A New Hope and how entertainment has changed…

I can still remember the first time I ever saw Star Wars Episode 5 – The Empire Strikes Back. I’d been invited to a school friends birthday party at which they brought out a film projector. Just to further date things, it involved a reel of film rather than HDMI and USB connectors.

Today I sat with my son and spent 30 happy minutes watching Star Wars Episode 4 – A New Hope together. For the non-geeks, that’s the original Star Wars with Luke Skywalker escaping a desert with Alec Guinness, and rescuing Leia. The time was cut short when I had a heartfelt request that he’d rather be playing Lego Star Wars than watching a film.

He wanted to be part of the action, not sitting and simply watching it. And viewing it through his eyes, I suddenly realised how slow the film actually moves compared to some of the things he loves – like Pixar’s output. Even then, he provides a Director-style commentary about what’s on the screen, what’s about to happen, and anything else that pops into his somewhat random mind.

It’s a feeling I often get when I attempt to watch television. As much as I can still love a slow-moving, atmospheric film, the examples of something which draws me in on television are few and far between, so I usually manage about 5 minutes before I feel like I’d rather be playing a game and actually achieving something for myself. Or writing, blogging, or doing other work.

It’s tempting to say every TV show should include as much interactivity as possible, but given the fact that I’d rather poke my eyes out than suffer the hugely successful talent shows which take this approach, it’s not the only solution.

The solution for TV and movies for me is that we get an ever increasing range of niche channels and programming which allow me to watch something over than the same episodes of the Big Bang Theory for the umpteenth time, just because it’s the least irritating option available.

Give me a custom channel of motorsport, Swedish crime television and technology/sci-fi and I’m happy – which is almost possible when I pull together about 20 different services myself, but it’s not quite as effortless as it should be by now. Why can’t there be a central hub for all channels from which I can pull what I want, and pay in aggregate, and why should so much be hampered by copyright after being shown years ago in the U.S? I’m happy to pay for legal access or put up with advertising to be able to watch, but so much is simply not available…

For once, I can’t conclude with a simple solution, but it’s definitely an indication to me that despite the brilliant rise of Youtube, iPlayer, Lovefilm etc, there’s still a long way to go before we reach the perfect entertainment solution.

From Hollywood to Aylesbury (and UK freelancers)

When I dreamed about entering the movie business, I always assumed it would involve luxurious offices in Los Angeles or London, rather than a suburban semi-detached in Aylesbury. As it happens, I’m helping out the immensely talented Dalang Films, who are now releasing their own projects after working on many of the biggest films of the last decade.

Hollywood Sign

Chatting about their plans and introducing them to a few ideas around licensing, digital distribution and marketing, I couldn’t help thinking about the way business is changing every day in the UK, with more and more freelances, entrepreneurs and small businesses appearing every day.

A recent story on the Atlantic shared some relevant stats from the U.S.

  • In 2005 1/3 of the US workforce participated in the ‘freelance economy’, with data showing that number has increased ever since.
  • 2009 saw the highest level of entrepreneurial activity in the U.S in 14 years.
  • Online freelance job postings rockets in 2010, and companies are increasingly outsourcing various functions, along with increasing support for telecommuting.

I don’t have the equivalent UK figures, but I’d suspect we’re probably a bit behind due to cultural differences, but the same change is definitely happening. And despite the media fascination with ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in London, or even the ‘Silicon Fens’, there’s a huge amount of small business and individual endeavour that’s being missed.

For instance, the 40-50 people in Digital People in Peterborough are almost entirely comprised of small businesses and individial freelancers, with just a handful of exceptions. And I’d bet a similar picture is true of a huge number of geek meet-ups, or business networking events outside of London.

It’s not an easy life, and I wouldn’t romanticise the challenges of choosing between buying food or paying the bills when client invoices get missed and paid late. Or of working late into the night on something because there’s simply no-one else to help. But I do believe that there’s a cultural and business change happening which not only makes freelancing and telecommuting more acceptable, but will also enable it to become easier, with more support from the various necessary institutions.

And if you’ll excuse me, I have some client work to finish before I sit back with a beer and practice my Oscar acceptance speech. I know there’s not one for marketing, so I’ve offered to help out on various odd film jobs to make sure I get included in the nominations!

