There’s a place close to where I live in Odense, where I come often to walk my dog. It’s one of those places I call ‘cracks of the industrial city’. As anyone familiar with the lyrics of Leonard Cohen will tell you, the cracks are ‘where the light gets in‘… In this case, it’s a stretch of unused railway tracks grown full with weeds and bushes, and surrounded by the backsides, walls and fences of old industrial buildings.
This place invites two particular breeds of people; dog owners and grafitti artists. It occured to me as a fitting spot to do our first videoblog, on what I term the ‘grafitti phase of a startup’ :
The video is also accessible on YouTube, which didn’t, however, work wonders for the quality of the video. The difficulty of getting compressed video (mp4) into an editing program, and getting it out in the same quality as it got in (mp4), is something I have yet to master. Add to this the further Flash-ification of the video on sites such as Blip.tv and YouTube, and you have a recipe for massacred material – especially if the quality was not that great to begin with.
This post is our first video blog post, and I know we’ve got a lot to learn. There’s a long way to go for us. We’d really like your input on how to improve. Ideas?
Among my too many interests at the present is scalability and problems of scaling webservices, in particular. Of course, this is an obvious concern for Kaplak, as it is and will be for any startup which wants to address a global user base. How do you grow from your cellar setup to a system capable of meeting a much stronger, extraordinary demand?
Alex Conner sent a few tips my way via Twitter, among these this interesting video with Cuong Do Cuong from YouTube. Do Cuong was part of the engineering team that scaled the YouTube software and hardware infrastructure from its infancy to its current scale. In this video he discusses hardware, software and database scaling challenges :
I’d like to share some of the insights which motivated me to deliberately, willfully and consciously choose to spend a considerable number of years of my life enduring the hardships of building a startup business from scratch. What motivated me to found Kaplak? What motivates me to work on Kaplak, each and every day?
There are a number of avenues to take to answer these questions. One of these is Dreams of a Diva (org. Danish title Diva Drømme), a documentary film I produced/directed in 2005. This trailer for the film gives you an idea of what kind of film this is :
The film was produced under the FilmTrain program, and therefore, to a certain extent, sponsored as part of my participation in this program. FilmTrain was financed as an Interreg IIIA project, which basically means it was funded by the EU. It was a cross-border Danish-German project of which one particular objective was to try and develop and keep young and independent media professionals in the regions of Odense/Funen and Kiel/Schleswig, rather than “lose them” to the big cities of Copenhagen and Hamburg.
I’ve never been very good at thinking about how to market any film I produced. In short, because I never cared. Every current project interested me, and older ones were soon shelved, after airings on local or national television, or screenings at festivals. None of my films have attracted or tried to attract a mainstream audience. I made films about subjects I liked and which interested me, despite the fact I never earned more than a little on any of them. In 2004 I met Sofie Krog, which is a world-class puppeteer, and she hired me to do a promotional video for her. I knew already then, that it would be great to eventually do a longer film about her and her show, and decided to make the film the following year.
Much hard work later, the film had a blast of a premiere in a local movie theatre in Odense in January 2006, with an invited audience of about 100 people. The following week, when the film stood it’s ground in the theatre on it’s own merits, it attracted as many as two paying moviegoers, of which one was my aunt. And this was after what I’d say was decent local press coverage, on television, in radio and in the printed press.
Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed. Some rational analysis later, this was hardly surprising, even though we’d hoped for more. The film had a niche subject, puppeteering, which was little known about locally, featured an up-and-coming star in this field, which were little known outside theatrical circles – and to top it, it was a documentary film. Apparently, documentaries never do very well in theatres (with the rare exception).
This was what I call an eye-opener to me. What may have been latent knowledge before then, was then crystal. It was clear to me, that I couldn’t rely on any traditional distribution channel, such as movie theatres, for my work – and nor for financing my work, if I wanted to continue to do the kind of non-mainstream creative works I wanted to do.
At the same time I released the film on the bittorrent-indexsite The Pirate Bay, from where the torrent spread to other torrent-indexsites. Also the official FilmTrain DVD (which was free) was later leaked to the bittorrent network. While none of these files were ever big hits on the torrent networks, the traffic they brought from as far away as Greece and Japan revealed new avenues of distribution. Gargantuan amounts of data were transported to far away places – not with the speed of light – but comparatively hazzle-free, for such a young technology. It was in fact possible to distribute large amounts of data to the other end of the world with comparative ease and very little cost. It was clear, there were problems. Lots of problems. At one point I managed to send 13 GB or so across the Atlantic. It took 14 days or so to do it, though. With just two people connected, this was not the economical method of doing this, but it still amazed me. Shipping this amount of data from a home computer to another through the internet was unthinkable just 5-10 years ago. Eventually I got tired of seeding myself, which basically made the torrents unavailable (and they are so now, not just this film, but most of the stuff I put up there). But the possibility existed. We “just” needed some method to pay for the bandwidth and hosting. We needed to make it even easier.
