Participation: The Trend That Is Bigger Than The Harlem Shake

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mark Suster (@msuster), a 2x entrepreneur, now VC at GRP Partners. Read more about Suster on his Startup Advice blog: Both Sides of the Table

By now many of you know the Harlem Shake.

Maker Studios Harlem ShakeIt is a YouTube phenomenon that in just two weeks has gone from nothing to on air on both Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert and collectively the Harlem Shake has been viewed around 200 million times. Two weeks. 200 million views. Suck it traditional TV.

But there is a much broader trend to be aware of and what we have seen on YouTube has mirrored my general views on how TV will work in the future.

Summary Version
Global audiences of prosumer video producers will create content that is viewed by global audiences in numbers far in excess of traditional TV. TV will enter the era of “participation” which is a much more important trend than “social video” even if it seems less sexy or less fundable.

It means the “torso TV” consumption patterns will be more important than the head or the long tail for the next era of media companies.

TV of the future will not always have linear stories. I know that’s hard for many people to accept but when the medium changes from one-way broadcast to the millions to the ability to interact with each other through video it is unlikely that the future will resemble the past. Why would it?

I have started thinking about what the future might look like and I’ve started imagining what I call, “MMOV” or massive multiplayer online video.

Sure, the revenue & margin will be significantly lower than traditional TV.  You should only worry about this if you’re a large, traditional media company with fat margins. The future of TV will follow the rule of Deflationary Economics as I outline influenced by the book The Innovator’s Dilemma.

It will enable the naturally creative but geographically and socially disenfranchised to make money doing what they love – participating. Maybe small amounts of money for what founders reading these pages dream of but life-changing for many.

Gangnam Style Meets Torso TV
Of course you know Gangnam Style, which is now the most viewed video in history at 1.3 billion views. Before this South Korean wonder spread across the globe I had written about a trend in global audiences that exists when the costs of production are nearly zero and the costs of distribution are also nearly free. I called this trend “Torso TV” because the “head” of consumption (largest number of views) was dominated by platforms that had massive distribution (think TV stations, radio or retail outlets that sell CDs and DVDs. think Apple. think Amazon) and therefore hits with high production costs were more suited to the medium.

The problem with the “long tail” content is that only the platform provider (ie YouTube) makes money. So if you want to be a content producer and want to make money you can develop content for global “niches” of watchers who might like: Japanese Anime, South Korean drama, Bollywood productions, reality TV on any topic – fashion, cooking, travel.

I saw this trend with the growth of companies such as Viki, Drama Fever, Crunchyroll and the like. Global niches that turn out to be much larger than you’d imagine.

Gangnam Style is the manifestation of this trend which turned what should have likely been a medium size global audience into an global phenomenon like we’ve never seen. The Macarena on steroids. Every now and again you can strike lightning in a bottle. Who knows why hits turn into memes? But it shows that when content is unleashed we can all appreciate it no matter of the country of origin.

Harlem Shake
For those who still don’t know the origins, the Harlem Shake started as a small skit from a YouTuber named Filthy Frank (10 million views as of this writing) on January 30, 2013. It was then popularized into an Internet meme 3 days later by text an Australian group of guys called Sunny Coast Shake  in what garnered about 300,000 views in a short period of time (now at 11.3 million views).

But then the Harlem Shake went batshit crazy when Vernon Shaw of Maker Studios saw the video on Reddit and suggested that Maker should, well, make a video of the Harlem Shake in an office environment. That video is the most viewed Harlem Shake (with more than 15 million views as of today). It was loaded on the channel of Hi I’m Rawn, a long-time YouTuber.

At 12.30pm in the afternoon the idea to create the video was hatched. They taped it at 3.30pm for 2 minutes. 1 take. Then back to work, people!

It was uploaded at around 4pm.

Maker’s talent started commenting on it and sharing it. ShayCarl (a Maker Studios co-founder) in particular. And then …


It made national news. Maker was contacted by every major news outlet. And suddenly every office in the country was doing their own version of the Harlem Shake.

And here’s the thing. This is not Gangnam Style, a catchy tune consumed by billions.

This is Harlem Shake, a catchy tune produced by tens of thousands. As of this writing nearly 50,000 versions have been created and uploaded and watched by some 200,000,000 people. Yes. Two followed by eight zeros.

