Life Digitized

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Goodbye, college! Welcome to the cloud 🙂

A year ago I committed to going paperless and moving into the cloud. Now over twelve months later, I finished scanning and organizing everything that remained from high school and college:papers, tests, handouts, course readers and anything I might like to access again at some point. I also scanned all personal administrative, financial and legal documents that sat around collecting dust. I will recycle all of this paper and breathe a deep sigh of relief that I no longer have to cart  all that dead weight around.

The first thing you might be thinking is, “Craig, why would you go to all this trouble for documents you may never read again?” To anyone who knows me and my obsession with cataloging my life, this should not surprise you. To everyone else, my answer is not straightforward. The honest truth is, “just in case.” I might want to reference these documents again. Yes, clinical psychologists today have a term for that behavior: “hoarder.” Better and a totally different paradigm, I think, to hoard information that takes up zero physical space than piles of crap everywhere. Fancy me a “digital packrat.”

Some documents I refer to on a regular basis. Others I enjoyed rediscovering as I scanned them. The rest I will likely never see again. But at least now they’re organized, searchable (Google recognizes optical characters in PDFs and extracts information as searchable text) and accessible from anywhere. No more piles of paper to dig through or carry around. There are over 2,500 documents in my school folder alone, many of them tens or even hundreds of pages long. That’s a metric shit ton of dead trees!

Life in the cloud is certainly cleaner, lighter and easier. All of my files are mirrored across Google Drive, Dropbox and external hard drives (with the exception of over 14TB of video that I have not found room for in the cloud yet). I can access them all from my phone on the go and from any computer I can sign into. Google’s omni search bar finds not only web search results, but results from within email, contacts and all of these documents. Sometimes I search for a term and find the answer to my query in a class handout from years ago. Pretty wild. I suspect access to my personal information ecosystem will only get better from here.

So while it might not be as useful to me now, there’s no telling what fruits this project might yield in the future as the technology gods evolve.

Broadcast Contracts Will Kill Hollywood

It does not surprise me that Game of Thrones is the most pirated show on television. Without cable, I have no way to watch it. I’d happily pay $20 per month if HBO GO was open to people without cable subscriptions. Unfortunately, that’s not that case. None of HBO’s shows are available on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. I have no way to watch any of HBO’s shows except pay a $75 per month cable subscription for a television I don’t have, wait for them to come out on DVD, or pirate them. I’m a good boy with little expendable time, so I avoid Game of Thrones altogether. But 25 million people have not been angels and found the show through whatever means necessary. Who knows how many more people opt out entirely and forever pass the show by?

I’ve said before that Hollywood should concern themselves less with piracy and more with audience access. Simple supply and demand metrics – audiences demand content and providers are failing to supply to increasingly popular internet channels. It’s the whole industry’s fault for inciting piracy. They are missing out on an expanding margin of customers. In defense of HBO and others, production companies have entangled themselves in lucrative and restricting contracts with cable partners. To offer direct-to-consumer digital distribution would breach their contracts and deprive them of their single strongest revenue source. For most companies like HBO, that may never happen – at least not until everyone has internet televisions or the cable providers themselves die.

Broadcast contracts may be a reasonable excuse for holding content back from web distribution. But if companies plan to stand behind that excuse, they need to stop making such a big deal about piracy. By threatening or incriminating millions of people who cannot access your primary distribution method, you are alienating potential evangelists of your content and failing to understand the trajectory of your market. Web television is not a trend. In five years, most motion picture content will be consumed online – on connected televisions, game consoles, mobile devices or computers. To fight or deny this is foolish and egoistic.

I left Hollywood because no companies were willing to put the engineering muscle behind personal distribution channels. Beyond sheer web design and database builds, online services require customer service and billing infrastructure that can cost a lot of money. Fortunately, these things are getting easier and cheaper. An independent production company with enough content to leverage could easily set up shop on the web with a very controllable investment and small handful of people on the tech side.

If you want a sustainable career in the movie business, start or work for a company with full digital rights. Careful signing onto productions with traditional broadcast contracts and no digital rights – these opportunities, no matter how lucrative, are sinking ships. If they cannot find a way to breach contracts soon, they may not survive the next wave of liberated web-savvy competitors.

Consolidating the Online Content Experience

Image representing Netflix as depicted in Crun...

Image via CrunchBase

Marvel’s The Avengers raking in a $200M+ opening weekend leaves little room to tell Hollywood that they are doing it wrong. The 40-year old blockbuster model continues to pay for the movie business. In the early days, the cinema experience was not far removed from attending a Broadway show: dressing up and cozying into ornate movie palaces staffed by ushers and orchestras. To expand the experience, multiplexes cropped up everywhere. To augment the experience further, Hollywood learned to tentpole a film, merchandise it and open theme park rides. The cinema experience is larger than life.