I can’t possibly go back to directing and producing a film, before I get to a point where I can rely on the architectures of it’s distribution to actually bring the film to those interested in it, and give me a decent living from it, which helps finance my work. Sending a film in 100 physical copies to 100 different film festivals around the world can’t do this for me, it’s only further expenses. Now, we have a global, open architecture of distribution at our feet. We “just” need to tweak and improve the tools at our hands to enable us to create new business models.
I can’t publish my work online without a method of making a living from what I do. I found back then, that there were a ton of videosites and p2p networks which enabled internet users to distribute their stuff. Yet, amazingly none took seriously aim to crack what I increasingly saw as “the niche producer’s problem”; financing, and what’s going to get a niche production financing : increased and targeted visibility towards it’s niche market. I also found that there were lots of methods to put advertising on one’s website – and earn a dime doing so. But what if you don’t have a website? What if you don’t want to become entangled in online advertising, but would rather go about your business doing what you do well? Or what if you can attract so little traffic, that it isn’t really worth your while? I found none which were interested in appealing to niche markets, on what I refer to as “the slim end” of the long tail. This was the situation Kaplak was founded to remedy. Not just for myself, but for anyone for whom this resonates.
The waters are divided these days on the blog commenting service Disqus, which we’ve also installed here on the Kaplak Blog. Personally I was impressed with it when I first saw it on the How To Split The Atom blog, and decided it could do great work for the Kaplak Blog too. So when we moved the blog, it was a natural step to install their WordPress plugin.
What Disqus does is deliver a cross-blog and cross-platform commenting plugin for blogs, which hosts and connects comments, and feeds them back in different ways to the blogs. There are several great advantages from this ‘fragmentation of blog comments’, and so far about 4000 blogs (according to Disqus) think so too – and there are some apparent drawbacks, at least for time being.
I’ve been trying to gather the pros and cons of Disqus as it looks right now, and ultimately I am pretty undecided. Robin Good, blogger and new media reporter (who, among other things, did a remix of Steal This Film) sums the undecidedness up pretty well in this video :
To sum up as they’ve been put by Robin and others recently :
Users who comment on different blogs can easily find their comments again and organize their discussions.
Users are much more able to interact with other bloggers and commenters, independently of the blogs they comment on.
Bloggers can easily reply to comments via Disqus email, which saves a lot of ‘logging in/out’ hazzle if you receive many comments.
Discussions can be feeded easily from Disqus into other services, such as FriendFeed, drawing other people into following discussions and commenting.
Bloggers potentially lose out on the income from ads, if too much commenting activity is moved from “their blog” to Disqus
No support for trackbacks or pingbacks, which is a pain, since these play a vital role in the blogging “if I link to you, you link to me too” ecology. Daniel Ha of Disqus says they’re working on something big in this department. One can’t help but wonder, though, if they foresaw what kind of a dealbreaker not including this to begin with could be?
You can find Kaplak’s Disqus Community page here. I’m curious to learn more, as I am still pretty undecided. All things balanced out, for now we keep Disqus on the blog – even though we might use a temporary hack to enable WordPress trackbacks. In my current estimate the social benefits and effects of using Disqus are greater than the Google juice we get from comments (we don’t get a lot of comments yet), although it is a difficult estimate, since we are a young blog and needs to attract readers. I guess it adds up to this : why can’t we have both the Google juice and the trackbacks, as well as the great social functionality and effects that Disqus can give us?
How does the balance look for you and your blog or commenting habits? What are the scores, advantages and benefits? What is the dealbreaker?
Can’t help but post this, because it’s the funniest commercial I’ve seen in the last five years :
Thanks to Jason Calacanis for the tip! It’s an example of what twittering can do to a message. It’s not as hard and effort-demanding as blogging, and the message gets through to everyone following the twitter.
In this case, a video commercial gets spread online with lightning speed. What’s amazing is how few companies deliberately and strategically use these channels for their messages. I’m not even following Jason very fanatically, yet here I am bringing on the message in this space. I also added the video to ‘my favourites’ on YouTube, which makes the video visible to everyone following my videos. I added Jason to my “following” because I knew his name from other online activities and discussions and was curious to explore different twittering styles. Jason is very consciously using Twitter to promote his site and live video streams.
For mainstream media such as this commercial, it’s shooting with a wide arc in a channel like this. But more targeted messages (such as niche products) could use social media wildly efficiently, to help build a following. I just read, that Barack Obama twitters too, and he’s had some luck with it ;-)
I replied to Mikkel’s blog post on ‘Search – before, now and in the future’, where I tried to make the point that search as a communications solution suffers from key preconditions, which are far from optimal. Among these the fact that in order to search for something, you need to know what to look for before you search, and you need to deliberately and consciously use a search engine to look for it.
