At the Digital Media Festival last week, Hugh Hancock, who coined the term machinima or machine cinema, spoke on the Long Tail of user generated content (UGC).
We all know that lower barriers to media production technology have led to the explosion of UGC. With low-cost DV cameras and consumer media editing software bought with a budget of pennies, you can draw an audience of millions. And some of these productions are being led by professionals who’ve been in the industry for years.
Even if you fail, just produce another one in 2 weeks. Hancock calls these productions “guerrilla movies”, which traditional media can’t make, since they have to go through the process of selling their ideas to stakeholders before they going into production.
But why isn’t UGC taking over the world? Hancock says it’s due to noise – it’s hard for content creators to differentiate themselves from the pack. Viral recommendations don’t work very well either, because they filter what people talk about most, rather than what’s good.
The result is that content creators are unable to monetize their creations, and move up the Long Tail where the hits lie. Eventually, they may have to partner with traditional media and established websites which can help to frame these guerrilla productions.
Hancock pointed out an experiment conducted by the Washington Post, where the newspaper got Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world to play at a subway station.
In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
The problem with Hancock’s argument is that, he still sees UGC through the lens of top-ten lists, meaning things still need to sell well in order for them move up the Long Tail (and become hits). The nature of UGC, however, is that it belongs to the Long Tail. Any effort to move up the Long Tail is an attempt to turn niches into mainstream.
Let’s face it, not everyone appreciates violin music. When you turn Joshua Bell into a busker at a subway station, you’re not going to get an audience like you would at his concerts filled with people who appreciate his music.
Niches are different – one person’s noise is another person’s signal. Due to increased noise down the Long Tail, filters have to get increasingly powerful to maintain a good signal. Admittedly, post-filters in the form of recommendation systems and blogger reviews aren’t perfect, as Hancock pointed out.
Editors at traditional media companies serve as pre-filters: they filter before things go to market. As Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine wrote in The Long Tail,
As long as there’s a market for a prefiltered package in the deliciously finite medium of bound glossy paper, I suspect there will continue to be demand for my old fashioned discriminatory side. But the day when people like me decide what makes it to market and what doesn’t is fading. Soon everything will make it to market and the real opportunity will be in sorting it out.