Chapter 5 – Pirates Ahoy!

Although the Internet has raised many cultural and social questions, perhaps more than any communications medium yet invented by humankind, the problems it has caused for the financial value of traditional content are some of the most profound. Crowd-sourced information, user-generated content, and blogging have radically undermined the value of professional work, with resonances across the media industry. The excellent documentary Page One provides a snapshot of how this has affected one of the most respected brands in journalism, The New York Times. From the point of view of traditional media powerhouses, however, content piracy is the biggest threat of all. The dramatic demise of Napster has now gone down in the annals of history as a watershed moment. This was the 2001 event when the music industry woke up to the fact that online culture was very different from what had gone before. The industry’s knee-jerk reaction was to take down the opposition, and a few years later legitimate music sharing services arrived, which have been quite successful.

But Napster was only the beginning. It may have been a wakeup call for the media industry, but it also woke the opposing forces from their slumber. New peer-to-peer systems were born, which were much harder for content owners to shut down using the law. First there was KaZaa and other peer-to-peer networks, then the BitTorrent system created by Bram Cohen arrived. Napster had proven vulnerable because it kept a database of shared files, so it couldn’t be argued that those running the system didn’t know what was being shared. KaZaa and BitTorrent are much more decentralised. Figures in 2007 showed that nearly half of those using BitTorrent file sharing were downloading TV shows, and over 15 per cent more other types of video. So although music may have been at the vanguard, faster Internet connections have allowed video to take its place.

Many global hit TV shows are made in the US. They also usually air there sometimes a whole season before they are syndicated internationally. Since kudos comes to those who see something before their friends, the urge to obtain new episodes early is very great. This is not driven by a desire to save money, although that helps. Most of these shows will be available on free-to-air TV channels eventually anyway. The impetus comes from wanting to see episodes before everyone else – to lead the trend, and break the news. The story with pirate movies is a little different. Although here there will also be the desire to see a film before it is released in the local market, the price of DVDs and cinema tickets is more of a factor.

The TV and film industries have had some success closing a number of the websites which help BitTorrent users find the files they want, such as the infamous High profile prosecutions of file sharers have been used as scare tactics. At the time of writing, the infamous Piratebay had just been made inaccessible via the majority of UK Internet service providers. But they are fighting a losing battle. Soon after the Piratebay had been rendered directly inaccessible in the UK, a list of alternative mirror sites appeared, making the same illegal content just a Google search away.

The Internet has pushed boundaries because it has actually amplified something we have taken for granted for decades, rather than introducing something entirely new. Making a cassette mix tape of your favourite music for a friend never really felt like stealing. Neither did recording a TV programme on VHS and lending it to your neighbour. But both acts technically break UK copyright law. Fortunately, these seemingly innocuous little thefts remained limited, and impossible to track. So they went unpunished. But the Internet has changed all that. The music industry blames depressed sales figures on sharing of music online, and the movie industry is hitting individuals with fines so large you would think they had committed serial mass murder. The Motion Picture Agency of America ( has gone so far as to describe the current situation as a ‘Global Avalanche of Internet Piracy’.

A brief history of online theft

The arrival of the Internet did not automatically result in the unparalleled levels of piracy we see today. But the potential has always been there. Right from the early days, private FTP sites and the Usenet newsgroup system have been used to exchange illicit content, in particular pornography and cracked software. This dates back well into the mid-1990s. But although these methods of illicit distribution were considered a problem, they didn’t warrant today’s headlines.

Aside from the fact that 1990s file sharing didn’t involve music and movies to the extent it does now, it wasn’t exactly on a public scale either. Sharing over Usenet involves splitting up files into segments, and putting these online as separate posts. For a really large file or archive of files, there can be literally hundreds of segments. Every single one must be downloaded to reconstitute the original, which is extremely fiddly. If you miss a segment on Usenet, finding a replacement will be a tedious waiting game until someone posts the entire set again. Few people can be bothered, and for this reason Usenet has never caught on for mainstream piracy.

Pirate FTP sites are even more exclusive. Due to the extremely illegal nature of the files hosted, the locations and username information of these sites are closely guarded secrets, only passed around a trusted group. Again, this isn’t wide-scale theft. It’s limited to elite sharers only. The FTP model remains the top of the pyramid in online piracy today. So although online piracy arrived with the Internet, for years it remained a shady area inhabited mainly by obsessive collectors. This was exacerbated by the fact that you need the patience of a saint to download anything significant over a modem connection. But online piracy is no longer a niche for the highly computer literate. Many people now expect to see the latest episodes of hit series via their computers long before they ever reach the TV screen. The practice is hardly viewed as illegal, being considered as almost the same as lending a VHS or DVD to a friend.