In other words, search is a deliberate and conscious affair. This makes it difficult, for instance, to use search to market products, which are not well known, such as niche products, or to address problems or needs, which are not yet consciously thought or expressed.
Add to this the present growth rates of information on the web. For each new website added to the web, you increasingly risk that your information will never reach the queries seeking it. We’re talking exponential growth rates in several millions of new websites, added each month to the web. As Search faces these increasingly greater amounts of information, this problem, which we’ve so far dubbed the mainstream problem, will only become more apparent.
Mikkel, however, firmly believes in the future of algorithmic search, so these claims didn’t go uncommented. First, he argues that machines will always work faster and scale better than social services, which has great filtering and quality challenges :
I am completely in line with Louis Monier [founder of Altavista], and am 100% certain that algorithmic search will remain dominant. Manual data processing, like in the [online] social services, simply suffers from too many scaling and quality assessment-issues to compete in the long run. Only machines are scalable on the necessary scale and with a continued central quality assessment. … [my own translation, MB]
I have a few problems with these arguments for the quality of search as a communications method. I wanted to analyze them a bit here, in order to make them part of our process to find out more about the effectiveness of online communication and it’s niche/longtail effects. Over the past months, I’ve come to question the widespread naturalization of search as ‘the best’ and ‘natural’ method of making information available and visible online. True, right now Search is the dominant method for obtaining information online. It is also a billion dollar business, although this is mostly due to the success of Google AdWords/AdSense, which is quite a different product. However, this may not be so in the future.
The part of Mikkel’s argument which makes a distinction between social services on one hand, which are manually created and processed (by humans), and search on the other, which uses machines and algorithms, and therefore scale better etc, is fundamentally flawed.
First, search results are ‘peer production’ almost as much as any online social bookmarking service is, i.e. they are socially produced. Peer production is a term coined by Harvard professor Yochai Benkler (in The Wealth of Networks (2006) – which can be downloaded freely here). That search results are peer production means that they create value by putting together websites from different peers (i.e. companies, organizations or individuals) in order to respond to a search query. Google does this without even asking the peers first (it’s an opt-out, not an opt-in system), and so the peers used to create value may not even know that they contribute value to this system. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that it is the sourcing and pooling together of the work of different peers as a response to a human search query, which creates value in a search result. A search result is socially produced, even though the work done filtering and presenting it in few seconds is done by advanced programming, software, hardware – and cables.
These advanced architectures however, are also created by humans, which means there are someone sitting and using their human capabilities to decide what categories and what variables should factor in with how much weight in the algorithms which control the process of finding and delivering information, when somebody searches for something particular.
The problem with this is not that the process is just as human-influenced as any online social bookmarking service for instance, but that the someone deciding what variables should factor in, is (most likely) not an expert on what the someone at the other end typing in a search query is looking for. The other someone is. It’s one size fits all. One architecture (in principle) for all queries in the world.
I tried asking Mikkel how he could be sure, that a query actually met with a usable result. Even if a query is answered by a number of search results, this doesn’t mean that the search results are actually usable and delivers the answer to the query. If this user experience is bad, search fails in delivering an answer, even if there are a million hits on the query.
Let’s take a look at something completely different, i.e. this page at Wikipedia. Notice the edits happening to the article “Tsunami” in december 2004? A page which before december 2004 had minimal contributions and edits made to it, literally exploded with new information, when a tsunami this month devastatingly hit the coasts of Sri Lanka and Thailand. Everything was frequently updated as events rolled along and people in different parts of the world found out new things about what had happened, complete with a small animation to go along with it.
Wikipedia aims to make knowledge freely accessible to anyone on the planet. Like providers of algorithmic search, Wikipedia uses lots of machinery to deliver it’s information, as well as an advanced complex of software architectures. Wikipedia’s articles are peer produced, but much more directly and consciously so than the algorithmically created search result we saw earlier. Even the software is peer produced. MediaWiki is free software, which can be copied and worked upon by anyone who wishes to do so, and any changes may be adopted by the main package.
A second point is the difference in value created. With an example from his own work, Mikkel illustrates how Search Engine Optimization (SEO) done right directly creates great surplus of value for the companies he and other SEO’s work for. Regular SEO maneuvres help direct lots of relevant traffic to the corporate websites.
That SEO helps create value, however, by more directly targeting traffic at corporate websites can’t be said to be an argument for the quality of search as a communications solution in and of itself, but rather for the quality of Mikkel’s and his colleagues’ work. There’s a lot of money in SEO, and that’s not because search is a brilliant solution to a communications problem. It is rather because search is inherently insufficient as a solution to the problem of connecting a query/demand with an answer/product, especially for a company which wants to stay alive and gain a competitive edge. And this problem will grow a lot bigger. I predict that Mikkel and his SEO colleagues will be paid even better in years to come.
