.

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Even as more and more videos went viral and the potential viewership kept increasing, and old media showed difficulty grasping the opportunities, YouTube started producing its own stars or rather people managed to make themselves stars with the medium of YouTube for better or worse. South Park’s: Canada on Strike shredded the Writer’s Guild of America’s strike, in 2007, launched to try to get a larger share of proceeds from episodes streamed online. The revenue from streaming episodes remained minuscule, but it had great potential and the union did not want its members left out.
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Trying to save the striking Canadians (stand ins for the WGA) the boys create a viral internet video and they encounter a veritable what what (pun intended) of YouTube stars highlighting the unpredictability of what might become a viral video. Something memorable and amusing, yet often requiring little or no talent. A clash of egos and greed ends with most of the YouTube stars slaughtered in a bloodbath royale. In the end very much speaking to the WGA through their characters Trey Parker and Matt Stone acknowledge the immense potential of streaming, yet remind everyone of loss of real opportunities just for possible future returns. Many movie released around then showed hackneyed writing as a consquence of unpolished and un-revised scripts problems traced again and again to the WGA’s strike. South Park continued to offer their catalogue for free online, putting their money where they mouth was, but I have to admit I did not start collecting seasons on DVD until after they made the episode availability less than total (currently only a couple episodes from each season get hosted via Hulu).

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It pains me to write it but I have to give Justine Bieber a lot of credit, he went from posting videos of himself singing onto YouTube and from there went mainstream and became a superstar. No small feat even if most people cannot stand his music. When he really started getting big Miley Cyrus (a person of significanly less talent which does not set the barometer very high) expressed disdain for the rise of people getting their break from YouTube and viral marketing referencing her own rise (having connections and relations within the industry) as more appropriate. It’s convenient to have such an aristocratic attitude for those born into such an advantageous position.

I see the increasingly insular nature of the music industry as the main reasons for its decline, and performers have become less artists and more spokespuppets for producers. The internet created a new path for talent, and an effective way for them to connect with their fans. A path to success with the dominant labels for acts who fit a familiar mold was one thing, but it showed the internet as a stepping stone to success not as something which created a new paradigm.

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Costume rental $50, travel expenses $400, incidentals $150, recording equipment $1200; internet superstardom = priceless

 

However rapid shifts came as more and more makers of content use it as their primary distribution scheme. The Penantonix actually recruited most of their act chiefly from looking up performers who posted onto Youtube and built an act which would have a hard time selling itself to a record label for molding into something they want and instead stay primarily based around Youtube for promoting their recordings and tours. Likewise with Lindsey Stirling who’s become probably the most famous YouTube based musician performing a mix of dance and violin which the judges on America’s Got Talent saw as having no real commercial appeal (they wish they could pull a fraction of her YouTube views). More and more performers follow a similar pattern of drawing attention with many music video tributes to popular themes from movies and video games and popular songs, using cheap to use but stunning locations to draw in new viewers while also posting original recordings. These YouTubers also tend to cross-promote with each other showing a high degree of solidarity. Recently a spokesman for a major record label called YouTube the devil blaming it for their atrophying revenue, but YouTube responded back that they share much of the advertising revenue with their content producers (as proven by the proliferation of the Youtubers) yet in the case of major acts most of that money gets soaked up by those record labels. Considering examples like that maybe the WGA’s strike showed greater foresight than they got credit for at the time.

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Wait, you mean money goes further when it’s not split 5,000 different ways by accountants I don’t even know.

Web based content is not limited to music and several web based series have been popular and with a more limited organization it’s much easier to turn a profit. Joss Whedon after making a pair of massively successful Avengers movies actually confessed that he made far more money off the experimental Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. That was an outlier as he put together a mainstream cast and helped promote it with his cult following, yet it and other successful web series show that the normal bottlenecks for distribution have been much ameliorated by the web and its growing (dare I write it) maturity.

A few years ago some of the major entertainment companies tried to pressure Netflix into paying much higher licensing fees for their content, and they should have had a trump card since Netflix needed what they had but they could live without Netflix which also has to compete with many other streaming services. Not long after that Netflix got into producing its own programs starting with the critically lauded House of Cards, and now uses in demand shows which attract attention (critical, commercial and cult) to drive subscriptions becoming one of the more successful TV networks (a term which seems more and more anachronistic) from a purely internet base. Since they started this more and more digital services have started making shows primarily for streaming.

Another brilliant recent South Park covered the rise of the commentary YouTube channels, and satirized traditional talk-shows as unironically complaining about people becoming famous just for talking. I became familiar with the rise of this, and particularly that some successful YouTubers now do it as a career from a video from Thunderf00t. Responding to some of his critics celebrating his rumored firing from his day job, he wasn’t but more importantly that he actually makes quite a bit more from running his channel than he does as a research scientist. He stuck with his job because he enjoys it, but being fired would not cripple him. Interestingly enough many of Thunderf00t’s videos debunk various crowd-sourcing schemes as essentially selling snake-oil. Crowd-sourcing provides many opportunities and has gotten many projects off the ground (I often contribute to projects). Since all business ventures get launched with the hope of commercial success it’s not so odd to get interesting consumers to put up some money beforehand. Particularly for Kickstarter the perks often include sales so it works often more like a preorder than a true donation, yet those preorders might actually get something made. The dark-side is the projects which seem sexy and futuristic yet are often obviously nonsense to those with a basic understanding of science and engineering. Even with science savvy YouTubers debunking many such projects, filling a role which should be done by journalists, some of those have relabeled themselves and relaunched and continued to swindle the gullible. Beyond Kickstarter campaigns and small earnings from YouTube monetization sites like Patreon allow for direct support of people and projects someone finds worthy (like the higher levels of support on Kickstarters which go beyond what someone can be rationalized as a preorder).

