Internet, Media Business, Video

99 Problems, Video Discovery Ain’t One

This post is part of a conversation-by-blog with Hunter Walk about this question: “Is video discovery a scalable business?” Read Hunter’s post first.

Dear Hunter-

You had me at “video discovery.”

That may sound odd coming from me. After all our startup launched Vodpod in 2007 — “Pinterest for video” long before Pinterest ever launched! — and Showyou in 2011, and both services frequently get lumped into the “video discovery” category.

I find it hard to argue with any of your points given both personal experience with the services we’ve built and close observation of the online video world going all the way back to 1997 (I think you were in college then, right?). Pair up almost any form of media — music, video, news, blogs, events, concerts — with the word “discovery” and you’ve got trouble. For all the reasons you point out, and more.

Take “music discovery.” Remember all those “music discovery” startups? Of course not. Turns out no one wanted music discovery. We just wanted to listen to some music. We wanted a better radio. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

I think that lesson is this: that by framing a service as “media discovery” you unwittingly adopt the framework and mentality of “utlity” services and apps: “What is the pain-point for the user?” And that framework almost never works when it comes to media. I’ve got 99 problems, “media discovery” ain’t one.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the future is dim for new video services and apps. Just the opposite, I think. As Chauncey Gardner wisely observed, we “like to watch.” We want to be entertained. And informed. And nothing is as entertaining as video. I mean, my God, did you see that Trolololo video?

Devices like the iPad (and to a lesser extent the smartphone) demand we rethink where and how we’re entertained. When we talk about tablets we talk about how they’re a replacement for PCs. But they’re also replacing televisions. They’re portable screens we can carry around the house, from a comfy chair to our beds. We use our tablets in the evenings and the weekends, sometimes alongside our TV, sometimes as a replacement for it. And when we tune in on these devices, we don’t want to snack, we want to gorge.

And while YouTube is a colossus that stands astride the web, it hasn’t cracked the code here. We ask people who have just downloaded Showyou about how they use the YouTube app. You won’t be surprised, I suspect, to learn that the main reasons they launch the YouTube app are (1) to search for a video, or (2) when they’ve tapped a link on a web page which in turn spawns the YouTube app. People generally don’t (yet) think: “Oh, it’s 9PM, I’m tuning into YouTube.”

So, I see a bigger, more expansive opportunity for startups here. A chance to build a new kind of entertainment platform for the 21st century. One that plays to the strengths of the Internet, that taps into its architecture of abundance, its use as a “communication” (i.e., social) platform, its openess; but that does so within the context of how and why we use our tablets.  That’s a huge opportunity; but it’s something very different, and more profound, than “video discovery.”


Showyou 4.1 Backstory

We launched version 4.1 of Showyou today. I wanted to share a little bit about how it came about.


There has been a social network built in to Showyou right from the start. Indeed, our app has always been about “social discovery” — the ability to follow other people, to see the videos they share, and to comment on those videos. But we always envisioned Showyou as more than that; a new kind of video-centric social network built for the tablet and not the desktop, for prime-time not lunch-time.

At some point over the past six months, our team became more acutely aware that we were all watching and sharing videos on the app at the same time (generally, in the evenings and on the weekends which are peak usage times for Showyou). Knowing we were on the app at the same time, we wanted to have better ways to connect, to signal to one another what we were watching.  We wanted to get closer to the ideal of being able to watch together even though we were not in the same place (our team is split mainly between Portland and San Francisco with a cowboy loner out in Oklahoma City).

So we built the new social tray which is launching today as part of Showyou 4.1. This new social tray — you just swipe from right to left to open it up — lets you see if your friends (i.e., people you follow that follow you back) are on the app and what they’ve been doing most recently. Not only the videos they’ve shared, but also the people they’ve thanked, videos they’ve commented on, people they’ve followed, and the videos they’ve sent you.

If your friends aren’t yet on Showyou, now is the time to invite them. There’s a deeper, more fun experience to be had now with your friends on Showyou. We’re sure there is more to come with this new social tray — it’s the start of something, not the end point — and we’d love to hear what you think and what ideas you have about how it should evolve.


Argo, Tehran in 1980, and My Dad

I was a teenager, a junior in high school, when Iran revolution happened and the US Embassy was stormed and the hostages taken. Seeing “Argo” a month ago brought back some potent, powerful memories of that time. Foremost among them: that two months after the “Canadian Caper” depicted in Argo, my Dad, a DC-based journalist, flew off to Tehran to spend two weeks reporting on the Iranian revolution with an Iranian photojournalist, Amir Pishdad. Those two weeks felt like two months to me, my mother and my brother.

After seeing the movie we had a few conversations about his trip, and my dad sent his grandson (Z, the 16-year-old kid who lives in our house) about his experience and I asked him if I could “re-print” one of his emails here:

Thought you might like to hear my opinion on Argo. I thought it was excellent, especially in turning a heavy, scary tragedy into a comedy. That is difficult to do but when it’s successful, which this was, it’s beautiful to see. The two Hollywood wise guy producers, along with Affleck, ought to get Oscars, but Affleck somehow got overlooked, Iunderstand.

