The Longview Panel
Robert Cockerham (Cockeyed.com)
Joel Veitch (Rathergood)
Neil Cicierega (Lemon Demon)
Ethan Zuckerman (The Berkman Center for Internet for Internet and Society) [Moderator]
danah boyd (Microsoft NERD) [Moderator]
This panel collects awesome people who have been doing things on the internet for some time now. From the ground floor, what have been the long-term changes in internet culture and celebrity that have happened over the last decade? Any thoughts on where internet culture will shift into the future?
NOTE: This is not a full transcription of the panel. If you have any corrections, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ethan: Welcome back everyone. This is the old guys panel. We are the old guys (and gals) in the sense that the people here are not just Internet flash in the pans. With entire schools of memes. I am not even going to attempt to introduce them.
Rob: I’m Rob Cockerham, and I run cockeyed.com. It’s probably best known for the “how much inside” adventures, light sharpener, ridiculous costumes.
Ethan: How long have you been doing this?
Rob: Since 1998: GEOCITIES. I’m pretty sure I was deleted from tripod.com at some point.
Ethan: Can we get the audio and video up?
(Plays a video from Cockeyed.com: Meet Rob. Self-taught scientist. Unlicensed Detective. Rob Exposed Scams, like Cash4Gold. Herbalife. LIGHT SHARPENER! How many feet of silly string can be found in a can? Welcome to Rob’s world!)
danah: Hello. So I am delighted with your adventuring. Maybe your childhood was much too entertaining? What was the first time you created something that got you in to trouble?
Rob: Uuhh, trouble. Trouble. I don’t know, the tree house, I guess?
danah: Tell us about the tree house.
Rob: I took some wood that looked like it would be good for a tree house and slapped it together about 15 feet up, then found out what the wood was for. Sorry, that wasn’t very entertaining.
Ethan: How much of my gold do I have to send to Cash4Gold for a Goldschlagger?
Rob: The Goldschlagger had so little gold in it, that it wasn’t good enough to weigh the amount of gold in there. But MIT has a scale that is good enough.
Ethan: We’re going to ask questions about the nature of internet celebrity. Now on to Neil.
Neil: Hi, what do you want?
Neil: In 2001, at the tender age of 14, I created Hyakugojyuuichi!!, THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN OF ULTIMATE DESTINY in 2005, and in 2007, The Mysterious Ticking Noise (Potter Puppet Pals). So those are my three things, and I think we’re going to watch the first one.
Neil: I’m sorry I made you watch all of that. You have to understand that’s what passed for a meme back then.
Ethan: Let me take back my earlier question about a global question about crisis of weirdness. What’s the difference between animutation and animation?
Neil: There is really no difference. Animutation is just a word I came up with to describe the only thing I can manage to do in flash. Then people started enjoying them and making their own videos like it. There was one that was inspiration (eg., Hatten R Din). Salon.com did an interview with me. There was a small little fanbase of people who were doing it, and I called them Fanimutations, cause that’s like three words combined. It’s weird to watch now, but at the time it was really weird and people though it came from Japan.
Ethan: I love this idea that Japan is the well of weirdness.
danah: in the 1910s and 1920s there was a Russian filmmaker who ran out of film to film on so he would slice up film he had and juxtapose in weird ways. He had constraints but you have the opposite problem, how do you pull stuff together?
Neil: I literally had a folder of funny images that I’d saved. And then while making this video at like 2AM. Oh here’s some stuff, it’s from this Japanese Pokemon CD from a mall kiosk. This was before I knew what Japan was, but I just thought it was funny. There is this whole genre of meme driven compilation videos, where people take other videos or source material and try to make mutation remixes of them. Every once in a while someone says, “You inspired YouTube Poop, which is pretty cool.” And I’m like “Yeah.”
Ethan: Has YouTube cut you a check?
Neil: Not yet.
Ethan: While I still have that remarkable song in my mind, I will move on to our next guest Joel Veitch.