Two factors have contributed to the ‘avalanche’. One is peer-to-peer (P2P) technology, and the other broadband. Both tackle the performance problem, although P2P has also made prosecution much more tricky. The benefits of broadband are obvious, but as fast as it may be there is one drawback – the upstream bandwidth is always many times smaller than the downstream. So broadband is not much good for sharing your files to lots of people. This is where P2P technology comes in. If lots of people are trying to get hold of the same file, they can contribute the bits they have downloaded already to other downloaders. The small amount of upstream bandwidth each one contributes can then be combined to make faster downloads for everyone.

This capability of P2P technology is what has taken file sharing from the shady fringes out into the mainstream. The first popularisation of P2P has now become virtual legend, with Napster’s demise at the hands of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) considered strike one to the content establishment. After Napster’s closure, however, services like KaZaA (formerly at, Limewire (formerly at and eDonkey2000 (formerly at took over. But the real P2P revolution was the introduction of the BitTorrent protocol. Unlike other systems, BitTorrent can operate without a central computer coordinating the download. This makes it virtually impossible to locate the originator of a file from the Torrent file stream itself, and takes the onus away from the site hosting the Torrent location file as well.

Even with these “trackerless” BitTorrents, users still need to download a Torrent file to know where other peers and seeds are located on the Internet. This is generally performed by a simple database-driven website, with tools so visitors can search for the file they want, which will then give them a list of Torrent options. These BitTorrent websites have become the new frontier of piracy. Most famous amongst them was, run by Andrej Preston, also known as Sloncek. At the end of 2004, a major crackdown by the Moving Picture Association of America (MPAA) caused many of the popular BitTorrent sites to shut of their own accord, including But instead of killing off BitTorrent-based piracy, attention merely turned to Swedish site The Pirate Bay (, which has been cheekily cocking its snoot at copyright holders ever since, and Mininova (, which became the most popular BitTorrent site of all.

But these two headliners were hardly alone. As one site was removed from action, another emerged to take its place. Despite aggressive legal suits, BitTorrent sites proliferated, and looked increasingly bold and mainstream. They were also joined by websites which simply streamed video content, such as the now-defunct QuickSilverScreen (, ( and Veoh ( Even DivX’s Stage6 ( and Google Video ( were used to host illegal video, and copyright-infringing material still regularly appears on YouTube (, until the copyright holders ask for it to be removed. Viacom famously filed a $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube in March 2007, which many considered to be the beginning of the end for the site. The lawsuit involved 160,000 clips with more than 1.5 billion views, but didn’t result in the death of YouTube. In contrast, the BBC entered into a licensing deal instead, as have a few other content owners.

Peer-to-peer technology isn’t intrinsically bad. From a technological view it’s just a clever way of maximising the utility of asymmetric Internet bandwidth, and has been used to power entirely legitimate video services like Joost (, which was “On Pause” at the time of writing). But what is more surprising is just how mainstream the pirate sites began to look. Most started to carry advertising – and not just for pornography and online dating services. Some of this was very mainstream indeed. Mininova has hosted adverts for the Tesco supermarket and Alliance & Leicester building society. Yet scroll down the site and you were able to access BitTorrents of the latest Hollywood blockbuster movies.

In 2007, Mininova’s Business Development Director, Niek van der Maas, explained how the site managed this strange balancing act between mainstream advertiser appeal and large-scale content piracy: ‘We do not infringe any copyright. Torrent files clearly aren’t copyrighted. Besides that, many corporations have no problem targeting 29 million unique tech-savvy users (per month).’ Der Maas’s comments highlight two important features of online piracy, making it a particular thorn in the side of content owners. On the one hand, sites like Mininova don’t host any pirate content themselves – just the means to find it and access it from elsewhere. Similarly, sites like act as a portal aggregating links to other streaming video sites. No ISP we know of has been successfully prosecuted for hosting Usenet groups used for distributing illegal content, although some choose not to host these groups. BitTorrent sites can similarly argue that they are merely a communications medium, although that argument didn’t work for Napster, and clearly has been used against Piratebay.

But on the other hand, these sites can command a very powerful body of consumers. In 2007, Mininova had become the 53rd most popular website in the world and Veoh was 75th, according to Web information company Alexa (, although both have dropped considerably since then. Just as cassette tapes and VHS pitted equipment manufacturers against content owners, online piracy has done the same with Internet technology companies. However, visitors to pirate websites are already in the habit of not paying for things, so they are not the best of customers. For this reason, U2’s manager Paul McGuinness has attacked the technology industry for a perceived lack of social responsibility in turning a blind eye to the issue of piracy.