The only flaw is the same one I fell victim to in my contemporarneous columns. And that was the failure to keep the story focused on the 52 hostages, which is the real reason we were all there. They were right under everyone’s noses in the American embassy and the setting and timing for this movie was right in that neighborhood (although I hear it was mostly filmed in Ankara.) Yet you count the references to them in the film on one hand. Of course, the drama was about the five American escapees hiding out in the Candian embassy. But there was no public knowledge about them until recently. The hostages were a daily story for 444 days. Since you couldn’t see or talk to them, I glossed over them. Argo back and get the story, Hall.

The other mistake in Argo is more forgivable. The Canadians and Americans had made only weak attempts to try to find friends among the Iranian population. So the bogus film shooting took on an “us vs. them” project fraught with danger. When I was in Tehran at about the same time this intelligence effort was being mounted, Amir Pishdad and I, plus his corps of friendly relatives, had us all over Tehran in open pickup trucks and no efforts at disguise.

I stood out, obviously, but we were never stopped or questioned, except at the airport and passport office. The million-person “Death to Amerika” march — a show for the western cameras — was even more frightening than portrayed in the movie, but we were not ever personally threatened. I always felt in Tehran we were in a fashionable European city, with occasional reminders of its present Islamic domination.

In addition to the email exchanges, my Mom sent along some of the columns my Dad wrote from Tehran for Z to read. I re-read them this morning and they’re examples of journalism at its very best. I remember our televisions filled nightly with scary images of thousands of Iranians protesting, US flags being burned, and other horrors. My Dad’s columns provided much needed context, and a closer, more intimate and more humane portrait of a city and country in turmoil — and a great reminder of why journalistm matters.


Online Education and Silicon Valley

I’ve been following the discussion around online education and the challenge presented by MOOCs to traditional universities; you can’t go a day without stumbling across a post like this one.

I’ve noticed this particular feature of the conversation: Among the people who most enthusiastically champion MOOCs are entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley investors who are excited about the prospects of disrupting education and who disparage universities and colleges as bloated and stultifying, mere “credential-awarding” institutions. Many of these very same people have not one but multiple “credentials” from brand name institutions(e.g., Peter Thiel).

And yet, imagine two 24 year-olds showing up on Sand Hill Road: a largely self-taught, incredibly smart kid from Wisconsin who attended his local community college and a “credentialed” but less talented graduate of Stanford with a degree in Symbolic Systems. Who would be more likely to get funding?

Fair or not, we still have incredibly powerful biases towards people with credentials, and especially those with luxury-brand credentials (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, MIT, CalTech & Cal). It’s not at all clear to me that MOOCs will change those biases, even among the people who champion them the most.


First Law of Self-Expression

The difficulty of making something worthy of my attention is directly proportional to the amount of information you’re trying to convey.

That, right there, is why “video sharing” is so hard. When you make a video, and share it, you’re asking people to take in a lot of information; 24 frames per second plus sound. It commands the viewer’s full attention. Short form video works online because it is far, far easier to ask for and get 2 minutes of someone’s time than it is 20 minutes or 200 minutes.

This also explains why blogging is so hard, still, even though it’s easier than ever to “write” a blog and publish a blog post. When you write 250 to 500 to 1000 words, you’re asking someone to engage with your prose and your ideas for a sustained period of time. Writing is difficult not because it’s hard to put words in a sequence (think about how easy it is to talk) but because we’re always conscious of the reader when writing.  Tweets are easier to make not just because they require fewer words, but because the 140 character limit so substantially reduces the cost to the reader. Your tweet might suck, but if it did it only cost me a second or two of my time. Same with a photo from Instagram. Tumblr is easy because it makes re-blogging a central act, or publishing photos, and isn’t so focused on long-form writing.

Using this law, you can begin to plot which types of social media are essentially “harder” despite ready availability of good, simple, easy-to-use tools:

Social Media Continuum

Vine is trying to address this challenge posed by limiting the amount of time people can demand of your attention. They impose a six second cap on the videos you create. They are not the first to do this, many have come before them and tried a similar approach (including the “12 Seconds” folks, Tout, Viddy to name a few).

Will that work? Maybe; it’s too soon to tell. Without a doubt the app is hot right now. But we regularly see similar frenzies in social media that don’t ultimately pan out.


Is the fruit any good?

We’re a little more than 48 hours into the experiment with Vine and I’ve noticed three things:

  • Vine solves, with real elegance, the #1 problem with making videos on a phone; it makes the process easy and fun.
  • I’ve stopped clicking on Vine links in my Twitter feed.
  • I enjoyed, on the other hand, tuning into For about 10-15 minutes. Then the novelty wore off.

With apologies to @jack — who claims that Vine brings to life an “entirely new artform” — I’ve thought for a while now that products like Instagram and more recently Snapchat have nothing to do with art and everything to do with communication:

We’re not using Instagram to make art. Or to hone our craft as photographers. It ain’t Flickr.

