Everybody fucks

I was called up on the phone today by a guy from Jyllands-Posten, which is, as some will know, a major Danish newspaper. The guy in the other end told me they’ve just converted to a tabloid format and wanted to sell me and Kaplak a subscription for one year, and he would give me a free laptop too, if I’d take his offer. I thought the offer sounded a bit suspicious but didn’t decline, as I thought a free laptop always might come in handy. So I said I couldn’t decide right now, and went online to search for more information on this offer using Google.

I didn’t find much on the laptop offer. Instead, this turned out to be an interesting case of using search and of what one finds when looking for something else. I stumbled over this article in Jyllands-Posten (now also quoted in this space), which I found sufficiently interesting to spend a few minutes hunting down the object of the article, this video, which was first posted to YouTube, but then taken down by the service :

The story goes like this : Bilka, a large Danish chain of supermarket stores sells computers. One of their customers had an unusual agenda. Unnoticed he used a demo model of a laptop which was showcased in one of their stores (located in Holstebro) to play a porn movie for customers which happened to be passing by. Meanwhile their reactions were captured with the laptop’s built-in webcam. Apparently the plan was put into action using a USB stick to get the movie onto the showcased laptop. Some way the perpetrator managed to get the footage of customers’ reactions edited and uploaded to YouTube, from where it was later removed (by YouTube). It is now an entry in the collection of YouTomb, a MIT study dedicated to takedown patterns on YouTube (and other online services).

Fortunately, someone also uploaded this obvious case of the consumer-producer convergence to other online spaces, from where it may be seen and be redistributed. The days have passed when YouTube could take down a video and then it would cease to exist on the internet.

This story is a good case of PageRank which generates activity for all the wrong reasons. The video didn’t appear in Google’s own video results, for obvious reasons. YouTube took down the video so they wouldn’t include it, and Google’s video search is not (yet) very good at locating video from third party sources. Clearly Bilka doesn’t like to get all this attention from a story like this and have likely been trying to shut it down. And I wasn’t even looking for something about Bilka or for cases like this. So why did I find it?

Thanks to PageRank, it is easy to find these kinds of cases, as they are typically linked to from a number of places. PageRank also makes it difficult to find stuff, because these kind of stories prioritized by PageRank are deeply irrelevant to the information I was seeking : my original search for something on the laptop offer. I didn’t find what I was really looking for. But in this case, this wasn’t important enough for me to not be easily swayed from my way.

To find the story, the only keywords I had to use was “Jyllands-Posten” and “laptop”, originally searching for something on the laptop offer I received. Subsequently, after I found the article from the paper’s website, I tracked down the video in question, mostly out of pure stubbornness and refusal to let YouTube decide what’s good for me. It also seems strange to me to have a news story on the internet about a video, but not display the video. I wanted to see it for myself. In order to find it, I looked for “video” with the other keywords “Bilka”, “porno” (Danish for “porn”) and “Holstebro”, and dug up the title it had on YouTube before the takedown. After the takedown, someone posted the title of the video, “Electronic Harassment #1 – Porno on Laptop” along with the YouTube user name of the user who uploaded it. After that it was easy to locate it somewhere else. I was lucky it still carried the same title.

I can’t help but find this story incredibly funny. In all it’s comical simplicity, pulling this stunt showcases the shift in power, voice and authority, which distributed computing and online media enables – from large respectable companies, channels and filters to every one of us, independent of filters, disrespectfully engaging, limits imposed only by the audacity of our creativity. Let’s continue our work to find and build filters, which are independent of YouTube, Facebook and other such services, which so ridiculously lie flat on their stomachs for yesterday’s norms and masters. Which have so little concern for the individual voice of experimental producers, that it’s just sickening. And let’s spread stuff like this wide and far, to let executives everywhere know, that we know, that their unquestioned power is about to end – if it hasn’t already. “Everybody fucks”.

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The Anthropology of YouTube

I can’t say how much I enjoyed this video of a talk by cultural anthropologist and media ecologist professor Michael Wesch of Kansas State University, famous for his extraordinary video on web 2.0, which gained enormous popularity in the YouTube community.

Now, in this video Wesch shares his thoughts on YouTube as a historical, social and cultural phenomenon, which is as entertaining as it is insightful, on the complete pallet of workings of the new order of the web, of which YouTube is a great example. Please enjoy :

Thanks, once again to Raymond for the tip on this video.

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The Grey Zone of Syndication

As I mentioned in an earlier post, syndicating stuff is also one huge grey area of legal hazzle. Stumbled over this discussion from a couple of years back (as well as this one), which airs not at all uncommon concerns. You risk being called a scraper, a spammer and a splogger, if you pursue the path of syndication.