It is the production angle that is most fascinating to me and the biggest unspotted trend by most venture capitalists and traditional media executives.

I have been talking about the battle for the living room for years and then followed up with Why the TV Market is Ready for Disruption with a more recent discussion about Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley here (the video version with an LA interview that can be viewed here and then a subsequent session in NYC with Jon Miller which can be viewed here).

And I’ve opined on why the traditional media companies aren’t well poised to win at this new TV world. and again here.

So here’s the thing

The Broader Trend
While way too many startup companies (and investors) are focused on “social TV” or on “Instagram for TV” I believe they are missing the more fundamental shift in our industry.

There is a world filled with professional producers of video content who are extraordinarily talented but lack access to Hollywood. In fact, that’s how Maker Studios got started in the first place.

I first wanted to invest in this trend by backing a company called Filmaka. I didn’t end up investing but I always loved the concept. They help find talented film makers globally, enter them into competitions and advance the best of them toward winners that get to produce full-length films. Filmaka is the creation of Deepak Nayar who is the producer of films such as Buena Vista Social Club and Bend it Like Beckham.

But when you think about the movement we once called “Web 2.0” it was the recognition of the fact that media doesn’t only want to flow one way.

Media in an age of:

  • low-cost capture from mobile devices
  • cheap post-production process by tools (think Pro Tools for audio, Instagram filters)
  • cheap local storage (without which media creation is not possible)
  • available bandwidth for uploading (which is assumed away as easy but only in recent years has been solved. most Internet connections have been asymmetric & optimized for downloads)
  • cheap or free cloud storage (YouTube, DropBox, Facebook)
  • easy sharing (through social networks or platforms like YouTube)
  • social amplification (from which memes are spread) by Twitter and the like; and …
  • commenting

means specifically one thing. People are going to want to participate. Participation. We are the media. We want to be in it. Create it. Take part in it. Have a say, a vote. Think American Idol voting, where the audience gets to feel like they’re participating. And where they’re willing to pay by dialing a paid number to feel like they’re, well, participating.

And the end of the Maker Studios show, Epic Rap Battles of History, the end the show ways “Who won, you decide?” where the audience gets to weigh in. Participation. At whatever level.

Serialized TV with Audience Participation
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to fund in the video creation world. One idea I’ve been searching for is a platform that enables the creation of serialized programs with audience participation.

And this is a concept that has been at work since at least the 17th century. An example of a great serialist was Charles Dickens in which Oliver Twist & Nicholas Nickleby and others were written and distributed serially.

From Wikipedia on Charles Dickens

“The instalment format allowed Dickens to evaluate his audience’s reaction, and he often modified his plot and character development based on such feedback”

I have talked to several YouTuber’s about my idea but haven’t yet gotten any takers.

Here’s what I imagine. You create a narrative episodic show and do the first four episodes to get the story arc and characters going. On the fifth episode the audience gets to create it’s version of the next show. You look at submissions and pick the best one. You reshoot that episode with a higher budget and your original cast but that producer now gets a financial take in the show or gets to participate in the production or whatever. Then you move on to the sixth show with new submissions.

You need to build a platform that allows submissions, workflow, multiple story flows, awards, producer profiles and the like. It can’t just be videos on YouTube but I’ll be that YouTube is the distribution platform.

Here’s the thing – if well done I think you could see the Harlem Shake effect where many people want to have a go at participating on the production. Most won’t be of the quality that you want but you now have tons of material and inspiration for your show and you own all of the submitted IP. You share financial results and/or fame as the incentive to participate. It’s American Idol for makers.

The first time you do it the participation will be light. The next time you’ll get more. And the fan producers all help market your show because they too want the attention. Whether they are selected or not! I repeat – free marketing. Done by the masses.

And finally you could stitch together multiple narratives or versions of shows for people who WANT to watch all of the derivative shows. Your costs of production of these additional versions – zero.

To all of the traditional TV people who keep telling me this “low cost, low quality YouTube content will eventually go away. The production quality is terrible” I say, “Please study The Innovator’s Dilemma because it predicts the disruption of your industry presciently.” Let me remind you of the math: Gangnam Style = 1.3 billion views. Each episode of Epic Rap Battles of History gets between 30,000,000 – 75,000,000 views.