Far from the early YouTube one hit wonders (which often resembled America’s Funniest Home Videos) these successful channels often rely on a high degree of talent and knowledge (and only sometimes a degree of technical skill) can consistently produce content with many viewers and many of their channels have huge bases of subscribers. A good example of success comes from a family who make a fortune off uploading videos of their kids playing with toys.

Recently worries over censorship have come up with mechanisms meant to discourage abuse getting themselves abused to try to shut down discourse, and even more discussion and demands or controls in the form of Safe Spaces and other amorphous ideas wide open for misuse. Many YouTubers have complained about some of their videos getting demonetized (not getting advertising and thus providing them with revenue) without announcement as a stealth form of censorship. Considering the importance of web based services for discourse, especially for these smaller independent operators, even many libertarian minded people have acknowledged some need for scrutiny on the services themselves; moreover those major web companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on a reputation of fairness to maintain their popularity. Many of these pro-censorship groups (who would never dare call themselves that) themselves are primarily web based members of what Dave Rubin dubbed the ‘regressive left’. To have any real impact these groups depend on a level of indulgence from the major companies (Feminist Frequency is part of Twitter’s Orwellianly named Trust and Safety Council). Selectively shutting down content must hold a certain attraction for the major online companies since far from the upstarts they were cast as many years ago they have become the fat-cats;  making deals with some of the world’s shadier regimes to gain and keep access to those markets and in many cases relying on advantageous tax policies in the US setup to avoid strangling web based companies during the infancy of online commerce. The major web companies rank among the great abusers of the H1N1 visa program showing a sense of entitlement towards such special favors in an industry which clearly stopped needing them a long time ago.

The term TV network comes from the need in the days of broadcast to cobble together large numbers of local stations into broadcasting the same programs to reach a national audience (ditto for radio which preceded it), and later on cable led to a proliferation of channels and new content since it lessened the infrastructure needed to enter the market. Like with the internet many of the early cable shows proved dodgy, often those networks drew subscribers primarily by offering the swearing and nudity missing from the traditional networks both on their own shows and on movies which did not need to the traditional censoring for content before broadcast. It took awhile but eventually some of them went in the direction of prestige programs with HBO becoming a critical favorite for shows like the Sopranos. Eventually some basic cable channels like FX followed suit which gave us our current golden age of TV. DVD sales helped the drive towards making shows with passionate fan bases, instead of trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience, Buffy the Vampire Slayer a marginally rated show on the bush-league WB Network sold almost as many DVDs as the massively watched (and hugely expensive) sitcoms like Friends. For awhile many networks took an antagonistic view towards the net, HBO came down hard against anyone pirating its flagship show Game of Thrones as it became the most pirated show in the world, but after the first couple seasons they discovered something quite interesting: far from cutting into their revenue seeing the free version drew people into paying to see more episodes and at a higher quality. It became expected at cable companies when people called them asking how much it would be to subscribe just for one pay network that they did it for HBO and more specifically for Game of Thrones. After learning that they massively updated their online presence to steam episodes and even started encouraging subscribers to share their accounts with their friends to attract even more fans. Online presence and a passionate fan-base had eclipsed everything even one of the most sophisticated networks knew about their own business model.

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More and more of the better news outlets primarily base themselves from websites, and with traditional news in the doldrums this has picked up quite a bit of the slack. As early as the late Nineties Druge Report scooped the major outlets for stories, but now it has become actually expected for much of the news to be steered by coverage from websites like Politico or Huffington Post or Brietbart.

A recent review I watched for a video game titled it a ‘solid foundation’ positing that independent of their own merits much of the attraction for some games comes from what the fan community will make from modifying them. It’s actually quite easy to take an existing game and greatly change it to fit into something else for people who understand the code, and dramatically cheaper than trying to invent a new game-engine. In that series, the Total War games, some of the earlier variants remain hugely popular for just this reason. Some people even launch their own small game studios and with the streaming service Steam mods and independent games get heavily supported something which has given Steam a huge edge over its competitors. Many huge mainstream PC games now come from mods, Counter Strike started as one which became major and later on the developers looked at a distinct mod which featured all melee attackers for that shooter got the genesis for the Left 4 Dead series. Once again creators bypass traditional publishing routes, most fail like with any business venture but many succeed and with such low costs to get going it has greatly increased the availability and quality of content by making a more competitive market.

I don’t claim the internet has reached a point where it’s static, but rather where it promotes new talent, and has become completely needed for established media companies to compete even as the major companies show some of the corruptions which come into every industry once it’s fully established. So if it’s not viewed as a respectable gentleman raising his family then the internet should be looked on as the guy who has his own place and a decent steady job, and demands treatment as an adult even as he sorts out the chaos of his personal relationships. A far cry from the basement dweller many still describe it as.

 

 

 

 

Post Script:
This post is a minimal primer and idle thoughts on how far things have come. The full subject could fill a book with entire chapters devoted to #Gamergate and the effect of Instagram on fashion with the rise of social media savvy models some of whom don’t even join agencies anymore but just get paid to post pictures of themselves to their own feeds. It’s actually to the point where up and coming celebrities get expected to have a large social media presence.

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