Music is clearly no longer the main focus of attention for online piracy. Instead, video has taken its place. Movies and TV series are the new stock in trade, and not just as downloads, but streamed from video sharing sites. Even Google is great for finding torrents – just chuck in the name of what you’re looking for plus the word torrent. This shows how mainstream torrenting has become, and could be seen as a sign that people are naturally thieves, a theory backed up by the infamous Tragedy of Commons argument. But it could also hint that content owners are not meeting people’s needs. Although music files are still readily shared, the arrival of legitimate online services such as iTunes and Spotify gave the mainstream music consumer far less reason to bother with piracy. UK pop group Radiohead’s giving away of its album In Rainbows in 2007 also showed that people do value music enough to pay for it even if they don’t have to, with a significant proportion of downloaders choosing to pay for the album voluntarily. US musich group Nine Inch Nails found success with a similar strategy for its Ghosts I-IV.

When questioned, heavy users don’t cite the fact that content is free as the main reason for downloading it illegally. When questioned anonymously, interviewees explain that illegal content can be moved much more easily between devices, allowing it to be viewed when and how the user wants. Content recorded onto a PVR box generally can’t be transferred beyond that device, and a video disc, either DVD or Blu-ray, can’t legally be transferred to a portable player, it must be viewed with a device sporting the requisite drive. Online systems such as BBC’s iPlayer have alleviated this a little, as most devices with a fast enough Internet connection now have a native player and can view content, with the BBC allegedly encoding every programme into 23 different formats to cope with the plethora of viewing platforms. It’s also possible to download content for viewing offline, although not on all platforms. You can’t watch BBC iPlayer content on the underground or in a plane via a mobile phone, for example.

The lack of ability to preview content from DVD shops or at the cinema is also cited as a reason to download. In other words, convenience is at least as important as getting stuff for free. TV companies are catching up with this, with all the main UK channels offering some form of online on-demand service at the time of writing. Apple’s iTunes service also offers a host of TV series for download, as do the major DVD rental companies Lovefilm and Netflix. But all of these are highly restrictive next to a movie file you can copy (or transer via another format) to any device you want, or streaming video you can watch on any Internet-connected computer.

Nevertheless, although loads of video is widely available from the mainstream, openly accessible BitTorrent sites, the structure of piracy hasn’t changed radically since the early days. Top of the tree, where the most exclusive files appear first, are still the private FTP sites. The BitTorrent websites with the most illicit, high quality content are also by invitation only. A member needs to achieve a certain ‘ratio’ of uploading to downloading before they can invite others.

But the rewards of membership can be enormous, and the service available well beyond the hit-or-miss that users of public P2P networks like KaZaa had to endure. Virtually everything broadcast in the US in high definition except sports can be found on sites like, which is invitation-only. There is some sports, but this clearly doesn’t appeal to the users as there isn’t much of it there. So the content available mainly includes movies and TV series – grabbed live from TV via HDTV computer capture devices. Even Sky’s HD service has been ripped using satellite TV tuner cards.

But content ripped from Blu-ray disc is also readily available. Any Blu-ray release will be immediately posted online as soon as discs become available, in multiple formats, including special versions for the Xbox360 gaming console. Both the now-discontinued HD-DVD and Blu-ray were cracked in January 2007 by a hacker known as Muslix64. Blu-ray discs with BD+ security proved a little harder to rip, but even this extra level of security fell to the cracker’s ingenuity in November 2007. Since then, user-friendly tools such as Slysoft’s AnyDVD HD ( have arrived with the ability to remove the AACS protection from any HD-DVD or Blu-ray disc.

The same thing is likely to happen to any content protection system, including the draconian hardware-based Digital Rights Management systems which have regularly been proposed. If protection schemes are too restrictive regarding what can be done with content that has been legitimately purchased, they will simply drive users further towards unrestricted, but illegal distribution systems instead. Traditionally, content owners only controlled the means of producing and reproducing content. But in the Internet era they have seen the need to control the act of consumption as well – how and where you watch or listen – to maintain or even increase their profits. Online piracy has been depicted by its proponents as the realm where the fight against that control is taking place. Interestingly, the writers’ strike in the US in 2007/8 was about the same issue, but from a different perspective. Content distribution companies were refusing to share the profits from new online channels with writers.

Content owners continue to take the ‘big stick’ approach to piracy, trying terror tactics to discourage both websites and users. Decoy files containing false or broken content have also been seeded into P2P systems, to frustrate downloaders. At the same time, the pirate sites had been trying to become as legitimate as possible, presumably to strengthen the argument that piracy is not the real focus of their business. For example, Mininova launched a “Content Distribution” service (, which allowed indy producers to share their content without any costs.

There have been some signs that major content owners were starting to realise that they needed to lure consumers back to the legal distribution channels, rather than simply scare them away from the illegal ones. Ann Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group, famously stated in 2006: ‘We understand now that piracy is a business model. It exists to serve a need in the market for consumers who want TV content on demand. Pirates compete the same way we do – through quality, price and availability. We don’t like the model but we realise it’s competitive enough to make it a major competitor going forward.’