Interview with Blippr founders Jonathan C and Chris Heard

Two websites are currently showing the way the microblogging format can be used outside of pure conversation. But although the pair even have similar names, they take totally different approaches. I’ve previously covered ‘Twitter radio’ Blip.fm, but somehow I’ve neglected to cover the other major twist on microblogging, Blippr.  (You can find me using it, here)

But what is interesting about the system is that it not only allows for 160 character reviews of entertainment (music, films, books, videogames), but the focus of the company behind it is concentrated more on the recommendation side of things than purely Twitter for reviews, which means they’re taking on some big names (Disclosure: It also means they play in a similar space to ditto.net, which I do some work with).

Blippr

What is Blippr in 140 char?

(Jonathan): A community of people looking to discuss, discover and organize books, games, movies and music. In 160 characters or less, of course.

Your company (Tag Team Interactive) has a focus on social relationships and recommendations – what inspired this philosophy?

(Jonathan): My business partner and I just know and see the value in personal recommendations–the ones you receive from your family, your close friends, even just acquaintances. There’s an explicit amount of trust that you extend those influences in your life and you don’t need to come to understand. Recommendations across other platforms, like Amazon or Netflix for example, take time to train and come to trust. There’s this sort of “black box” effect. You’re not sure exactly why the item they’re recommending is a fit for you. However, if your good friend said “You have to see Pineapple Express, it’s hilarious”, it doesn’t require the same amount of learned trust. You already know you can trust that person. It causes even that much more drive to go out and see that movie.

Your company website mentions Blippr is your second application, but what was the first? Was it related to Blippr, and did your previous applications and websites have a direct effect on how Blippr was created?

(Jonathan): Our first was Judge-O-Rama, a site focused on enabling people to resolve their conflicts and contests in a head-to-head context. We like to think of it as our “practice app.” It was just something fun and entertaining, not quite as useful or focused as blippr. Judge-O-Rama was definitely instrumental in our working together, though, and at least serving as the inspiration to us starting to work together. In terms of how this served in blippr’s creation, I think this blog post will give you a good idea of how blippr started.

Who do you see as your competitors? Does it include Blip.fm? What are the advantages of Blippr?

(Jonathan): We don’t view Blip.fm as a direct competitor, per se. They’re doing the micro-thing, but we’re not trying to create a me-too “Twitter for reviews” application. That’s the obvious connotation most people make, given the review constraints, but we’re far more focused on developing the social recommendation and organization pieces than we are a simple micro-review platform. As such, we view our competitors more along the lines of Flixster, GoodReads, LibraryThing, Shelfari, iLike, Trusted Opinion, and a few others. Obviously one of our key advantages is our focus on not just one particular entertainment categories–movies or books or music or games–but on all of the above (we also plan on adding TV in the future). Furthermore, I think if you look at most of those sites, while they have solid communities, we’ve tried to make the participation process as simple as possible to encourage more participation. Also, last but not least, I would say that our focus on integrating with as many platforms as possible is a big differentiator. You can connect your blippr account with Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku, Pownce, Identi.ca, Tumblr, Facebook, Last.fm, GoodReads, LibraryThing, Amazon, and others, which is obviously a great opportunity for our users’ opinions and reviews. Those are some of the high level advantages, at least.

Obviously you’re monetising the site through Amazon, but do you have any further plans to drive revenue you can disclose? With traffic growing, was it a conscious decision not to include display advertising?

(Jonathan): We would say that commerce through various sites will definitely be a large share of revenue, but we do intend on eventually displaying ads that are relevant to blipprs’ userbase, as well. Obviously, the primary intent there is to offer entertainment advertisers a place to capture people who truly are interested in entertainment media and looking to make a decision. But we very much aim to make it a value-add to users first, then advertisers. Jeremy Liew, of Lightspeed Venture Partners, wrote a great blog post a while back on the topic of endemic advertising, which I believe really showcases blippr’s revenue opportunity.

Blippr users can cross-publish to Facebook, Friendfeed, Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku and Pownce. Do your users tie into the audience figures for those sites, or has there been any surprises? And is that the main word of mouth that is driving new registrations?

(Jonathan): This is assuredly a large driver of how people are discovering blippr, but I wouldn’t say that’s the main word of mouth driving registrations. Email invites sent from users have also been a large driver. In terms of surprises, I wouldn’t say there have been too many. Most connections have been with Twitter and Facebook. The rest are pretty much equally spread.

