5 Questions With…Know Your Meme‘s Kenyatta Cheese

It’s Sunday, and that means it’s time for Five Questions With…! This week, we bring in Kenyatta Cheese, Chief Operations Officer for Rocketboom and producer and co-creator of Know Your Meme, a web series and meme database which has been documenting the oddities of Internet culture since December 2007. This basically makes him one of the web’s dominant experts on memes and trends, a fact that occasionally gets him interviewed by the New York Times. Below, he talks about web video’s inferiority complex, championing entrepreneurs and “brand promise.”

1. What’s the one big issue/law/attitude/restriction that you think is holding back the industry?

Is there really something holding us back? Is there some imaginary finish line somewhere in Hollywood that we’re all looking to cross? Web video has this inferiority complex, as if we have to explain away why we’re not television. Meanwhile, we forget that television had the same exact anxiety, going 30-plus years before TV stars were held in the same regard as film stars.

We sit in this space between advertisers and Hollywood on one end, who want to measure web video as if it’s television, and technologists and content creators on the other who expect web video to evolve at the same pace as the web proper. It’s a lot to live up to. We tend to forget how long it took for other mediums to hit their groove. I like to think that we’re all smart enough and brash enough to get over these anxieties faster than TV or radio did.

2. What industry buzzword do you never want to hear again?

I’ve been hearing more and more web video producers talk less about their stories and more about their “brand promise.” Perhaps this is part of the evolution of the post-Hollywood filmmaker, however I almost want to have my producers concentrating on telling a good story. Us executives can handle the brand promises.

3. If someone gave you $50 million to invest in a company in this space, which one would it be? (Mentioning your own doesn’t count.)

Gosh, that’s a lot of cash. Do you mind if I split it up a bit?

I’m big on research and development. Almost all of our greatest advances have come from technologists and content creators who were able to develop stuff away from the pressures of investors and the market. Let them develop stuff and then find the right entrepreneurs who can pair their work up with the right market implementation.

That’s why I’d give $25 million to the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology. The number of important people and technologies that have come through those doors is outstanding: Tim Shey (NextNewNetworks), Jonah Peretti (BuzzFeed), Jason Kottke, Ze Frank, Jeff Han (multi-touch), Josh Schachter (Delicious), Cameron Marlow, Graffiti Research Lab, F.A.T. Lab, OpenFrameworks, Yury Gitman, Open Source Multi Touch, Jamie Wilkinson, Limor Fried, and Zach Lieberman among others. The list is kind of incredible.

The next $15 million would go to form a new policy think tank advocating on behalf of the iterative web. Some of us don’t pay nearly enough attention to the way that state, federal, and local laws affect both the production and distribution of web video. While some seem to think that ignoring government will make it go away, we need our representatives to understand how we’re just iterating off of film and television before us. Groups like the Open Video Alliance are already doing some great work around open codecs, open standards, and fair use in web video. Perhaps they’d be willing to take up the charge.

The last $10 million I’d split among 40 independent producers. Instead of picking them myself, I’d put together a board of other outstanding web video folks to administer it. I figure a panel of Epic Fu, The Guild, Barrett Garese, Wreck and Salvage, and Andrew Baron could do the job. At the very least, they’d make a great softball team.

4. What was the last video (that you weren’t personally involved with) that you liked enough to spread to others?

The Jessi Slaughter “You Dun Goofed” viral got really big this weekend. It’s a video of a 11-year-old girl who got picked on by the internet, leading to an unfortunate response by Jessi and her dad. It’s embarrassingly awkward, funny stuff.

What’s more interesting to me is the fact that just after her very public breakdown, she went back on Stickam a few hours later, completely unfazed by the insults being hurled at her. [slightly NSFW] The chat is filled with the kind of stuff that parents would call ‘bullying,’ however, she’s totally ignoring it all. Clearly the internet has created a new kind of teenager, able to filter out the kind of noise that would “ruin” the life of folks like Star Wars Kid just years before.

5. WILD-CARD: Internet memes occupy this strange place in the online ether, and it seems like the only viable business model is to catalog or aggregate something that’s already gone viral. But do you think it’s possible to successfully create an Internet meme from scratch, and do you think a person or corporate entity can ever actually claim ownership of a meme?

If I were a Zen monk, I’d give give but one answer and walk out the door: Isaiah Mustafa.

But my long answer is this: You can create memes, but it’s the emergent, unplanned stuff that’s usually the most impressive. Creative agencies try to make “internet memes” all the time and sometimes they succeed (again, see Isaiah Mustafa and Old Spice). Of the dozens of memes submitted to Know Your Meme every day, I’d say that a quarter of them are submitted by advertisers and content creators looking to make their own stuff go viral. Fortunately our editors (and the Internet at large) can sniff this stuff out from a mile away.

The bigger problem is companies that don’t understand Internet meme culture and try to control the stuff being created from their content by threatening fans and communities with cease and desists. In the past few weeks, Bros Icing Bros and Sad Keanu were both taken down as a result of legal threats. It’s the kind of action that kills brands (no matter what their brand promise). Meanwhile, the smart companies are the ones who see the value in letting others extend their existing work.

Related content on NewTeeVee: Video Interview: Jamie Wilkinson Explains How to Go Viral

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