However, realising the true nature of the threat is one thing. Broadcasters and movie distributers have still done too little to provide services which are at least as convenient as what is available from BitTorrent and streaming sites, and they have shown limited innovation or vision. Despite increasingly sophisticated Digital Rights Management (DRM), content owners have had little success preventing file sharing by technical means. But they are also hoping the brute force approach will do the job instead. After successfully shutting down the original Napster service, organisations such as the RIAA and MPAA have focused on threats of prosecution as a deterrent. This has often been more hot air than real danger, particularly across international borders, as the unsuccessful attempts to shut down The Pirate Bay have shown, including the unsuccessful locking out of the site from UK Internet services in 2012. Although eDonkey2000 itself ended up settling with the RIAA to the tune of $30 million, the ED2K network it spawned remained operational afterwards.

But if the attempts to eliminate the distribution networks haven’t exactly succeeded, the content owners have tried the even more heavy-handed tactic of going after individual sharers. On 4th October 2007, the US legal system found Jammie Thomas guilty of sharing 24 music files over the KaZaA system, and ordered her to pay $222,000 in compensation. This test case set a precedent, sending shockwaves through the file sharing community, and probably had the desired effect of instilling terror. But only temporarily.

Jammie Thomas was caught by a company called MediaSentry, which is employed by a number of trade associations and corporations to track the Internet addresses of file sharers. Although a user’s full identity is anonymous online, peer-to-peer networks need a computer’s Internet address to function, which can be used to trace users. This doesn’t automatically leave a user open to prosecution, though, as the Internet service provider will need to be willing to translate the Internet address into a user’s identity. Not every provider will do this immediately, particularly as the practices of companies like MediaSentry remain controversial. International borders will also slow the identification process.

Only huge file sharers, or the dramatically unlucky, are likely to fall foul of prosecution, as there aren’t enough legal resources to take on all the millions of file sharers that are active around the world. The chances can be reduced further with the right precautions, too. Software tools such as PeerGuardian block a list of Internet addresses used by the opponents of peer-to-peer sharing, compiled by The Azureus BitTorrent client has a SafePeer plugin which uses the same data. It’s not foolproof, but significanty reduces the chance of being caught.

Piracy has become a game of cat-and-mouse, and one which the cat is mostly losing, despite the odd high-profile catch. This has made it another factor driving online video content in a different direction to traditional formats, where piracy is less possible or not even relevant. The movie industry has put its faith in 3D, which is essentially impossible to pirate using a camcorder in a cinema, and potentially gives back film the sense of occasion which makes it worth going out to see it in a theatre.

But rather than railing against piracy and trying to prevent it from occurring, it should be possible to create content that takes the sharing tendency into account. After all, YouTube has made sharing part of its business model from the outset. Even commercial enterprises like ChannelFlip, described in the previous chapter, don’t necessarily lose from piracy, because the sponsorship message is embedded alongside the content. With a method for tracking the number of views, piracy could even make content more valuable. In the next chapter, the argument turns to how content can be produced which takes advantage of social sharing, viral qualities, and piracy.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chapter 4 – ‘Elebrity’ Squares

In the first half of 2006, mention the name YouTube and only the Internet-savvy would know what you were talking about. The website was merely one amongst many providing hosting for Web video streams. But there was something special about the way YouTube combined its streaming system with search, ratings and a limited form of social networking – and in particular, its easy embedding of clips in other websites. This separated YouTube from the crowd, leading to the now legendary $1.65 billion Google buyout in October 2006.

Since then, despite the plethora of alternatives, YouTube has become the household name for Web video sharing. It may not be the only popular video sharing website by any means, with for example Vimeo popular amongst professional videomakers, but it sets the benchmark for online audiovisual success. A new breed of stars has arisen, their fame so great that they are often featured in traditional media – which is what many are still aiming for anyway.

We’ve already mentioned the infamous Numa Numa Guy – voted the number one Internet icon by VH1 in 2007. However, a less novelty-oriented YouTube phenomenon was Lonelygirl15. Encountered amongst other video bloggers (aka vloggers), Lonelygirl15 appeared to be a troubled teen struggling with the angst of being born into a mysterious religious sect in the US. Many of her postings have received over a million views, as YouTubers became fascinated with the intimate confessions of her personal woes. The fascination was further fuelled by her willingness to converse with fans via YouTube’s comments system.

But then the truth came out. Lonelygirl15 was actually an actress called Jessica Rose, and the videos were created by a pair of film industry hopefuls. Her replies to her YouTube commentators weren’t even written by her. One of the filmmakers’ wives was responsible. Lonelygirl15’s main character, Bree, didn’t really exist. This caused considerable controversy, with vitriolic video attacks and angry comments posted on YouTube – although many continued to enjoy the series. Jessica Rose made the cover of Wired, and the event was widely reported on US news TV shows. She even appeared on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.