Are there any of the cross-publishing sites which are easier or harder to integrate into?

(Jonathan) That would be a question for my co-founder and business partner, Chief Executive Geek, Chris Heald. Some have taken more time than others. Obviously Facebook takes far more time than any of the others due to building an application for the platform, which is much more than just a cross-publish opportunity. iPhone and OpenSocial integrations will be the next difficult pieces for us, but they are coming.

Does scaling prove as problematic for Blippr as it has done for Twitter? There seem to have been some timeouts recently when I’ve been using Blippr?

(Chris): I don’t think scaling is going to be anywhere near the problem for us that it has been for Twitter; our architecture and product design is a good deal different than Twitter’s, so we avoid many of the specific design issues that they’ve had problems scaling. We have had some timeouts lately, but those were due to some rather exceptional circumstances, and a lack of hardware to fail over gracefully to (in those cases, the problems weren’t scaling issues so much as our primary app server going down without a graceful failover – that’s since been corrected). We’re still getting this thing off the ground, so our infrastructure is very much in its infancy (though we’ve been working lately to address that!). However, we have built this thing with an eye towards scaling, and don’t foresee any major problems in doing so as we move forward. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, but we’ve worked very hard to build a flexible product, and hope to see it grow about as quickly as we can keep up with it!

Do you plan to focus on utilising a microblogging format as the logical mechanism for your relationship and recommendation applications?

(Jonathan): The main inputs for our recommendations are explicit relationships (who you follow), agreements with other peoples’ blips, and the ratings you give titles. (Chris): I don’t think the microblogging format could necessarily be described as the mechanism for our relational/recommendation tools – the other data we’re collecting drives that – but the microblogging format uniquely contributes to this aim in that it encourages extremely high levels of participation, and thus, results in more useful data being present in the system for us to draw conclusions from. It is absolutely a key component to the success of these other components that we have built, even if it isn’t the primary mechanism by which these processes work. Whether we’d use it in future similar applications, I can’t say, but we’re both big fans of the behaviors that it encourages, and would very likely consider it.

And are there any Blips on products which have really shocked, surprised or amused you?

(Jonathan): Good question. It’s hard to pare down to just a single blip or two. Seriously, I can say that I am the biggest fan of blippr. As a huge movie geek myself, I’m constantly reading through blips and finding myself agreeing, laughing, vehemently disagreeing, and more. While some people fault blippr’s micro-format and say that you can’t really know whether something is good or bad within 160 characters, I say, read for yourself. You’ll be surprised!

The sense of censorship

I’ve just returned from some very interesting conversations, held on a beach on the Isle of Wight.
Despite the sandy taste of the lager, games journalists (among other things) David McCarthy and Kieron Gillen had a particularly interesting chat regarding censorship.
Originally focussing on the banning of the game Manhunt 2 by the BBFC, it also covered censorship of film, comics, and any entertainment media.

On one hand, I’m a big believer in the freedom of speech, and will happily sign up to defend anyone’s right to talk complete cobblers. At the same time, I’m regularly disapointed in the fact that a lot of people will believe the cobblers.

The optimist in me wants to point out that if there is film, text or a mixture which offends you, you can avoid enountering it. There are enough programmes to allow you to filter the internet, for example, with varying degrees of success.

At the same time, if someone does suggest something like a Blogging Code of Conduct, it’s entirely optional whether or not you sign up to it or not.

Sadly too many people seem to be unable to work out for themselves that they probably should watch disturbing films like A Clockwork Orange, or Assault on Precint 13, and avoid the latest horror franchise to follow this year’s trend for more and more gory fun.

This is one of the few posts I make, where I don’t already have a slightly patronising solution in mind… But I do think it’s an issue which will become ever more important. After all, if your new site is based on users supplying content, where do you draw the line on that content? Do you adopt the most lax legal approach of only ever reacting if there’s a complaint? Do you decide to let everything go, just to make a point, no matter how abhorrent? Or do you make a huge commitment to try and avoid anything offensive?

So far games seem to have got away with a relatively lax approach. Film seems to react only when there is something which can’t be defended as art. Meanwhile U.S comic firms voluntarily formed the Comics Code Authority in 1954. All three are capable of incredibly beauty and emotion. So which one was the right way to go?