Videos looking for a home

Amateur video artists are being elbowed offline by websites turning to more commercial fare.

Whether it’s the dog on a skateboard, a fictionalized personal video journal, or clandestine footage of an Iranian political protester’s death, user-generated content (UGC) is to many the soul of the Internet. But bandwidth is not yet free and this sort of grass-roots creativity has not been a moneymaker for the many sites, such as Crackle and Metacafe, that provide homes for the amateur creations. Even the cyberbehemoth YouTube, now owned by Google, is still struggling to turn a profit. 

Now, say media analysts and creators alike, the need for paying customers is putting UGC in the back seat on many websites: Metacafe is not sharing ad revenue with content creators; Crackle shut off user-generated uploads; Yahoo closed Jumpcut; and YouTube has begun striking deals with premium content providers such as the BBC, Starz, and PBS

The trend concerns many advocates of a free and open Internet. 

“In the rush to monetize the Internet, the little guy is getting pushed out,” says Benjamin Wayne, a digital media strategist and CEO of Fliqz.

“We do not know what we will lose because this emerging culture is only beginning to find expression,” says Patricia Aufderheide, director of American University’s Center for Social Media in Washington, D.C. “But we can expect that there will be less grass-roots spontaneity.”

In a market economy, however, it is inevitable, says Lance Podell, CEO of Next New Networks. “The early days of the Internet were like the ’60s heydays of free expression,” he says. “And now, like the day the ’70s dawned, the party is over and it’s time to get down to business and make some money.” 

Shoestring Stephen Spielberg hopefuls acknowledge the terrain is shifting. Just a few short years ago, Jordan Riggs and his buddies were undergraduates at UCLA. The housemates began to find their own dorm dramas rich entertainment and bet that other students around the Internet would, too. They cobbled together rough mockumentary scripts based on their own stories of first loves, parties, and other staples of dorm life. The rough, to-be-shot-on-the-super-cheap, short “webisodes” caught the eye of Web producer Garrett Law from Attention Span Media. He worked with the students, eventually landing the series on sites such as Hulu and YouTube. 

Fast-forward to Nov. 25, 2009, when the first season of the online show “Dorm Life” was released on DVD. The show now has franchises in several cities and followers all over the globe. Halloween costume parties themed to student woes depicted in the Web series blossomed on campuses nationwide. 

“We were really lucky,” says Mr. Riggs. “But given the pressure on our kind of content to make money these days, it would be a lot harder [now] than it was before.”

While the drive to make money is real, media analysts say, the prognosis that UGC can be reversed by mere market forces is premature. Rather, they say, it is evidence of a profound social transformation.

“User-generated content is one of the most democratic developments in the creative world since the days of Homer,” says Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media” and a media studies professor at Fordham University in New York. “People can distribute their own creations widely and easily for the first time in history,” he says. “They will not give that up easily.” 

This culture of two-way participation extends beyond sharing personal creations, says Andy Petroski, director of Learning Technologies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. New kinds of interactivity all over the digisphere are redefining relationships between businesses and consumers, as well as between friends and family. It is a two-way dialogue that today’s Internet travelers take for granted, he says, adding, that these days, “user-generated content is key to audience engagement and content credibility.”

Even as websites search for the new business model, there does seem to be clear recognition that UGC cannot simply be left in the wake of profitability. It is true that YouTube is aggressively pursuing moneymaking strategies and the proportion of premium content from film and TV studios now overshadows the short-form amateur material, says Shiva Rajaraman, senior product manager at YouTube. But at the same time, the company is also pushing new ways to engage with UGC, including revenue sharing and coventures with journalism sites to encourage “citizen journalism” from nonprofessionals. “We are moving forward on all fronts,” he says. 

Not all movement toward premium long-form content is strictly driven by economics, however, Mr. Rajaraman points out. Technology is changing what people seek out. Not too long ago, very few consumers had the bandwidth necessary to stream high-quality video of any duration, he says. But President Obama’s speech on race this past year was a wake-up call for YouTube. The network-quality, 37-minute monologue was one of the most-watched videos online. “We suddenly realized there was this huge appetite for high-quality, long content online,” he says. “We used to think we had become a short-click entertainment culture, but that is not true.” 

The big guys are not the only ones racing to redefine the financial future of UGC on the Internet. Two-year-old start-up Next New Networks is betting on the little guys. With more than 600 million total views since starting in 2007, the site specializes in new media such as “The Key of Awesome,” with comedian Mark Douglas who creates comic weekly webisodes riffing on the week’s news. A recent short, “Twilight Sucks,” taking off on the latest teen vampire film, was featured on YouTube’s home page. The site specializes in TV for the Internet, producing original shows as well as working with independent producers to package and syndicate “mid-tail” video content across the Web, hitting the sweet spot of content generation that sits somewhere between studio-produced and low-budget, user-generated video.

But the company is not yet profitable, says CEO Mr. Podell. 

Herein lies the rub of UGC, says Mr. Wayne. “Nobody wants the individual voice to go away but until bandwidth becomes free, there is going to be conflict,” he says. While neither video nor the independent voice is going to disappear, he adds, “maybe someday they will intersect in a way that is both impactful and meaningful. But we aren’t there yet.” 

Wayne says that the great illusion of widespread access to storytelling tools is that everyone has a meaningful ability to tell their own story. In fact, very few are capable of telling a story that the rest of us want to pay to watch, he says. “Everyone wants to create this,” he says, “but nobody wants to consume it.”

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