Pariah S. Burke wrote :

RSS feeds are published for individual, private consumption; they are not a blanket license to, or waiver of, reprint rights. Taking and republshing content—no matter how much or how little—without the original author’s permission is a violation of U.S. and international Copyright laws. There are exceptions, of course, detailed in the Fair Use doctrine, but such exceptions are very specific and do not apply to the vast majority of sites using FeedWordPress, Autoblog, and the like. In fact, Charles Johnson, the creator of FeedWordPress is in constant and frequent violation of copyright law because the apparent majority of his blog’s content is stolen without the original authors’ permission.

In that case, Google, which enables users to very easily tag and share (i.e. republish) feeds they find interesting via their popular service Google Reader, is guilty of same said constant and frequent violation of copyright law, or at least, in willful and assisting infringement. The same of course goes for YouTube and any web service, which allows anyone to embed their videos, images and games on your own local site.

Who says a tool has to be used in one way only? Let’s get creative! That’s how problems are solved and new business models are developed!

Here’s another POV, from a guide on setting up an automatic blog which automatically generates a ‘shitload of traffic’ and is ‘just about hands free’ :

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of people scraping content that people have sweated over. However, one thing I don’t mind doing is thieving from thieves.

You’re on the hunt for “disposable” content – generally not text based. Think along the lines of Flash games, funny videos, funny pictures, hypnomagical-optical-illusions – that kind of thing. The Internet is awash with blogs that showcase this stuff. Check out Google blogsearch and try a search like funny pictures blog. There’s hundreds of the leeching bastards showcasing other peoples pictures, videos, games and hypnomagical-optical-illusions for their website. They can hardly call it “their” content. With this ethical pebble tossed aside, we can go and grab some content.

There’s loads of ways you can hunt down potential content. You’re on the lookout for RSS feeds with this rich media. So you could try; Google Blogsearch, Technorati, MyBlogLog – basically any site that lets you search the blogosphere.

My personal point of view (this is also Kaplak’s stand) is that the problem of visibility for sites and products is larger than the largely fictional problem of “theft”. If you make syndicated feeds publicly available, you implicitly want and ask for syndication, because you want your message out. Syndication will help your site or product become visible in places and contexts it would not otherwise be seen in, and that’s why you use it and why you should use it. If you do not want your message out in other contexts and do not want to see your articles appear on other websites in a syndicated format, you can simply choose not to make articles available for syndication. The benefits however, in the Google Juice and traffic which syndication brings back to your sites and products, are in most cases much greater than the disadvantages.

Accusing syndication sites and services for theft and copyright infringement is IMHO ridiculous at best, as these services actually help your site become seen and achieve better rankings in search engines. It helps your interested readers and users find you in the first place. And if you don’t want to be read – why publish to the web?

At worst, these allegations are harmful, as they instill an atmosphere of fear and create distrust of using RSS, feeds and aggregation tools. Instead, we need to urge and encourage syndication and use of syndicated feeds, as it enables rich web contexts, which would otherwise not be possible, and makes it easier to direct interest and relevant traffic to sites and subjects of interest. It is above all a tool, which can be used for our mutual benefits – or for spamming and creating yet more “get rich quick” mentality kind of sites filled with stuff the world could care less about (but apparently doesn’t). I am of the opinion that these types of sites may provide their owners with short-term rewards, but ultimately will fade to authentic sites of much stronger lasting value. How to build lasting value, and help these sites and products build lasting value, is what we’re interested in here.

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Scaling YouTube

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 :

Thanks for the tip, Alex :-)

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Kaplak’s Online Strategy

If you’re reading this, you belong to a select group of people who have managed to find their way along intricate paths into this new home for the Kaplak Blog. Kaplak’s first site was since it’s inception last summer born as a temporary website for Kaplak. It’s primary purpose was to host the blog and the mailing list until we had developed our first online strategy. Now, we’re in the process of implementing this strategy for our online presence. This mindmap roughly illustrates what this entails :

Kaplak is not just one website – we’re building a presence on a number of different platforms, from Twitter and del.icio.us to YouTube and Facebook, and on countless others. Many of these platforms are tied together by RSS, which makes it (which is the goal) comparatively easy or convenient to travel (i.e. follow links) between these different platforms and communities.

One important step in the process has been to move the blog to it’s own domain, with new powerful software (WordPress) and plugins, so that we could ‘free up’ the main domain for a complete revamp. The purpose of Kaplak.com changes to become a key entry point on the web for the “signup and upload” process for new customers. This will be closely connected to the Kaplak Marketplace, which will be Kaplak’s main original contribution to the web. We have some clever ideas in Kaplak about how to avoid what we have termed the mainstream problem and look very much forward to showing this part of our activities off to the world.