Joel: Hi! I’m Joel Veitch. (rathergood.com)
(WE LIKE THE MOON! Also inspired a Quizno’s commercial.)
Are those hamsters? It is possible. That’s all I can say. Is this an actual song in some other language? I think they created this song.
Ethan: What does it mean for your career that this is the work you are best remembered for?
Joel: It’s lovely, it’s wonderful, I’ve done quite a lot of songs like this, and that one is particularly painful.
Ethan: You’re the lead vocalist there?
Joel: I’m the lead vocalist. And everyone always wants me to do this.
danah: You do live performances?
Joel: I do! This particular one, I’d just been in the pub with my brother, and we came back and pulled out a guitar and it was improvised from stuff that was in the room. I had the animations lying around from previous things, and it was literally about 2 minutes of work.
Ethan: You’ve been known for bringing animated animals to the web. Is there some magic to this?
Joel: I mean, when I did something on the telly with those, I learned that not everyone likes that. Cute animals are an easy win, especially kittens, everyone loves kittens. The reason I started doing stuff with little furry animals is… You can love them, but only in the way you’ve love a terrible diseased child.
Ethan: So let’s get to the question: How has fame changed your life? And, Rob, you are flooded at all time in Sacramento… How has microfame changed things for you?
Rob: Not that much. The real impact is that you make something and you put it online, and people give you positive feedback, and they want the same thing over and over again. So you keep producing content and hoping to achievement and maybe more. Maybe I can get on Slate.com, or Good Morning America, or maybe people will make companion video. And I’ve had success with that! I know a lot of people have trouble finishing problems, and I don’t have that problem anymore. When I start projects, I finish them.
Ethan: Are you known in your neighborhood, in your city? At conferences, people don’t know who to flock to. For most people here, we don’t know who you are. Have you crossed over beyond that? You are the main character.
Rob: I’ve got my face plastered over everything I do, so I’m likely to get recognized. Sometimes I’m in a crowd where lots of people know me, and sometimes I’m in a place with tons of people, like a basketball game, and no one will know who I am. I go into hiding, which is a big problem for celebrities, being able to go into hiding, but I don’t always have that problem.
Ethan: Many people leave ROFLcon and never want to meet people again. Neil, how about you?
Neil: It’s the internet. Mostly in the past few years, I was in some of my videos on YouTube, and it’s totally contextual whether or not people recognize you. Sometimes I get noticed, and they’ll be like “Are you Neil?” I got a comment on my livejournal from someone asking if I was at South Station on Friday, and sure enough I was.
Rob: They’re always apologetic, like “I’m sorry to interrupt your day.” I’m like “It’s not a real problem.”
Neil: It’s not pervasive in anyway. I get recognized when I enter geekdom. For a stretch, my family home kept getting calls from little girls, about once a week, from sleepovers, being like “Oh my god, are you Neil?!” and my Dad would be like “No, I’ll go get him”, and they’ll start screaming in my ear. Now I’ve moved out, so I don’t know how they’re dealing with it, but I hope they’re being complete assholes.
Ethan: Did you ever respond by doing a live version of your song?
Neil: I’ve had to do that before, I’ve met a fan in person, and they’ve asked me to call a friend and do a puppet voice. What is a problem is when they scream in my ear and then hang up. I don’t really know what to do with that.
Ethan: It’s always been hard to know what to do with screaming fans. Joel, how do you deal with people coming up to you?
Joel: Well, if there was an A list and a B list of celebrities. I think that most people thought for a long time that I was a … They found it hard to believe that there was a person behind it. “Are you the Quizno’s guy? Do the voice do the voice!”
danah: Has any of the attention been negative?
Joel: To a certain extent. YouTube is the worst for comments. For a long long time I didn’t really have any negativity. The subject matter isn’t very controversial. YouTube had made things very different, in the old days people had to email me or join the forums to troll me, but now they can just comment on YouTube. It doesn’t matter what you do or how good you are, someone is going to say YOUR GAY ROAR.
danah: Do you all read the YouTube comments?