The makers of Lonelygirl15 have reportedly been able to make a viable living out of the series, despite the main character being killed off in August 2007, due to Jessica Rose’s desire to move on to other projects. The phenomenon is also one of the first examples of dramatic content specifically designed for the Internet, taking advantage of the fast-growing trend towards social networking as well as cheap global video distribution. The Lonelygirl15 series is available on YouTube (, although initially the now-defunct Revver was the primary video host, chosen for its generous revenue-sharing model. The series also has its own website (, making this one series a content channel of its own.

Pretty girls doing quirky things seem to make up a large proportion of the most successful YouTube stars, epitomised by HappySlip ( This Philippine-American, whose real name is Christine Gambito, has a remarkably expressive face – ideal for the low resolutions of YouTube – and a keen sense of humour. Her videos regularly garner 300,000 or more viewings, and a number have achieved over three million. This is particularly impressive considering that the content is focused on Philippine-American culture, and hard to understand for those not from this background. As a result of her Internet popularity, Gambito has been made a Philippine ambassador for the country’s Department of Tourism.

The UK has its own home-grown stars of the computer screen, too. For example, Katers17, who was a high school student at the time of her main YouTube career, has produced videos that regularly achieved hundreds of thousands of viewers. Her spoof on Tomb Raider ( had been watched nearly 460,000 times at the time of writing – the kind of viewing figures a minor cable TV channel would salivate over. This was a true family business to begin with, too, as her father held the camera for many of the first videos. Perhaps the most curious success of all is Geriatric1927, an octogenarian with a penchant for grumbling about life. His emotional candour and frank admissions about his life have won the hearts of many. Geriatric1927’s first video ( had been viewed nearly 3 million times at the time of writing, and his series Telling it all regularly achieves six-figure followings. This shows that anyone can be an Internet video star.

Despite their multi-million viewers, however, these Web video stars have mostly found it hard to turn their high-profile hobby into a real living. Google does pay a share of advertising revenue to successful YouTubers, and this has enabled a few to make a decent income. The family behind the infamous Charlie Bit My Finger… again! clip, which had been viewed more than 474 million times at the time of writing, according to the Daily Mail made £100,000 from the advertising overlaid on the video, and thousdands more every year from other videos. But this is the exception, rather than the rule. Videos must be viewed millions of times on YouTube before the income from them becomes significant.

Part of the issue here is that the revenue comes exclusively from advertisers, and advertisers like to know if the audience for their ads fits the customer base they wish to reach. You can’t really be sure who will be watching a kitten do something cute on YouTube – the demographic information is too limited. When videos are added to an existing website with a defined audience, however, attaching advertising to the content can garner more significant revenue. With decent rates per 1,000 views on offer for pre-roll advertising on a site with millions of monthly visitors, just a few thousand video views a day can be enough to make video content pay.

UK-based Web video company ChannelFlip has devised a more novel business model still. Originally, ChannelFlip was intended to be the UK’s answer to Revision3. The latter is a US Internet video company that creates a plethora of successful online series, most notably the hugely popular Diggnation, where the founder of website Digg sits on a couch with another presenter to discuss popular Internet stories from Digg. The first programmes on ChannelFlip were a technology show, a games show, a DVD movie release review show and a cooking show, although the latter was dropped after just a couple of episodes.

ChannelFlip really took off when it started to enlist famous names from the world of TV for its programmes. First, TV comic David Mitchell performed short monologues in the series David Mitchell’s Soap Box, but there were also other UK comedy stars and cast members from the popular Red Dwarf TV series, as well as Richard Hammond, one of the presenters of the BBC’s blockbusting car TV show Top Gear. So ChannelFlip has veered significantly away from the original Internet video theme of user-generated content and little-known people becoming Internet famous. It also has a novel model of offering its content to existing sites such as The Guardian Online whilst maintaining its own embedded sponsorship messages. So the audience increases, via reputable sites with clear demographic information, making the sponsorship deals more lucrative. This model proved so successful that News Corporation’s Shine Group bought ChannelFlip for an undisclosed sum in January 2012.

Digital Citizens

The ChannelFlip story, and the fact that the most successful videos on YouTube are now music videos from the likes of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, show that corporate interests are getting a grip on the Internet viral video phenomenon. But this doesn’t mean the medium has totally sold out just yet. There is true potential for the propagation of alternative views of news events, for example. The September 11th, 2001 attacks on the New York World Trade Center showed that people in the right place at the right time with a camcorder could gather news which the professionals missed. The only footage of the first plane hitting the towers ( was not recorded by a professional news cameraperson. The mobile phone photos and videos of the 7/7 attacks in the UK have further cemented the place of ‘citizen journalism’ as an important element in news reporting in the Internet Age.