The next step in the implementation of our strategy will be setting up a decent skin for and opening up our public Kaplak Wiki.

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The freelancer

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.

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Happy Holidays

I found this classic Disney cartoon on YouTube, which is a wonderful source for videos like this; short, classics, fun. It will no doubt later be removed by the YouTube admins at the request of the copyright owners, as I’ve experienced it countless times before with this kind of material, so enjoy it while you can. Thankfully, fans never cease to upload new versions of videos like this again later.

Let me take this opportunity to take a quick look at the landscape we meet today as cultural niche producers.

The merits of metadata

One of the great merits of YouTube has been to blur and erode the sharp distinctions of copyright on the internet. When I post the video above on this blog, the material is nowhere near the webservers, which host this site. It is all orchestrated by metadata, passing between our site, your computer and YouTube. Before YouTube, most would be very careful about posting a video like this on a website. Now, few would object to it. Piracy, as the entertainment industry defines it, has moved from underground p2p networks into the broad open.

Bittorrent index-sites such as The Pirate Bay has found the orchestration of metadata to be a powerful blow against the forces, who want to keep cultural distribution the way it’s always been. The torrent-files of the bittorrent protocol contain only metadata, which can be freely published and copied by anyone. The metadata consists of pointers to material on the user’s computers, exchanged only with other computers which ask for access to the material, using the client software, which reads the information contained in the torrents and takes care of orchestrating the traffic of the real data.

Thus, with their emphasis on metadata, services such as YouTube and decentralized distribution tools such as bittorrent has made it easy to distribute popular material without being hampered too much by copyright concerns. Finding this kind of stuff is easy, simply search for it, using the sites’ own built-in search mechanisms, or a general web search engine such as Google.

But it is not so easy, if you’re either looking for a product or material, which is less popular, or if you are a producer of a niche product looking for a solution to solve your distribution problems. First, you can only search for what you know about, and you must actively perform a search for it. Second, the niche producer must perform a great effort to make you as a customer “know” his product before you can search for it.

Google’s Ads

There are two solutions to this problem so far. The first is to use mass media-like advertising, on the web (banner ads) or in other media. The second is to use more direct marketing tools. In the latter category, Google has sought to refine current solutions elegantly, with their Google Ads offering. In short, Google’s ad program couples advertisers’ keywords (Adwords) with users’ searches as well as websites signing up for the ads (Adsense). This means that Google’s ads (theoretically) become far more meaningful to the user (actively searching for information), than the dumb banner ads meeting every visitor on the same site, without differentiating between those interested and those who aren’t.

We’ll take a closer look at Google’s ad services at a later stage, but it is worth noting just a few things about their model. It presumes, that “search” is the way people find information on the web. It presumes that the web consists of meaningful, differentiated entities called websites. It is difficult to see, if the model is capable of differentiating between different types of products, or if it treats all the same. The model is good for niche products, in the sense that it reaches the users, who actively search for information about them. The obvious drawback for the niche producer is that he or she will have to pay up front, before any product has been sold (pay per click/view), and that he or she will have to invest a lot of time in creating and administrating a website and a payment system, in order to ‘monetize’ the traffic the ads bring in.

Bittorrent

Bittorrent provides a brilliant, decentralized distribution method, but it comes without tools to make products seen or charged for, which makes it less of an ideal solution, unless matched with other methods to create visibility and earn money (from traffic, for instance).

Bittorrent is a peer-to-peer technology, which allocates resources on a p2p network very effectively, by utilizing locally excess bandwidth and harddrive space. But, just as no method exists to charge for access, no method exists to provide incentive to continually host and seed files, especially files, which are less commonly in demand. This means, that while bittorrent is an effective, decentralized method of distributing large files, most torrents, which are less than popular, become “dead”, once the initial interest has faded. This leaves later peers emptyhanded and with no obvious way to obtain the material. Additionally, the bittorrent index-sites inherit the notion of “search” as the key to finding information. This means, that niche torrents are even harder off, as no method exists within the bittorrent model to make torrents more or less visible or known by peers, to make them able to search for them. Of course, if one utilizes bittorrent as a distribution model, one could easily match bittorrent with Google’s ad offerings. But this, then, leaves a producer with only expenditure, no income method, apart from what Adsense or other sideshow-income streams may pay.

For p2p networks, step one may have been to come out in the open, to publicize these vast indexes of mostly copyrighted material openly on the web. Now, step two must be to start finding ways to make it easy to utilize p2p networks as proper distribution channels.

In each their ways, these two examples contribute pieces to an image facing an online niche distributor, of which the key challenges are visibility and financing. The first installment of Kaplak will seek to answer these two challenges before others. What do you think? What are the primary challenges meeting you, as a niche producer using the internet?

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