While all of that may work for three or four titles, hundreds of motion pictures barely scrape by each year. The internet and a proliferation of choice in the new millennium continues to threaten the sustainability of the movie business. The entertainment industry as a whole keeps falling behind the times. They still depend on Nielsen‘s myopic ratings and surveys to make strategic market decisions. They collect little to no data on their viewers to leverage repeat conversions. They build no intimate relationships with their customers and create few opportunities outside the theater to communitize their content. They embrace an antiquated scarcity model by rolling content out onto different platforms across rigid windows weeks and months apart, thereby eliciting content access demand and piracy. Merchandise still sits on retail shelves or on random websites online, far from the experience of seeing the movie itself. Without update, these practices may be fatal. While box office may be up (due largely to increased ticket prices and 3D or IMAX premiums), attendance is down – even more painful when considering population growth.

All of these issues could be solved by incorporating a thicker web layer into and consolidating the filmgoing experience under one roof – literally and figuratively. By converging merchandise, community and content into a digital or real world platform, Hollywood could make all facets of their business more accessible and leverage entire catalogs toward a more scalable, niche-friendly or cost-effective practice. Loved the movie you just saw? The theaters should make it as easy as possible to leave the theater and impulse buy a plush or action figure of your favorite character. Imagine if you could buy merchandise from and connect with other fans on a movie’s page in Netflix? Organize public screenings or petition for a sequel with the masses online? The community layer would add to the consumer experience and give filmmakers a platform to understand how people engage with their work.

I love the movies. I love the theater. I want the industry to succeed. These issues are reparable. If the industry can recruit key talent from the web tech sector, surrender a century’s worth of logic around brick and mortar business practices, build relationships with consumers online and put storytelling first, there may be a glimmer of stability and hope for film professionals and moviegoers alike. We’ve got work to do. There’s plenty of stories to tell and opportunities to make a living by producing great content.

You Have A Voice. Use It.

Two or three decades ago, it was not easy to speak your mind – and nearly impossible to be heard. That’s not the case anymore. With the internet, we have an opportunity to share our thoughts, opinions and work on a global scale. We can express ourselves publicly, anonymously or under a pseudonym. While it’s not always easy to be heard online, it’s easier than ever to express yourself. I will never encourage you to add to the noise just for the sake of adding to the noise. But I do encourage you to use the web as a platform to let your mind and heart run free.

I know far too many closet writers, actors, film directors and artists who have great voices that need to be heard. Many of them are too lazy, shy or proud to share directly with the world. I know ten times more people who want to hone their voices and fear an audience. Keeping your mouth shut will not help you advertise. If you don’t put yourself out there, no one will know that you exist. Ever.

If you are concerned about operating online under your real name, simply make up another. Nine times out of ten, quality content online takes precedence over name or brand power anyway. If you can engage audiences with your voice through genuine content, you will win.

Say what you need to say. Don’t be afraid. What’s the worst that could happen?

There’s a System for That

If you’re having organizational trouble or find yourself doing the same mundane task over and over, chances are pretty high that someone else out there shares your pain. With a little bit of research, you may even find someone who has already conquered your problem. At any rate, it’s worth a look. The internet is a pretty big place these days. There are apps for everything.

As times change, brand new problems crop up all the time that may not yet have structured solutions. Depending on the complexity of your problem and processes, other people’s solutions may not serve your own. If you cannot find a solution, it’s up to you to build one. Given the challenges and material complexity of designing solutions (be they software, logistical or cost), most people opt out and choose to continue suffering. Don’t do that. Don’t settle for the mundane. You should never have to do the same thing more than once – unless you want to.

Mobile Should Not Port Web (Or Vice Versa)

Cramming the web experience into a smartphone is naïve. Any person with a shred of user interface appreciation should understand that we interact with desktop or laptop computers in very different ways than our phones or tablets. The devices are not directly interchangeable. It amazes me how many designers and companies forget it. Many hop on the mobile bandwagon and try to squeeze every feature into a claustrophobic mess. What’s the point?

I loath Facebook’s latest mobile app. It overwhelms the user with every possible feature from the suite (a collection of nonsense that makes it the slowest and most cumbersome app on my Galaxy Nexus). I do not need access to my pages or Facebook apps; I do not want to curate user groups or manage my friend list. Even events should live outside of the app – preferably in my calendar where they belong. I just need my messages, wall and news feed while I’m on the go. That’s it. Save my processing for something else.

While by no means an elegant app, Wells Fargo keeps things focused by opening with only two options – mobile banking or find an ATM. No offers for loans. No investing or insurance. Just simple tools to manage my money on the go. That’s it. Straightforward, simple and relevant.