Seeing this potential, Channel 5’s news ( offered opportunities for its viewers to upload videos – promising to pay at least £100 for those chosen to be featured. Showing just how serious some are taking citizen journalism, though, ‘former next president of the United States’ Al Gore helped set up a site dedicated to grassroots video news reporting called Current TV ( This site takes a more curated approach to YouTube and other user-generated content sites, with submissions (called ‘Pods’) reviewed by the Current TV team before being allowed on the site. Current TV launched a local UK branch, although this has subsequently been discontinued after BSkyB dropped the broadcast channel from its lineup in March 2012.

The KONY 2012 phenomenon aside, serious issues don’t tend to make it into the top of the most-viewed viral charts just yet, and they probably won’t ever. Many of the favourites may be topical, but it’s usually their quirkiness which makes them popular. Looking at the list prepared by Viral Video Chart (, it is now mostly music videos which dominate, although this is a change in the last couple of years. Top of the pops for a time in 2007 was Leave Britney Alone ! Chris Crocker ( Over eight million people had watched this less than a week after it was released. Yet it essentially consists of someone pretending to be upset about how Britney Spears has been treated after her dire MTV comeback performance earlier in 2007. It really wasn’t clear why this was such a big hit, garnering more viewers in one week than most soap operas on UK television.

It’s also not clear what the effect is of the hugely unsettling spate of grisly beheading videos found online from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When everyone can make video and upload it onto the Internet, this also includes content which transcends all norms of decency. Depending on your point of view, the display of these videos instills fear in the West, or gives the West the justification it needs for further military action. The notorious popularity of the Bumfights videos, where homeless people were exploited to perform stunts, also found a small but significant audience. So there are clearly negative sides to the Internet video revolution, but none more so than the potential devaluation of professional content, which we will be turning to in the next chapter.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Chapter 3 – The Viral Seed

In the 1990s, when modems were still the primary internet connection tool, the potential for online video was limited. Nevertheless, savvy marketing people still saw opportunities early on. Successful advertising aims to get customers as personally involved in a brand as possible, and must do so to prevail against the constant media bombardment from every direction. So ads have evolved into a form of content that is engaging enough to be worth consuming in its own right. If an advertisement is actually appreciated in itself, then it can become content that is talked about in the same way as pure TV content – down the pub, in the office corridor, over the breakfast table. So it wasn’t a huge leap that encouraging the desire to share ads with your friends via the new global information-sharing system called the Internet would seem potentially good for building brand awareness.

In the 1990s, though, the prevalent modem connection at home wasn’t really up to even postage stamp-sized video. Fortunately, companies were starting to install faster connections to the Net, from ISDN upwards. So employees began to send low-resolution TV captures of their favourite ads to work email addresses. Some videos even appeared that were never seen on TV, clearly having been created with this kind of sharing in mind. Favourite adverts included the Flat Eric Levi’s Sta-Prest series, such as the classic Police Check (, where a man and his indeterminate soft toy are pulled over by a cop, who checks the perfectly folded jeans in the boot of his car before sending them on their way. The many variations on Budweiser’s Wassup! ( were also frequently popular. It was very gratifying for advertisers to realise they could get other people to pay for the distribution of their messages. Viral Internet marketing had arrived.

This was the era when the Internet “meme” was born – that much-maligned word coined by Richard Dawkins, which refers to a cultural item that spreads and is shared compulsively almost as if it has a life of its own. This is a “fertile symbol”, which Henry Jenkins calls Spreadable Media. What makes something spreadable remains somewhat of a mystery, but it clearly has links with what makes a successful advertisement. A piece of content that can grab the attention in 30 seconds is also potentially content that people will want to share with their friends. In the 1990s, viral content was very much an offshoot of the advertising industry, at least in spirit, although this wasn’t going to remain the case.

By the end of the 1990s, however, corporate network administrators had become wise to employees using the lion’s share of their precious Internet bandwidth to send non-work-related video and graphic attachments to each other, and started limiting the size of emailed files. This essentially killed the email era of online video, as most people still had modems at home, and pushed video towards files downloaded from websites. The URLs didn’t bring corporate email servers to their knees, they were harder for companies to block, and you could leave downloads running at home if you really had to, ready to watch later. This was still not as immediate as an email attachment, but only a few years later bandwidth would increase sufficiently.

Fanning the flames

Even if emailing funny videos had been nipped in the bud, Internet users had gotten a taste for sharing amusing video clips, funny pictures and quirky animations – especially if they were low on bandwidth. One of the earliest low-bandwidth successes was the Hamster Dance ( This rocketed across the fledgling Internet with abandon. Its insanely gyrating rodents and irritating vocalisation have lodged themselves in the public psyche ever since, even if cuter, more feline lifeforms have supplanted them as the Internet’s favourite animals more recently.