Rob: There are some that you read and some that you take to heart. It’s the worst place for comments ever.
Joel: It doesn’t really matter that much. The problem is my mum, who looks very carefully at everything I do. She’ll have a couple glasses of wine at 11 o’clock and start commenting “I think this is wonderfully harmonized!”
ethan: Does she have Joel’s Mum as her YouTube handle.
Joel: It’s not clear that she’s my mum.
Neil: I get joy out of responding to terrible YouTube comments. They’re not trolls, they’re stupid children, and someone needs to tell them they’re stupid at some point. Occasionally someone will give me an insensitive critique, but sometimes if you ask and actually engage them, they’ll be like “Oh my gosh, I didn’t think you’re reply, it’s okay, I guess.” A lot of people don’t post expecting them to respond. It’s a wire from their brain to the keyboard. You can get into arguments with them, but it’s a waste of your time. Oh, this is really poorly typed, Mister.
danah: Are there any critiques that are fun to engage with?
Joel: When people are negative. I’m struggling to think of examples, but sometimes people can be negative in quite an entertaining way.
Neil: I did a video that was this Super Mario video cover, and it would just zoom in and pan on it, and lots of people responded with “That video sucks ass.”
Ethan: Rob, does this change for you because they know they are talking to you? As opposed to the disembodied heads of Harry Potter.
Rob: The further removed it is from me, the nicer it is. If they’re emailing me, they know I’m going to read it and maybe reply.
Ethan: What happens when the stuff goes mainstream? And when people start opening their wallet? Joel has sold out in some interesting ways. Rob, how does this work out financially for you?
Rob: I’m a SUPER MILLIONAIRE. A lot of people don’t know what that means, but I’ve got an example over there: (8+14=22). I used to not have any ads, then I added ads, and I started making money, so then I put ads on everything, because it makes lots of money. If I did a site about cutting up credit card applications, then I’d get credit card ads on my sight. So no matter how ridiculous the text I said was, no matter what I said about credit cards, the ads were still for credit cards. Which is a good kind of ad to have, that’s where the money is. It doesn’t drive what I do, but it’s certainly in the back of my mind.
Ethan: Will we ever see — how many jelly beans can you fit in a Lexus?
Rob: vitaminwater asked me…. No, I don’t think it’ll ever be that overt. I don’t mean to say overt, I mean to say that’ll never happen.
Ethan: you can see him thinking right now. Neil, this has lead to interesting things in television:
Neil: When Mysterious Ticking Noise won the YouTube award, they invited me and a bunch of other YouTube award winners, like Tay Zonday was on Good Morning America, and those guys were dicks. They reshot the interview halves. I also went on Fox News with Shepard Smith, who you might know from an anchor blooper video, and he accidentally says blow job instead of block party. Then after the break, he’s got his best apology face. And I’m on Fox News who I recognize from that video and I’m like … They show a video of the “Leave Brittney Alone” guy, and whoever edited it left in one “shit” or something. And everyone goes silent. Then later in the video he gives the exact same apology.
Ethan: You think it’s like a macro?
Neil: I think the guy is a robot, and we kicked him into his apology program.
Neil: It was just really interesting to be on TV. When I got home from New York, a few local affiliates did some stuff on the puppets thing. I have them all on DVR, and it’s exciting to see yourself on TV. It’s just an extra way to get extra eyes on yourself. I guess it’s different for you, because you were in commercials (to Rob).
Ethan: (to Rob) So you would never sell out?
Rob: When I first got asked for commercials, I thought I would get something about fans. I was amazed by how many fans thought it was brilliant, almost no one was nasty about it. Being able to make money from this means you don’t have to make something else.
Ethan: Was it a surprise that Quiznos was interested in being as weird as what you were putting up for a web audience?