On the flip, many mobile-first applications forget that they can approach their mission from a completely different angle via the browser. Instagram, with the mission to “share your life with friends through a series of pictures,” has an irrefutable opportunity to expand photo consumption onto a larger palette. Right now, their website is an embarrassing static splash page. Imagine a stunning and immersive fullscreen browser magazine ripe with friends’ photos, updating live as their world evolves around you. A powerful experience you will never have on a 3.5 inch screen.

Mobile and web can help you approach your core mission from two different angles. The mobile experience should feel immediate, focused, actionable and succinct. The web experience should feel expansive, explorable, comprehensive and open.

Before you port your experience to one device or another, first ask yourself two (rather obvious) questions: (1) What tools do people absolutely need on their phones versus their computers and (2) how would user interaction differ with the same tools on different devices?

Mobile could let you explore all the comprehensive offerings of a cross-platform application if you want to, but the unique-to-mobile (U2M) experience should come first. The Foursquare check-in is a perfect example of a U2M tool that adds to the unique-to-browser (U2B) experience of exploring a map of your data.

More platforms should debate U2M versus U2B and not try to cram a square block into a round hole.

Protest

I keep my mouth shut and seldom declare my stance on tabled issues in public. I avoid stirring the pot for the sake of it and do what I can to preserve my nonpartisan relationships. But when it comes to legislation or executive decisions that may invariably keep my mouth shut against my will, I speak up.

I learned a lot from Hollywood in the five years that I studied and worked in Los Angeles. I respect and support the industry’s need to fight piracy. To produce and spread content on a sustainable scale requires considerable revenue chains that dare not waver. Due largely to the size of teams necessary to complete them, films will always be expensive to produce. Losing control of your content – and thereby losing the ability to recoup costs on your production – is a huge issue and must be curtailed.

That said, I do not respect Hollywood’s conservative grapple-hold on content in an antiquated scarcity model. While the studios contend that they make more by staggering the release of a film across all mediums, these rigid exhibition windows from theater to home regularly deprive hungry consumers of content they want to consume. The Hollywood release model is effectively inspiring piracy – not because people want to maliciously destroy the industry, but because people want to consume content and cannot do so when and where they want. Street vendors in the third world do not sell ripped DVDs as an attack on studios or because tickets are too expensive; they do it because Hollywood failed to make the content available in their market. Contemporary piracy stems more from accessibility issues than anything else. Hollywood is utterly failing to provide. By holding product close to the chest, the entertainment industry is failing to reach customers, scale brands at the contemporary pace necessary to survive, and collect the money of eager and willing fans. The media industry is killing itself. They need no help from pirates.

Out of desperation and a lazy aversion to change, entertainment turned to lobbyists to craft a bill that would effectively give our government the power to censor or shut down websites. There are constitutional ways to fight piracy; the Stop Online Piracy and Protect Intellectual Property Acts are not it. To learn more about the bills, I encourage you to watch this video.

Tomorrow between 5am and 5pm MST, I will join many Internet companies – including Wikipedia and Google – in protesting these bills by shutting down my site. You will not be able to read my blog.

Under the First Amendment, we have the right to contest any act abridging the freedom of speech. We have the freedom to protest and stand up for our rights. Do not dismiss protests as mass whining or vanity noise. Without protest and public forums for opinion, women would not have the right to vote and many of us would still own slaves. Do not take the freedom of expression lightly. Celebrate your voice at every possible turn. Use it when you can.

Film School: The Super Degree

When I tell people I might take a break from the film industry to study the web, the first thing I’m asked is, “Didn’t you got to school for that? Why leave the business?”

I learned a hell of a lot more than just camerawork at film school. In what other degree do you learn to actively lead teams, coordinate logistics, start businesses, tell stories, embrace technology, manage budgets, engage in philosophy, write both fiction and non-fiction, design advertising campaigns, engineer software, study history, direct talent, interface with contemporary culture, carpenter sets, raise money, play with toys, draw pictures, play music, review law briefs, curate content, and express yourself? That’s right, I can’t think of another degree either.

Film school is an all-inclusive wrapper for a cumulative degree in storytelling, business, marketing, management, design, communication, technology, law, twentieth-century history, and cultural studies. In even the smallest film trade schools, you must learn to lead teams through creative and technical projects while coordinating schedules and money to do so. Few MBA programs I’ve heard of are half as hands-on.

At the University of Southern California‘s School of Cinematic Arts, I had the pleasure of studying under studio executives, A-list producers, active professionals, and trendsetting innovators; I produced over 280 minutes of content and coordinated more than a cumulative 200 students and professionals to do so; and I interfaced directly with current and impending trends in the film industry. I moved to Hollywood to study from within the belly of the beast and learned more than I could have ever imagined.

Am I bastardizing my cinema degree by jumping industries? Absolutely not. If anything, I am honoring it. And I would recommend it to absolutely anyone looking to master important entrepreneurial skills, engage his or her creative side, solve complicated human puzzles, and have some fun.