However, a consistent theme from then onwards has been video which takes as its inspiration content which is already well known. Since the majority of the first Internet users were computing early adopters, this has often meant cult science fiction. One example from the pre-broadband era is 2001’s The Polos of Death (, created by a pair of Cambridge University undergraduates. Using a webcam, a Boba Fett figurine, and lots of Polo mints, this stop-frame animation tells the sad tale of misfortune caused by a lack of ammunition. But, as it predated the era of video sharing websites, The Polos of Death has gone somewhat unnoticed as a viral hit since its initial interest, despite being extremely funny and well made, illustrating that these are not particularly important criteria for popularity.

Much more widely known is Star Wars Troops ( This spoof retells sequences on Tatooine from the first Star Wars movie, but in the style of the COPS TV show. Star Wars Troops shows a much higher level of production skill than many fan videos, with believable props as well as decent special effects and 3D animation. Although the Internet has provided the global means of distribution and a huge potential number of viewers for these viral videos, the cheapness of camcorders and editing kit allied with constant improvement of 3D animation software have been equally important. Camcorders costing under a grand became capable of video quality which only £20,000 models of the past were able to produce, and a basic PC was sufficient for editing video and creating 3D animation, albeit more slowly than a professional workstation. This has allowed amateur videomakers to embark on increasingly ambitious projects, even full-length TV shows and movies.

Although the budgets for these longer projects are much bigger than most amateur works, they are still chicken feed compared to a Hollywood movie or broadcast TV production. Star Wars: Revelations ( is a 47-minute film set in the Star Wars universe and cost over $15,000 to make, using a crew of nearly 200 people. Released in April 2005, it was downloaded nearly a million times in the first two weeks. Star Wrek: In the Pirkinning ( is a curious mashup parody of Star Trek and Babylon 5 made in Finland, of all places, which cost over €13,000 and took seven years to make. It was finally released in 2005. At 103 minutes, it’s one of the longest fan movies ever made, yet 300,000 copies were downloaded in the first week of release, more than 1.5 million by the second week, and over 2.9 million by the second month. Contrast these budgets with the tens or usually hundreds of millions of dollars spent on the average Hollywood blockbuster, and the return on investment for these fan videos looks decidedly spectacular.

Perhaps the most elaborate fan endeavour of all is the Star Trek: New Voyages series ( The original Star Trek starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy ran for only three seasons, but it was supposed to be a five-year mission. So New Voyages aims to fill in the remaining episodes. Using an exact recreation of the Enterprise bridge, which purportedly took 20 years and over $100,000 to put together, the team have finished multiple 51-minutes episodes. The series has even managed to attract a number of actors from the original Star Trek series as guests, including Walter Keonig and George Takei, who played Chekov and Sulu respectively in the original Star Trek series, and Denise Crosby, who played Lieutenant Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation. New Voyages also boasts some of the best-looking animation of any fan film, thanks to an anonymous contributor who worked professionally on the Star Trek: Enterprise series. So the 3D models are truly professional grade.

However, even though these fan movies all have remarkably high technological production values considering their non-profit status and low budgets, they generally have something less positive in common – the acting is mostly pretty poor, sometimes laughably so. This has marked out fan movies, and viral videos made by amateurs in general, as different from their professional counterparts, even if they can approach the same levels of popularity. The technology is now so cheap anyone can make reasonable-looking video, but the technical skill required for good acting remains a rare commodity. Nevertheless, Internet stars are being born surprisingly frequently, and their non-standard skills are a part of what makes them attractive to viewers.

Interestingly, although George Lucas would come down on anyone using his intellectual property for their own profit, he’s remarkably sanguine about people making their own amateur films using his characters and settings. In fact, now-defunct Web video pioneer AtomFilms hosted an annual Star Wars fan festival in which Lucas himself participated, choosing the winner in one of the categories. The entries had to be parodies – serious films weren’t allowed. For example, 2007’s winner, chosen by George Lucas, was the Blame Society’s Chad Vader – Day Shift Manager (, about the hilarious misadventures of Darth Vader’s less-famous brother Chad, who works in the Empire supermarket. At the time of writing, the video had been viewed neary 12 million times on YouTube.

George Lucas is so encouraging towards fan-produced movies because he has understood maybe for longer than any Hollywood film maven just how valuable this level of engagement with a content brand can be. Star Wars is the archetypal “transmedia” franchise. George Lucas famously kept the merchandise rights for the films, then made a significant profit on the licensing of material for toys and supplementary products. Although the movies have made a fortune in themselves, they almost act as a loss leader for the plethora of other playthings that accompany them. The movies are the central content for a multi-faceted strategy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be the portion making the most money.

Fan videos fit well into this model. They may bring no income to the franchise, but they maintain engagement when no official story content is being produced. This is one of the reasons why Star Wars has remained so popular with successive generations. In contrast, the rigidly protected Disney characters have somewhat faded from favour, losing relevance for recent generations. Although fan culture predates the explosion of Internet video, and even the Internet, the two were clearly made for each other. Henry Jenkins has analysed this in depth in his seminal Convergence Culture. What’s particularly amazing is just how popular this fan-produced media can be.

