This morning I called up a contact I’d originally met in Austin at the South by Southwest Interactive conference last year, Marc Brown of Buzznet. While not the first company you’d think of as a leader in online video, Buzznet did add video to their publishing network over a year ago and have been very good at doing all the other things it takes to foster the promotion of artists and communities of fans. Also, their current offices in Westlake are in walking distance of my hotel.
Their space had the comfortable claustrophobia of a hip web startup, and before Marc even mentioned that they were preparing to move into a new, larger space I had the familiar sense of a successful small business getting too big for their britches. And while they’ve got the social web credibility and Sand Hill road venture capitalists that a lot of Bay Area startups would kill for, I was intrigued that they decided to stick it out in LA. I was also intrigued by the promise of the best pastrami sandwich in town.
On the pastrami front, Langer’s Delicatessen and Restaurant didn’t disappoint — it was easily as good as what I remembered from New York City. Nor did the conversation let me down. Marc and Chris brought a completely unique perspective to online media publishing that was as refreshing as the Number 44 (pastrami with american cheese and sauerkraut on rye) was soporific. As the founder of Buzznet, Marc brought to bear years of experience in managing social networks. Chris, on the other hand, had spent time doing traditional video media production and is a survivor Lloyd Braun’s troubled tenure at Yahoo.
The whole reason I made the executive decision to come to LA was to explore the nexus of ‘New Media’ and ‘Old Media.’ There are a lot of people here, like Marc and Chris, sitting in a sweet spot between the two. And I think they would agree when I say that it’s all going to be just ‘media’ sooner rather than later (if it isn’t already). I have been skeptical, if not outright dismissive, of Los Angeles’ cultural foundations in the past. It would be an understatement to say that I’ve come around.
The most interesting comparison I drew was between two stories Chris told. The first was about a web video shoot for a big commercial sponsor. While they aped the three-minute/dozen epsiodes model that’s familiar to web nerds, their budget would have seemed more familiar to a telvision network. On the flipside, a popular band that’s the focus of an active community on Buzznet couldn’t come up with its own video when they were mobbed by fans like the Beatles. But one of said fans was shooting it all on a cameraphone, and uploaded the video through Buzznet.
The point to take home is that while it’s easy to criticize the low quality of user-generated content, it’s an absolutely brand-new format that other users love. On the other hand, it’s also rather easy and tempting to just do what television is already doing, except online. While the music industry has caught a lot of flack for its initial antipathy towards Internet distribution, they’ve actually become the most savvy entertainment segment when it comes to promoting artists on the web, as Fallout Boy’s Friends or Enemies tour site makes clear.
One of the tropes that I keep coming back to in conversations generally is how this all relates to the cult of the celebrity. What Buzznet and other social networks are creating is a whole new market for meta-celebrities, which is already manifest to a degree in the blogosphere. Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan are not role models, since they have all the advantages. But meta-celebs like Jeffree Star, Audrey Kitching and Jac Vanek can trade on their authenticity, thriving in attention by association and aspiration.
Hence the Forbes list I wrote about just keeps creeping into conversations, and not necessarily in the best light. As Marc pointed out, the fact that “MySpace Tom” didn’t make the cut for the top 25 was somewhat ridiculous, since MySpace has the kind of middle-America reach that’s the holy grail. In partnering with events like Coachella and Stagecoach, Buzznet has tapped into an audience that will go home and start uploading clips of Fallout Boy shows when he shows up in Peoria on tour.
Silicon Valley is very, very good at making tools. And if all the late model iMacs in the Buzznet offices are any indication, Angelinos are very, very good at using them. At a less than sober moment, I once remarked in public that “When my underemployed freelance writing friends in New York saw Blogger, they took to it like poor people to crack.” While my phrasing was (ahem) less than tasteful, the sentiment holds true for my underemployed filmmaker friends. But it’s also true of young people in general, and it behooves the world of online video to continue enabling them.