We’re just trying to connect with our friends, to start a conversation. Instagram is really a communications platform disguised as a photo app.

I think that applies to Vine, too, unless the intent is to make a niche app.

The main reason there hasn’t been a true “Instagram for video” is that the making and sharing of a video imposes two costs that photos don’t. Namely, it’s much harder to make a compelling video than a decent photograph, and a video requires more time and attention from the viewer than a photo.

Vine goes a long way towards solving the first problem. Playing with the app yesterday, I found it surprisingly easy and fun to make a video. It’s effectively just as easy to make a quick six second video on Vine as a photo on Instagram or Tadaa or other similar apps. That’s impressive.

I’m not sure it does much to solve the second problem. Even though they’re fun to make, it’s not clear the fruit is going to be consistently good. Sure, I’ve seen some fun Vines (is that what we’re calling them?) in the last two days. But for the most part, I haven’t.

Even with the simplicity of Vine, making a good, compelling six second video is tricky and hard. Because they contain so much more information, videos can take the mystery out of things. The experience you’re sharing starts to feel more mundane, pedestrian. ho-hum, and dispiriting even. That’s what I’ve found the past 48 hours, anyway, and why I generally stopped clicking the links in my feed. Or checking the app. Or going to Vinepeek.

I’m jotting these thoughts down knowing full well they could be the basis for some claim chowder down the road. We’ll know more if Vine sticks in the next 4-8 weeks. In the meantime we’re left to wonder: is this going to play out like other new, novel experiences that shot out of the gate fast only to fade quickly (Turntable, Chatroulette) or something more fundamental, like Instagram. I’ll be watching the teenagers in this house closely to see if they take it up (as an aside, I think the default public nature of Vine makes that unlikely).

One last thought: Good on Twitter to do this (buy Vine, launch it as a separate app). Nice to see them being bold, and taking risks, and continuing to try to make cool new things.


The Moat Around Apple’s Castle?

Lots of folks find it incomprehensible that Apple’s stock is tanking. Here’s a tweet from earlier today that’s representative of the sentiment I’ve seen:

But the problem with all this is that this isn’t a problem of investor math; it’s a problem of investor psychology.

In pure math terms as many people have pointed out, Apple stock ought to be a no-brainer buy for value investors. But value investors (like Warren Buffett most famously) like to buy and hold for the long term; and as Buffett himself has said in his annual letters many times, he looks for “economic castles protected by unbreachable ‘moats.”

I think the problem with Apple’s stock right now is that few investors are convinced Apple has a sufficient moat.

Does Apple in fact have a “moat”? If so, what is it?

If you asked someone senior at Apple I think they’d say this: their advantage is that they create and control “the whole widget” as Steve Jobs was fond of saying. That the marriage of world-class industrial design, proprietary operating systems (MacOS and iOS, and hardware gives them advantages over all other digital device makers. That is their moat – that they’ll be able to invent dazzling new digital devices we love and need for years to come.

Until recently, the industry and market effectively and essentially agreed with Jobs and that point of view. But the last six months — with the latest versions of Android hitting the market and devices like the Nexus 7 and Nexus 4, and the Samsung Galaxy III — have shaken people’s faith. They’re just good enough, and selling in big enough volumes, to make one question whether the advantages of vertical integration are less robust than we previously thought.

And, Google’s strategy has come into focus a bit more, and it looks like the winning hand played by another Apple foe twenty years ago. Google has essentially bet that if they bundle and control core essential services on mobile (search, maps, email, YouTube, Chrome) that Android and the devices that run it need to be “just good enough” for people to convert.

In other words, if the core services you use on your phone or tablet (browser, email, maps, video, and search) are just as good on Android as iOS (because Google provides them on both) and if enough third-party app makers provide “good enough” apps on Android, large numbers of people will choose or move to Android devices if they’re cheaper and not horribly inferior. And that’s essentially where we’re at now.

That’s not to say Apple is doomed. Rather, to believe they have a durable moat you have to convince yourself they can continue to marry design, hardware and software in a way that draws many of us to their devices — because they’re simpler, easier to use, work better, and look better. That’s not a crazy or outlandish thought.

But here’s the rub. It could be argued they went backwards in some fundamental ways on the “simpler and easier to use” parts of that formulation during 2012. And that’s because ease-of-use is increasingly about seamless integration with services that live in the cloud — a real weakness of Apple’s, and a strength of Google’s (it could be argued, correctly, that this is fundamentally what Google does).

Loathed is iTunes Match. The removal of Google Maps was a disaster. Photo Stream feels rough. Siri is often wrong or useless. iCloud still feels inchoate.

For me, this is the essential question about Apple and its future. Can it ensure that the core services offered on its devices are every bit as good, and perhaps better, than those offered on Android? Either by building great cloud services at Apple; by buying up great cloud-based companies and engineering teams; by providing a world-class development platform that attracts developers to solve these problems; or some combination of the above.