Channels are easy, content is hard

What we have here is a contemporary item that reminds me of a several-year-old backstory. I’ll give you the item first; then, I’ll quote the backstory.

The item

Consumerist, that sometimes-good, sometimes-absurd compilation of consumer complaints and snarky comments (does Consumer Reports really understand what it purchased when it purchased this?), has a followup item yesterday: “Dave Carroll launches second ‘United breaks guitars’ song and video.” It links to a YouTube video of the song.
Go watch. I’ll wait.
Oh, and if you hadn’t already done so, go to the earlier post from July 2009 and click through to the YouTube video of that song.
The Consumerist issue here–that United baggage handlers (apparently) wrecked Carroll’s $3,500 Taylor guitar during a change of planes at O’Hare, and that in a year of discussing the situation with United he could never get them to take responsibility for fixing the guitar–is interesting, but perhaps secondary.

Given that Carroll has now said he doesn’t want United’s money, but would be happy if they’d donate the amount to a charity, it’s pretty clear that the original problem is a little secondary to him as well. There may also be aspects of this story, on one side or another, that haven’t appeared on Consumerist

What I get out of it is a little different, and for once the post title is also the legitimate lead sentence for the post, when prefaced with “With the rise of social media or the read/write web…”
”’Channels are easy, content is hard.”’
Which is to say:

  • Any idiot can put a “song” or a “video” on YouTube.
  • Don’t like YouTube? There are lots of other choices–channels are easy.
  • For little or no money, your homemade media has as good a shot at worldwide success as any professional effort. It’s a revolution!

OK, so I don’t believe that third one any more than most of you do (or maybe you do?). It’s pretty unusual for homemade media to achieve “worldwide success” at the level of, say, Ron Howard or Queen Latifah or Don Brown or any of those…
Part of that is distribution and promotion–but another part of it is talent.
I rarely listen to full “user-generated” songs or watch full “user-generated” videos on YouTube or elsewhere, even ones related to my field, because most of them aren’t very good. Maybe I’m choosing the wrong ones, and it’s true that I prefer singing to yelling, but most of what I’ve seen is “amateur hour”–not just amateur (done for love, and can be extremely high quality) but lacking in talent.
To me, maybe because I’ve been writing for a long time, it’s harder to write a good song than it is to write a good article; it’s harder to sing a song well than it is to…well, write a good article; and it’s much harder to bring together all the skills required to prepare a competent video.
That made these two songs breaths of fresh air: To my ear, at least, Carroll is a talented writer, singer and musician–and the videography is generally good in the first song, much better in the sequel. I enjoyed the songs as songs, all the way through. (OK, they’re not whatever the newest wave is. Maybe I should move to Nova Scotia? )

The backstory

Turns out I’ve written about this before. The following column appeared, possibly in slightly different form (this version is what was submitted; I haven’t corrected for editorial work), as “Rich Media is Hard” in the May 2006 EContent Magazine, in my ongoing “discontent” column:

Heard about the Read/Write Web? It’s an instant cliché most econtent professionals need to be aware of: The growing importance of user-generated content–and the preference of many users for content coming from other users.
I’ve discussed this before (October 2001 and February 2003), back when it was an interesting new trend. Now it’s a phenomenon. I spend more web time reading “nonprofessional” material than I do reading pro content and I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s a considerable change from traditional media, where the sheer cost of publication and distribution limit most of the field to the pros. I’m not sure it’s the kind of change people expected.
Rich media is one of this issue’s themes, and rich media may be where you as professionals still have an edge over “amateur” users. I could be wrong, but I’m inclined to believe this principle is likely to hold true for a while: The richer the medium, the more people will prefer professional content.
The reason is simple: This stuff is hard.
That’s true for traditional media. One person with an idea, literacy, and time can write a book. Fewer people have the skills to write music or produce paintings that will please listeners and viewers. But those are nothing compared to truly rich media, the net equivalent of television or the movies. That’s just plain hard. I believe the principle holds equally true in net media, if the goal is to produce something that will satisfy the reader or viewer.
Any idiot with moderate literacy can write a blog (and quite a few of them do, along with many sophisticated, knowledgeable writers). Recent web developments eliminate tool complexity as a barrier. If you can write, you can create a blog or a wiki or add to a collaborative review space. Most people can write well enough to submit posts or reviews that a few other people will want to read.
Podcasts are almost as easy to generate as blogs–but you have to be comfortable speaking to an unknown audience in a coherent, organized manner. That’s harder for many of us than informal writing. I don’t doubt that there are tens of thousands of amateur podcasts–but I’ll bet the continuing audience for amateur podcasts is at most one-tenth as large as for blogs.
Podcasts aren’t particularly rich media. Even vlogs (videoblogs) aren’t really rich media, not if they’re basically talking into a webcam and mike and recording the results for playback. But they’re enough richer to discourage many people–quite apart from the facts that many of us would find videoblogging uncomfortably close to public speaking, don’t necessarily want our speaking mugs on the web for all to watch, and may not even own webcams.
Sites such as OurMedia have made it easier to get vlogs and other amateur rich media out there for people to see. A search on “vlog” in Yahoo Video yields a few thousand entries. But are people willing to watching amateur talking faces for very long? I suspect not. I’ll guess the continuing audience for amateur vlogs (excluding amateur porn) is another order of magnitude smaller than for podcasts, partly because it’s just plain harder to do a satisfactory video.
Even for true rich media, epitomized by TV programs and movies, the financial and distribution barriers to entry have come down. You can buy a digital videocam for a few hundred dollars, a high-definition videocam for $2,000, and pretty good nonlinear video editing software for $100–and either OurMedia or the Internet Archive will host appropriately-licensed video for free.
When Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle covered the Sundance Festival four years ago, he called high-definition video the best trend of that year. His final sentence: “In the future, anyone with talent will be able to make films.”
Consider those three key words: Anyone with talent–or, realistically, anyone with talent and the resources to gather people with the other talents you need to make a movie or truly engrossing video work. Creating a believable story in moving visual media is much harder than writing a book or posting a listenable podcast or producing a readable blog.
Point a webcam out a window: Easy but usually uninteresting. Write a screenplay, find a cast, scout locations (and build the ones you can’t find), assemble the crew, film it all, edit the results (and add music), and revise it after test screenings–oh, and pay for the whole thing. That’s moviemaking, and it’s a complex way to tell a story.
For now, pros have the edge when it comes to truly rich media. I think that edge will hold for a while just because rich media is hard–and there’s too much of it out there to tolerate badly-done amateur stuff for very long. It’s an edge; can you make the most of it?

What’s changed since 2006? There are lots more free and cheap ways to distribute rich media. There’s a lot more of it. Equipment costs continue to drop–I think you can get flipcams with HD capabilities for under $200.
Unfortunately (in my opinion), some lacks of talent can be masked: With “correcting” microphones, we may not even know whether some “professional” singers are capable of singing in tune, or whether some of them know what “in tune” even means.
The need for talent? Still there. And still relatively rare. Which made these songs such a pleasure. Glad Carroll got his guitar fixed.

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