It is first and foremost a problem of visibility, not particularly of search. We need to create better ways to make information accessible to the people who need it, without swamping those who don’t. Second, it is a problem of speed, because we need information fast, to better meet the challenges we face, as individuals, organizations and societies.
As a non-profit, Wikipedia doesn’t make any money on the processes involved in creating and building a quality article, but the value that an improved Wikipedia article (such as the tsunami article) provides for millions of journalists, for instance, and the newspapers and media companies which employ them, is indispensable. I know for a fact that reporters use Wikipedia a lot, and with good reason. It is the fastest and most scalable source of information online, beyond any doubt. And when as many contributors as in the tsunami article come together, it also proves a highly reliable and credible source. It beats the crap out of trawling search results pages without finding what you’re looking for. But it is only a small example of what peer production is capable of, given the right architectures and tools.
Thomas Magnussen is a British-Danish actor with a voice talent. His first job was a minor part in Tom Hanks’ tv-series Band of Brothers (2001), and since then his work has been a mix of theatrical plays, voice work and a number of roles in film and television. He has done a few international commercials. On his website, Thomas uses this video to introduce himself :
Thomas was kind enough to send me a quicktime file of the film, which I uploaded to YouTube (whose true merits we discussed briefly here), because I think it is important to show the video here as well. When you expressly put a text, an image or a video (like in this case) into a new context, it makes it stand out in a new way and helps create new meaning. And create meaning is what we want to do, because this creates value for this particular spot on the internet. I’m surprised, with Thomas’ resume, that I couldn’t find him on YouTube or in other places, because this kind of activity helps build traffic for his website, and it doesn’t cost anything.
Kaplak : Can you tell us a little about yourself and your niche business? How did you get involved with your line of work?
Thomas Magnussen (TM) : I am an actor, trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, working freelance in both theatre and films. I have several years of experience in doing various voicework such as: Documentary speaks, cartoon dubbing, voiceovers and commercial speaks. As I am bi-lingual English-Danish I’m equally skilled in both languages, and therefore work in both.
Kaplak : What kind of digital product do you produce (if any)?
TM : The digital products I produce are primarily the above mentioned voice related works, but I would be open to any idea which could involve acting related jobs, such as e-learning products for instance.
Kaplak : What constitute the greatest opportunity for your business on the internet?
TM : The greatest opportunity the internet offers me is that I can reach out to potentiel clients/employers in every part of the world by simply being visible via my website.
Kaplak : What are the greatest challenge?
TM : The greatest challenge is to find out where to focus my attention and how to get people to find out that I exist.
As an actor, Thomas is a hired gun. He is primarily a freelancer. The main portion of his work is done for clients, i.e. other creative producers and companies. Even when hired by a theatre, jobs are per project and run for a limited time. In several respects, this makes him different from the hobby-oriented “just for fun” niche producer and the professional-level producer we’ve met earlier on this blog.
First, he doesn’t usually own the digital end products he helps create. There could be exceptions to this, and surely there’s a lot of convergence happening, where a one day freelancer may be a producer on his own terms the other day (I’ve worked like that myself for years). As a “classic” freelancer though, one doesn’t usually gain rights to the work produced, but more often has to give them up.
Second, Thomas’ primary problem is visibility. But not towards people who buy the end digitial product (still, we keep out all points about convergence for now), but towards his clients, the producers all over the world, who want the product he offers. In other words, to get in touch with the producers who will want to hire him, if they knew he existed.
To sum up, it’s not the visibility for “end customers”, transport of data og payments which are Thomas’ challenges. In this sense, at first glance, he’s not an obvious Kaplak customer. But still he’s a very attractive customer for Kaplak. Why? Because he has a website! And he has something to sell, besides his acting product.
Thomas’ website is right now not much more but a showcase of his previous work, a curriculum vitae and some contact information. But it is also (or could be) an entry point to Thomas’ fan base or network. These people are valuable customers for the products, which Thomas’ acting efforts help produce, and possibly also for other types of related products. Imagine, that Thomas could help sell one of his recent projects, i.e. James Barclay’s next feature film Aurum, via his website. Imagine that the entire cast on this film (most actors have their own webpages) could help sell the film via their websites. Not only would this be great marketing news for the producer, but could also help provide a little extra for each actor.
Steve Blank, who we hold dearly at Kaplak, spoke in December at a Google conference about the history of Silicon Valley. This talk provides some fascinating insights into the intersection of war, technology and business, which shouldn’t be missed, if you’re interested in the history of technology :