Rob: Bearing in mind that I’m English and Quiznos isn’t a big chain there, it was sort of out of nowhere form me. They just did one with someone sucking form a horse teeth. They did it quite cleverly, they got a bunch of people. I did the ad and people went a bit mental.
danah: Did you have to modify anything? Did they change the words?
Joel: Rob, well you have to change the words to it being about a sub. They’re 30 seconds ad, so you’ve got time for them to sing some stuff then do some things about sandwiches. There are a lot of people who watch the TV who are aware of this. On the internet, you elect to clink on a link, and if you’re freaked out by it, well you did it to yourself.
Neil: At that point it’s not consensual any more.
Joel: But if people are watching the Superbowl, it’s not consensual anymore.
danah: You mentioned you change what you do based on ad. How do audiences affect what you choose to do or not do? Are there ideas that you can because there isn’t audience potential?
Rob: Sorry to say that I don’t put that much thought into the audience. I mean I really want them to like what I do, but like, if I get a suggestion. Part of it is that I like having my idea, and I can be “that’s my idea!” I like to have an idea, and then bring it. If it’s someone else’s idea, then I’m like “here’s someone else’s idea”. Which isn’t as awesome for me.
danah: Neil, how does it affect you? How much are you thinking about the people who will watch?
Neil: about 25% is about what people like. I keep making things that amuse me. Even if it doesn’t go viral, at least it amuses me. I’ve never lost followers from a video. I am aware that people are waiting for the next… I don’t want to make them wait 2 years, but maybe I’ll make them wait one year.
danah: How about you Joel? How much do you think about this?
Joel: This is a good point. You have to make something that you enjoy, if you’re thinking too carefully about what other people want to see, then it doesn’t have your soul, which means it will be pretty bland. If you do something you love, then you’ll love it, and it will have some kind of soul and some sense of originality. It might not get massive hits, but it’ll be worth doing.
Ethan: 15 minutes to go, question for Neil: Wanted to address the cranky old web coot syndrome.
Neil: Cranky Old Web Coot syndrome. If you grew up in the days before YouTube and 4chan and whatever, to see those get popular and see these jokes get done over and over again, and if you don’t really find it this funny, you get mad at these kids and you’re like “What are you doing to my internet!”
Rob: I love everything on the internet! I’m cold.
Neil: Like mudkips. I stopped playing Pokemon before mudkips existed.
danah: Can memes survive if there is no boredom or loneliness?
Joel: Memes will survive as long as people have to work for a living. They’re there to waste time. I met with someone one time who does market research and she says “What you DO is enable people to waste their time.” The majority of people who watch this stuff are people who are in front of computers to do something constructive.
Rob: I do just static content, just text and pictures. M-F had large hits, and Sat and Sun were low. It’s because people were watching my site.
Neil: So many people that view my stuff are in middle school and high school. By people I mean children. They do to school during the day, and when they get home they browse YouTube and they click on to the next video. Sometimes people will be inspired by my things to make their own videos and their own music. Even if it isn’t very good because it’s just some 13 year old shooting it with their camera phone. It’s kind of fun to see people who are doing things that are the beginning of what might be a career. I don’t mind wasting people’s time, because at least 1% of it is going to something good.
ethan: About flash. Flash is political, Apple doesn’t like flash. How are we going to archive this stuff? What would happen if flash were not available, to creators and iPad/iPhone?
Joel: The first thing is that I in no way condone the war against flash. I don’t think it actually matters to us, because all of these things can be published in another medium. From the archiving position, everything is in danger of being lost.
Neil: I haven’t actually opened flash in quite a while. I’m happy of any new reason to make fun of Apple users, so I’m okay with it. I think flash kind of already had it’s heyday — like AlbinoBlackSheep and Newgrounds — and stuff is still being done there. But YouTube has kind of changed the game. It’s gotten so that internet speeds have been fast enough to load streaming video.
