The Web Series Identity Crisis

By 09/03/2010
The Web Series Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis

In case you haven’t noticed, this summer has been incubating a deep seeded angst in the web video community. And this week it seems to have boiled over. (Maybe it’s just the heat.)

What’s really going on here is an identity crisis.

A number of blog posts have popped up from web video folks in the past week, starting with The Fine Brothers rant (yes guys, it’s a rant) on how web series need to stop making bad short-form television. Then there’s spytap’s treatise on the subject that argued in another fashion a similar line of thinking.

I too have been preaching that people just getting into web series need to pay more attention to the YouTube community, despite taking some flack for it. It’s why I brought in a new columnist TheWillofDC to cover YouTube for Tubefilter News to give us the low-down on the moves of the week for the top 100 on YouTube–don’t worry he’s coming back after a little hiatus.

Learning From YouTube

iJustine - YouTubeLets look at the YouTube community for a second—and for the sake of this let’s define it as the 350-400 or so active video creators who count YouTube as their primary source of income. They have done two things really well—one, they have leveraged an incredibly popular platform to build and maintain audiences for their channels through the built-in toolset of the site. And second, for the most part, they make something inherently different than what’s found on television.

Interactivity for these guys is so ingrained in how they work that the word barely get said amongst them. It isn’t a buzzword any more than the word “upload” is. iJustine doesn’t sit around thinking she needs to add some more interactive bits to her videos. She just does it inherently.

It comes of course with the package of the character she has created. She makes the choice to overshare. You can either tune in or not, but she’s always on air. Her latest ponderings or questions might come out as tweets, videos of her dancing in a store, or blog posts. But it’s all the same show. Can you imagine trying to break out Season 1 or Season 2 of iJustine?

There is also an unwritten set of rules that most of the top YouTubers follow, with authenticity being the common theme. Take the former #1 most subscribed channel Fred. Fred is falling out of favor amongst the YouTube elite now that his TV deal with Nickelodeon means all of his latest videos reek of overproduced marketing for his forthcoming TV movie.

Ryan Higa (NigaHiga) is now in the top spot on the most subscribed channels list. He’s a 20 year-old college student that is remarkably perceptive at listening to his audience. And he built up his subscriber base on YouTube to over 2 million through, surprise, actually asking people to subscribe to him if they like what they see. Don’t underestimate the platform that is YouTube. This was part of The Fine Brothers’ argument:

[The YouTubers] have realized that YouTube is the site where content creators can build an audience, that YouTube is the only place you can get this massive of an audience, and they have worked hard to establish themselves there because it is pretty much the only site that has proved itself, its infrastructure, and its subscriber system to be able to do so for countless people (vlogger, filmmaker, host or otherwise).

Different Strokes for Different Folks

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been all that comfortable with the term ‘web television’. It feels too restrictive. But there’s a flawed point of logic in the argument that web video should always be something different than what’s on TV or film.

It’s all about what the goals are of the creator (or writer, actor, etc.) when they pick up the camera in the first place. Let’s face it, television and film are where most of the resources in terms of talent and investment dollars are directed. They are both incredibly powerful mediums for storytelling and entertainment that aren’t going away any time soon. And rightly so, there is a new generation of talented people looking to work in those fields.

The internet to them is a place to practice, to experiment and to prove they have something to say. And for many of them, it’s working. That’s why we keep seeing TV networks picking up web series or giving development deals to the creators. GOLD creator David Nett put it this way in his reply to the subject:

For most of us currently making indieTV and distributing it online (most, but not all), what we really want to do is make movies and/or television. Our underlying drive is to be writers or actors or directors of movies or television. And so, thanks to the level playing field that is the internet, we make our movies and television and distribute it in a way we never could until just a few years ago. Some of those shows, like GOLD, would have no likely home in the traditional TV market, despite having found a robust, engaged audience online.

Some creators are looking to build a career in the traditional entertainment industry. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. To them success might not be their first or second web series, but maybe in the TV pickup of their third one that gives them the resources to really tell their stories on a grand scale.

What Lies Ahead?

I think the savvy web video creators will indeed push the envelope. Or more specifically, play to the internet’s built-in strengths–many-to-many interaction, global exposure, 24/7 availability, etc.

Some already have. Our beloved editor Jenni Powell has teamed up with Philip DeFranco’s new company as a producer, bringing some advanced production experience to an existing base of YouTube talents. BlackBoxTV is the first major project to come out of this collab. This cross pollination of two worlds is essential, especially with so much overlap of both communities in the Los Angeles area.

Steve Woolf of Epic Fu and now is also full of insights on this subject, and recently he quipped that in some ways what we’re seeing is a flashback to the early days of television itself back in the 1940’s and 50’s. The Old Guard was just ‘filming radio’ while the innovators were inventing I Love Lucy.

One place to look, aside from the YouTubers, are the ARG innovators. I jumped head first into the No Mimes Media “Webishades” ARG yesterday and found myself being called on my cell phone multiple times by Felicia Day. There’s a wealth of possibility when the four walls start breaking down.

(Top photo by •••