LifeCal Schedule Button (Soft Launch)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with Mark Godwin to design and engineer a little web plugin tool we call a “Schedule Button.” Quite literally, it is a button that you can save event data to and embed into your own website. When your visitors click the button, they can schedule your event to their own calendars.

 

The potential use cases for this button are many: concerts, flights, movie showtimes, house parties, television premieres, conferences, conventions, and more. Business owners and hosts alike can use this tool to connect with their attendees and provide them with necessary details.

I have a hard time managing my time as it is, and existing digital calendars do not make it easier. Few people go to the trouble of typing out all of the event details for everything they do. We built this tool for event hosts to make it easier for potential event attendees to input the correct information into their calendars. The hope is that there will be higher attendance rates if your event is staring your attendees in the face from within their own calendars. Unlike Facebook events (which is exclusive to the Facebook platform), we are trying to make this an open plugin compatible with all calendars and available for embedding into all web sites.

We are soft-launching this button today at Lifecal.co to collect feedback from our closest friends and followers before we announce the tool wider this week. Please head over to our site and check it out! If you have any comments or suggests, identify any bugs, or can think of other great use cases I have not mentioned, please let us know! You can use the discussion board below or email me at craig@lifecal.co.

New Media: Interactivity? [Film Friday]

This is the fourth post in my series, “Understanding New Media.” 

Last week, I introduced commerce into the discussion of “New Media” and expanded our definition to cover “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that autonomously drives traffic or revenue online.”

But there is still one piece of the puzzle that is slowing me down. More and more motion picture entertainment is shifting to the Internet. Conversely, more and more Internet is slipping into our conventional viewing platforms. Some movie theaters now offer WiFi, and many televisions are being released with broadband connection. Before long, our living room television sets will only stream content from the Internet. All of our networks and shows will launch content on URLs rather than cable channels. Google TV is a first stab at this transition, and many companies are soon to follow. With the ease and frugality of Internet distribution, convergence of the web into all of our current platforms is inevitable.

Therefore, I don’t feel like the words “the web” or “online” in my definition are sufficiently future-proof in separating “New Media” from the other forms of entertainment. Besides, “the web” is a release platform – like a television set or cinema screen. Should our definition of “New Media” be based solely on the platform and delivery mechanism? Or should it be based on the type and structure of content? If everything will eventually be trafficked through the Internet, the only aspects that will separate television, feature films, and other forms of motion picture entertainment will be story length, screen size, and audience involvement.

Length is relevant in defining feature films (between 90-180 minutes), television episodes (half-hour sitcom or hour drama, etc.), and short films (usually less than 45 minutes). Length is a fair determiner for content type. Some stories can be told in 5 minutes, others 2 hours, and some in 100 hours. It makes sense to me to distinguish between a category of motion picture entertainment by duration. However, I think “New Media” has considerable flexibility. There is no proven ideal length for web content, no rules, and no time-slots to fill. The web is free territory for content producers, which is largely part of its appeal. That said, web audiences tend to be distracted easily and hold attention shorter than on other platforms. Therefore, it’s fair to note that “New Media” content tends to air on the shorter side. Nevertheless, there are exceptions to that trend, and I find duration largely irrelevant in defining “New Media.”

That leaves screen size and audience involvement. Screen size and involvement are directly related in that the size of the screen determines how far or near to the video a consumer can be. The bigger the screen, the farther back you need to sit to see everything. The smaller the screen, the closer you need to be. So if the Internet is converging into all viewing platforms, what then is the difference between television-broadcast video and browser-broadcast video? There is a huge difference. Televisions are on the other side of the room, whereas our computers and mobile devices are right in front of us at our fingertips. While this may seem like a small paradigm shift, it carries huge implications for audience interaction.

Herein lies the chief differentiation between all other forms of motion picture content: with consumption devices at our fingertips, “New Media” fosters an environment for active viewership versus other platforms otherwise experienced passively. The web is interactive. The way we engage with content while wielding a mouse, keyboard or touch screen is fundamentally different than the way we engage with content wielding a remote or ticket stub. “New Media” presents opportunities to involve audiences in the story. Integrated blogs, forums, social media, and games build audience community and curate return viewership. Technology like GPS tracking, near field communication, augmented reality, and touch will bring interactivity to a whole new level. With “New Media,” audiences can literally live your story – if you tell it well enough. That is huge.

Without some layer of audience involvement, web-launched motion picture entertainment is nothing more than online video. A feature, episodic series, or any kind of video does not deserve to be called “New Media” until it consciously invites audiences to engage.

Therefore, I leave you today with this updated “New Media” definition: “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on active viewership platforms that autonomously drives traffic or revenue online.”

Stay tuned next week for some final thoughts on the subject.