One of the first videos to really make it big on the Internet was Star Wars Gangsta Rap ( This flash animation first arrived well before YouTube brought millions of viewers to the Web, with the original version first recorded in 1999. But it won the Audience Choice Award in The Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards 2002. By 2005, the original version of Star Wars Gangsta Rap had been viewed nearly four million times on AtomFilms, and the updated SE version with better animation ( over six million times. Unofficial estimates put its viewership at over 20 million, taking into account all the other sites hosting it, peer-to-peer sharing and email distribution.

But one pre-YouTube viral video blows this away completely, and has been voted the world’s favourite viral video of all time. According to online video research group The Viral Factory (, Star Wars Kid had been viewed over 900 million times by November 27th 2006 in all its various forms. The story behind Star Wars Kid exemplifies the completely serendipitous way viral clips find success. The maker of the original video, Ghyslain Raza, had no intention of releasing it or even showing the video to anyone. Unlike the British education system, Canadian high schools (like US ones) often have their own TV production studios, and it was in one of these in 2002 that Ghyslain Raza recorded himself using a golfing implement to represent Darth Maul’s double-ended light sabre. He left the tape in a drawer and forgot about it.

But then the original owner of the tape discovered the video, sandwiched in between basketball footage. Finding Raza’s antics amusing, he showed his friends, and their general approval led him to capture the footage and put it up on the KaZaa file sharing network. Within two weeks, it had been downloaded millions of times. The original Star Wars Kid (, however, is just the beginning of the story. Star Wars Kid’s subsequent life in the form of remixes, mash-ups and parodies is what has given it such a wide viewership. Hundreds of versions with visual and sound effects added have been created, some of the best of which can be found on Screaming Pickle ( The video has even been parodied on American sitcom Arrested Development. Many of these mash-ups blend in cultural references from other works of science fiction, such as the movie series The Matrix ( The story of Star Wars kid didn’t end well, however, with Ghyslain Raza unhappy about his unwanted fame – despite a petition to get him a part in Star Wars: Episode III. Instead, he sued the families of the schoolmates who released the video into the wild, and reportedly settled out of court in 2006.

A better ending has come for the The Numa Numa Guy, aka Gary Brolsma, a New Jersey high school student who recorded himself chair-dancing to a song by an obscure Moldovan pop band called O-Zone ( This had been viewed on YouTube nearly 48 million times at the time of writing. Brolsma originally shied away from the attention he created, but has since created a new video and engaged in numerous TV appearances. This shows how viral video has moved on thanks to the coming of age of video sharing websites like YouTube, and has become a surprisingly common story over the last few years.

Broadband was of course the technology which really enabled video on the Web to become a viable reality. But the actual form it has taken could not have been predicted a decade ago. What we like to watch on the Web is really very different from the kinds of content we have traditionally enjoyed in the comfort of our living rooms. Its popularity is also unprecedented, and this should be put in context of traditional TV viewing figures. On a global scale, the most watched programme is the World Cup, garnering billions of viewers across its many matches, although this figure is arrived at by counting groups of viewers in bars, not just families at home. As a more conservative estimate, the 2006 Final was watched by 260 million people, according to Initiative (

The most watched programmes in UK TV history managed about 30 million viewers – these are events like royal weddings and deaths, or soap opera special episodes (Who shot JR? from Dallas), and England winning the World Cup in 1966. But all of them dated back to the 1990s or before, until the 2012 London Olympics, and these days a British TV programme will consider itself a blockbuster if it exceeds ten million viewers. This is clearly the effect of more choice from cable, satellite and digital TV. Only the soap opera series Coronation Street and Eastenders regularly manage this level of viewing. Everyday hit drama series like The Bill still get 5-6 million, very little on Channel 5 gets more than 3 million, and tiny cable and satellite channels like Men and Motors survive on hundreds of thousands.

Most broadcast TV programme viewing figures are quoted as averages for a single broadcast. Web viewing figures, in contrast, are accumulated over time, as this is an on-demand medium. So the two aren’t directly comparable. But it’s still pretty interesting to see just how many people watch web videos now. The top figures are getting decidedly close to TV, and often blowing it out the water. With over 770 million views of Justin Bieber’s Baby music video on YouTube at the time of writing, the potential is there not just to challenge TV, but to thoroughly trounce it. Not everything is ephemeral pop fare, either. The meteoric rise of the KONY 2012 documentary, about child soldiers in Uganda and war criminal Joseph Kony, shows that the huge power of viral Internet video can be harnessed to spread a political message, too. A few years earlier, Loose Change and Zeitgeist Movie Series also showed that well researched conspiracy theories could find significant audiences online. The stage was clearly set for a new form of online video celebrity.

Enhanced by Zemanta