Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Steal This Mission Statement

Okay, so this is Clay Shirky doing a classic poke-the-blogosphere braindump at Web 2.0, but--in a fashion I reckon Shirky himself would appreciate--I'm hijacking it for my own nefarious purposes. See, folks keep asking what I'm doing at VuPal, the startup I joined shortly after I walked the CNet plank. Well, it's a little early to be showing all my cards as concerns VuPal, but I can appropriate some of what Shirky says here to my own ends, and basically hold up his speech as a mission statement for the venture. Hopefully, this will get some folks off my back.

Quote: "Here's what a four-year-old knows: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken."

Put another way, there's an entire generation growing up with the notion that passive media is outdated, and that interactive media is the standard. Shirky touts the mission statement of Web 2.0 (and beyond) as a drive to make interactive what once was passive, to involve the audience and the consumer in every possible product--media particularly--that until now has been a broadcast-only proposition.

VuPal, to no one's surprise, is about video. Under Shirky's paradigm, video that you "just" watch is inadequate. So, that's what I'm trying to do at, for, and with VuPal: Convert video that was passive into video that is interactive. Moreover, we want to make the conversion easy, so that anyone can do it, and valuable, so that when you're done the end-product is worth the time it took to create and is worth more than the original video was by itself.

Now, where I'll mildly quibble with Shirky--and throw a splash of reality onto VuPal's world domination plans--is in his notion that we can convert all those passive TV-watchers into interactive post-sitcom era consumers. The average person is inclined against interaction (though there's probably an age skew there). In my old job, running an online community of computer professionals,--exactly the kind of people who are comfortable with technology and interactivity--only about one in 400 consumers ever explicitly interacted. One quarter of one percent.

That's a very slight level. Really successful interactive sites might get that up as high as one percent for actual text-based posting. For less overt acts--like simple voting--you might go as high as a third. NetFlix purports to have that percent of people rating movies on their site, which is nice, since people ostensibly come there to discover and consume movies, and the rating act is about as lightweight as interaction gets. So I'd say Netflix is the high end of the scale. And it's possible my community experience is too aggressive still, so let's slash that, too. Let's say a really demanding video-interaction system can at best hope to get one percent of one percent, or one in 10,000.

By Shirky's reckoning, Americans watch 200 billion hours of television a year. That's 2,000 times the amount of hours it took to write the entire Wikipedia in every language version it supports. Let's say we get one out of every 10,000 of those hours converted to watching Web video--plain, non-interactive Web video--simply as a shift in form factor and portability. That's 20 million hours. Now, of those passive lurkers, let's say we get the same conservative percentage of interactive participation. That's 2,000 hours of participation-enhanced video per year. That's a thousand completely remixed movies every year. That's 2,850 complete hour-long dramas remixed every year if you scrape out the commercials. About 130 complete seasons of those hour-long dramas made interactive.

Now, that's crude math, as most Web video is only about 3 minutes long, and the same video can be remixed an untold number of times. I also think those are aggressive goals for interaction, at least in the short term. But it is a model of the possible. There's a whole generation of people wanting to do more with video, and having the time to do it.

Our job is to make it easy--easier than the homemade music videos that people throw up on Youtube all day every day--and valuable. We've got a pretty good idea on how to do that. I'm excited about chasing down that possibility. When we're ready, I hope you will be, too.
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