And to those who keep telling me that the CPMs are too low to make a business please stop thinking about two-way entertainment in only CPM terms.  There are many more ways to monetize an audience of fans that simply pre-roll ads.

Think creatively. Study the video game industry. The music industry. Your world is changing, too. And you have so many examples from which to build your future that you have no excuse to put your head in the sand.

The other theme I’ve been playing around with in my head (and in the numerous debates with media execs who aspire to do startups) I’ve started calling MMOV.

It’s a play on MMOG (massive multiplayer online games, think World of Warcraft).

What exactly is World of Warcraft?

It’s entertainment. With rich graphics and characters. It has a story, a world, that unfolds. It has interaction with other players. It is – by definition – participation. It exists precisely because there is a network. I grew up in the era where we got to play video games alone. I was inspired by Zork. It was a computer challenging my imagination and crying out for logic and participation. It was text-based. And anything but MM or O. But it scratched the same need – participation. Engagement.

And when the O is attached and thus other humans are on the other end of your game and when graphics are professional it is the ultimate in computer entertainment with other human beings letting young people all over the world who feel disconnected from other human beings form friendships.

I once heard a father describe how his son played World of Warcraft. He said this to me, which formed an impression, “My son leaves World of Warcraft to play other video games with his friends. But then they always come back to World of Warcraft to talk about it with their friends. WoW is their home base.”

So WoW in a way is his son’s social network.

I imagine MMOV this way.

You start out watching video. And this might be humans but it might also be animation. It might feel like TV or might feel like an animated video game or maybe there is no difference? You start watching with friends, peers or strangers – who might become friends or peers in the future (think that’s weird? check your Twitter stream. It’s filled with people like this. Aren’t all online communities like this?).

You watch the first “episode” together. Then you discuss it with those in the room with you. They are watching it synchronously. It is your job to get them watch the next video based on plot or character development you want to see. Which way do you go next? The audience decides.

And the show develops like this. No linearity. Only the evolution through a video game board with other players trying to agree how the story unfolds. Maybe for a fee you get to choose your own direction without the crowd?

Don’t like how Homeland has become a total farce like 24? Chart a different path. Don’t like that a characters in Downton Abbey gets killed or another might get banished from employment? Chart a different course.

In an online world, why wouldn’t we?

Television today is being charted by those who grew up in a one-way world of: we decide, we write, we broadcast. Doesn’t that sound like the websites of yore that implored us to read their stories?

We have too much evidence from the text-based Internet that this model doesn’t hold in an online world.

Think Zork. It’s how things were. Then think World of Warcraft. It’s how things will be. It’s why we use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. To be part of a conversation. And even if it’s only very occasionally that you want to chime in, it’s why UGC works. 1/9/90.

And read this MG Siegler piece on TechCrunch. He’s one step ahead of the rest of the market. And he’s spot on with this analysis about how Apple will enter the TV market. Spoiler – video games.

Online Events
Finally, I’m fascinated with the future of live events. We’ve only just scratched the surface. As you now know 8 million people tuned in to watch Felix Baumgartner jump from 24 miles above the Earth in a Red Bull capsule.

It will always be a milestone in the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, Mobile world etched in my memory. And that of my two boys.

Like many of you we were laying around watching NFL football games. And also paying attention to the Twitter. Watching only is so one-way. With our second screen we suddenly have … participation.

And that’s where I first saw it. I know many of you knew the Felix was going to jump. I hadn’t been paying attention.

But Twitter cried out that I MUST! Tune in. NOW. As only Twitter can dictate.

So on my iPhone I clicked on a link and saw Felix going up. WTF? What is that guy doing?

I called my boys over. We sat transfixed to my iPhone. Was he really jumping from outer space? Is this real? Is this really live? Did I just click on a button and watch a man prepared to jump from that little capsule watching real-time streaming from my mobile device that I only knew about because random people (some of whom I’ve never met in real life) demanded that I do so on Twitter?

I was sincerely amazed by all of those things. And we watched. And watched. And watched. And the NFL seemed so uninteresting at that moment. I’ll never remember who was playing or who won (probably not the Eagles).

But along with 8 million people globally we shared a moment. And then another 32 million people (at least) watched on YouTube afterward.

That fascinates me. Twitter. YouTube. Mobile. Live. Watch this space. It’s going to form a larger part of our future.

Oh. And it won’t be brought to you by Comcast. That interests me, too.