Joel: Flash is an animation tool, and I frequently make things that are too big to public as a .swf, but they needs to be exported as a video, because they’re too big, but it’s not a problem.
danah: Joel, you said that all animals are cute but dogs are not as loved as cats. Where does this war between cats and dogs go? Where are we going with this?
Joel: It’s the light vs. the dark isn’t it. I really like dogs, there are some nice dogs out there. But I’m fundamentally a cat person. With a dog, a dog loves you, and if you died, the dog will pine. But with a cat, it pretends to love you, and if you were to die, it would just eat your corpse.
danah: Because they will eat you, they are fundamentally funny?
Ethan: Is there some aspect of things that is guaranteed to be funny? Is there guaranteed comedy gold on the internet?
Rob: Is there guaranteed comedy gold on the internet. That’s an impossible question. No. No there isn’t.
Ethan: The comparison between the work you guys are known for with Americas funniest home videos? Does that comparison apply to you?
Neil: I’m not sure if it applies to us, because we’re not really the found footage kind of thing. There have been a lot of TV shows who have taken the AFHV formula and tried to apply it to YouTube, but none of them have been as successful as AFHV, Rest in Peace.
danah: What is the path to getting traction? How did your videos take off? Is there one path?
Joel: There isn’t really a good answer to that, is there? Fundamentally, the internet works by people talking to each other. It used to be just email, but now it’s through a bunch of social networking things. If you make something that people think is cool enough to want to show to their friends, then people will see it. That’s all there is to it. With a commercial project, there is a lot of money for people to get their video to be posted on the front page, but then it can fall flat on its face.
Neil: In the older days of the internet, it was easier to see when a video went viral, oh yeah, it was on FARK.COM. Now it’s harder to pinpoint, it’s much more of a mystery.
Rob: I know when a ton of people get linked from a huge site, and then the site goes down, and then when it comes back up, some of those people go back.
Joel: There is a big correlation between being linked by a big blog and that will get you a lot of hits.
Ethan: Is it still about Fark or Digg or Reddit? Or is going through social media waves like Twitter & Facebook?
Joel: I mean it feeds off each other. If something is big on Twitter, a bunch of those poeple also use Reddit. There is a lot of cross over between Reddit and Digg.
Rob: People on TV don’t stop watching TV to go to their computer to watch you. If even a medium sized site links to you, and you get a lot of hits.
Neil: YouTube makes it easy for people to flow from one video to another, by keywords, and things getting linked to each other. The vast majority of the hits I get are from a different page on YouTube. For some sites, it depends on other blogs and other sites and link to you.
danah: The internet wants to know if you have day jobs?
Rob: Yes I do, sorry to go first. I’m an editor. It’s part medical and part legal writing.
Neil: I don’t have a day job. YouTube is giving me enough money from the ads and things that I can live. YouTube is a great system, they’re actually trying to get people money from their think. They started a rental service for independent film makers. My online videos got me a day job working for Plymouth Rock Video, I worked there as an editor and making web content for them, and then I got laid off. Because they kept hiring people based on things like that. It’s gonna happen someday, but they’re just kinda small right now.
Joel: I just have always done this.
Ethan: It’s been wonderful to have you here, who are living the dreams. Creating this stuff.
Joel: I do have a thought. Where we started with the long view. The internet is a brilliant democratizing thing. If you think about how it worked a long time ago, they’d get a hit then they’d shut down.
Neil: I remembered something this morning that I had totally forgotten about that once I was reading about this guy who had killed this girl and was planning on eating a girl, and I was looking at his geo cities page, and he linked to me, as some of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen. He just got life.
Rob: The internet is evolving, and there are always new tools, and it’s good to learn them, but there is also something to using the old tools that exist, and using them to make something. Second point: Take pictures of things as you are making them. Everyone always posts pictures of things that have already been made. But it’s more important to share the things as you are making them.