By Josh Quittner
Hayden Black was thrilled—initially—to see traffic start to spike as his online-only sitcom, "Goodnight, Burbank," found a fan base on Facebook. Then, he tells me, not so much: "Many people erroneously think that the success of your show is determined by how many people go to your website. But watching video on the Internet is an animal in and of itself."
The problem was that Facebook fans like to stay put on Facebook. Instead of going to blip.tv -- the video site that hosts "Goodnight Burbank" and sells ads on its behalf -- Facebookers used video-viewing applets to stream the show back to the social network. That may have been good for the series's popularity, but generated exactly zero income for Black.
So with his latest venture, "Abigail's X-Rated Teenage Diary" Black built his own social network around his video content. It launched earlier this week. Or rather, he used Ning, the white-label service that lets anyone create a social network. "How do we bring people in? How do we fight the challenge of getting them to leave Facebook for a moment?" Black asks. "I think the best way is to use what Ning is doing -- a social network in a box."
A number of online TV companies are doing the same thing. Social networks on Ning support, or will soon support, video programs like NextNewNetworks' "Epic-Fu" and Channel Frederator; the Animation Social Network; Jason Calcanis's "Maholo Daily" and the popular video podcast "TikiBar."
This makes a lot of sense to me. We live in a media world; we are awash in the stuff. We define ourselves by the media we choose to consume -- that's partly why people prominently display the books they've read. We carry around like flags the magazines we love, and buy "The Sopranos" on DVD because we want to physically possess it. It's actually kind of shocking that HBO never thought to start a Soprano's social network.
Of course, none of this is lost on the hungry folks navigating the edges of new media.
Some bigger sites, such as Funny Or Die, are even building out their own in-house social networks. Mark Kvamme, the VC from Sequoia Ventures, which funded the Will Ferrell-backed comedy video site, says that funnyordie.com uses the same platform technology as sister sites mybluecollar.com and skateboard king Tony Hawk's shredordie.com. Kvamme calls this the "Or Die Network" and says that it will be launching three to five new celebrity-affiliated video sites over the next six months. "We're building a platform to partner with creative folks to give them best-of-breed web technologies to help them communicate," he tells me. "We're baking in our own social networking features."
Kvamme says that building a social network around a video site is a no-brainer from a viewer standpoint. "These audiences want to connect and communicate. They want information. We have thousands of people on the newsfeed looking for new videos coming out."
While Funnyordie had 3.5 million unique visitors in November, Kvamme says it's yet to turn a profit. "We haven't figured out how to monetize Internet video yet." But social networks, which can demonstrate to advertisers user engagement, among other things, could solve the problem. Kvamme predicts that within five years, "Internet advertising will surpass broadcast television."
Jeff Macpherson and Tosca Musk live in Vancouver and produce "TikiBar," an online series about cocktails and the bachelor life. They started their video podcast nearly three years ago as a hobby, and it quickly ramped up into a real business. Currently, each episode is downloaded around 500,000 times a month.
A social network, says Musk, "allows us to really communicate with the audience. Fan scripts and art and music would be e-mailed to us all the time, and very little of it was used. It just sat there doing nothing." With the launch of the TikiBar network on Ning (still in beta), however, fans can create their own pages and share all that stuff. "Forums are a kind of limited way of expressing oneself," says Macpherson. "They're limited to straight, linear text. The social network is a less linear experience -- it doesn't feel like you're looking at a database of messages. You have your own page, music, photos, documents, and even sets of icons the user creates. It really feels like it comes to life."