Online Amateurs Hardly Need to Be Famous

March 13, 2006

Online Amateurs Hardly Need to Be Famous

A scene from "The Best Zombie Movie Ever," a user-generated clip submitted to iFilm for VH1’s "Web Junk 20" user-generated video contest.



Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Jake Sanowski, an iFilm editor, above, looking at a film sent to the company Web site.

On his computer screen, Jake R. Sanowski scrutinizes a short video of a baby eating its first pickle. Next is a skit of a woman getting drunker over the course of a meal at which, it turns out, her dining companion is a dog. That is followed by a clip of a band playing a song, but the lighting is so dim that the screen is nearly black. "I feel really bad for it," Mr. Sanowski said.

Mr. Sanowski, 24, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Minnesota, is an editor at iFilm, a company that displays short-form videos, movie trailers and music videos on its Web site ( He wades through many of the nearly 500 video submissions that the site receives each day from average Joes and Janes seeking fame — and now cash and prizes — via the Internet.

Many of the contributors are happy just to have their clips posted on the site for all to see. But the number of postings has jumped in the last few weeks since the company introduced a contest with the cable channel VH1 called "Show Us Your Junk" that will feature the best submissions on the television program " WebJunk20" and reward winners with digital gadgetry and flat-screen TV’s.

Increasingly, the new, new thing in media is getting paid for the homemade. Reflecting the surge in the popularity of user-created material, both online and traditional media companies are opening their wallets to make sure that the best of it finds its way onto their television shows and Web sites.

Even Yahoo, the nation’s most-visited Web site, has signaled a change in its strategy by moving away from creating its own professional content in favor of user-generated material — and it appears willing to pay for anything its users deem worthy.

All this is part of a trend seeking to turn conventional media business models on their heads in the digital age. Typically, media content was either paid for by consumers in the form of subscription fees or by marketers through advertising. In offering to pay users for creating content, companies like Yahoo are not looking to turn every amateur into a professional so much as acknowledging the growing appeal of homemade material to audiences and hence its value to media businesses.

"At some point in the next six to nine months, this will become competitive," said Michael Hirschorn, executive vice president for original programming at VH1, which, like iFilm, is owned by Viacom.

Already the money is starting to flow, mostly in the form of contests., another Web site for sharing clips, is soliciting people to create a music video for a band from Seattle called Pretty Girls Make Graves. Aspiring auteurs can download the band’s song "Nocturnal House," create a video and submit it; the winner gets $1,000 and a trip to New York to hang out with the band.

A similar Web site, Metacafe, is offering $2,000 for the best short video shot at Mardi Gras, as determined from the feedback of people coming to the site to watch them.

On Current, a cable television channel spearheaded by former Vice President Al Gore that began operating in August, short videos are selected for broadcast by the votes of an Internet audience; successful entrants are paid $250 to $1,000 apiece.

Several networks have shows in the works featuring both found and original online material, including pilots from Bravo and NBC, the latter’s starring the television host Carson Daly.

The USA Network, which is also part of NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric, is developing a pilot for a user-generated show based on another popular site, eBaum’s World. In October, the Web site, named after its founder, Eric Bauman, began offering monthly prizes up to $1,000 for the best submissions, which can be jokes, audio files, flash animation or homemade video games as well as clips.

There is no scarcity of material as high-speed connections grow, cellphone cameras proliferate and more people become adept at editing video and creating flash animation. But user-generated content is much more. Think of it as anything not professionally conceived: it could be blogs or short videos, a salsa recipe on a bulletin board, a Web page created for a school class, a book review on or a withering comment posted on a magazine’s Web site. According to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project released in January, half of all teenagers in the United States have created material for the Web.

Of course, much of what finds its way onto Web sites is not ready for prime time or can seem like "America’s Funniest Home Videos" with cybergloss. Mr. Sanowski and his colleagues at iFilm, for instance, marvel at the number of recent video creations that consist of young men dancing and lip-syncing music.

Still, user-created material increasingly competes for the audiences of traditional media companies and holds some appealing qualities as a business model. For one thing, it is cheap. And it taps into the social aspect of interactive media that has fueled the advance of the Internet.

It also represents an attempt to improve the quality of material online as people’s desire to not only surf the Internet but also contribute to it rises at a breakneck pace. For example, the research firm Technorati estimates that in January there were 27 million blogs, and that number is doubling every 5.5 months, with 75,000 blogs created daily.

The notion of money flowing to people who generate the best material has been gathering steam. Google, the Web search leader, and Yahoo already run services that automatically place advertisements on other Web sites — allowing people who create their own Web pages and blogs to share in the growth of online advertising revenue without ever making a sales call.

Now Yahoo plans to begin offering cash prizes to people who generate the highest-rated responses to other people’s questions on a Web service it introduced in December, Yahoo Answers. "Get rewarded for your best answers with cash," Yahoo Answers promised in a notice on the site that the company took down last week after three months because it had not decided just how the payments would work or when they would begin.

The head of Yahoo’s programming operations said early this month that company was retreating from a strategy of creating original content for its sites in favor of attracting and highlighting the best user-generated content.

Jerry Yang, a Yahoo co-founder, said in an interview recently: "I think ultimately we’re trying to field a community where people feel comfortable and productive, and that with every investment on Yahoo, they’re getting more back. How we reward, and how we implement that, I think, is still very early."

Although it is a relatively new phenomenon, the spread of financial incentives should not come as a shock in an industry whose biggest players have been given valuations in the many billions of dollars by Wall Street. Microsoft, for instance, is offering cash and prizes in a contest intended to get people to use its MSN search service over those of Google and Yahoo.

One question is whether the use of financial incentives will put a damper on the spirit of unfettered self-expression and generosity that has infused much of the growth of user-created material. "Right now, people are doing all sorts of things on the Internet for the good of the community — it’s like volunteering," said Dan Ariely, a professor at the M.I.T. Media Lab. "The question is, In what ways will it change the willingness of people to help? In this way I actually worry."

On the Web site eBaum’s World, the winner of the latest $1,000 prize is a faux trailer for the 1995 horror movie "Seven," starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. With the addition of schmaltzy music and a voice-over narrator, the movie is re-edited to look like a buddy movie turned love story between the two actors.

"I’m positively absolutely amazed at some of the things that people will do for $1,000," said Neil Bauman, who is chief financial officer for the Web site that his son Eric, now 25, founded as a junior in high school.

In its infancy, at least, it seems that financial gain is likely to be seen as a bonus, but not the main reason for creating content. For example, Anirudh Koul, 20, a computer science student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is among the highest-rated participants in Yahoo Answers. The Web site is a competitor to sites like Google Answers and (owned by The New York Times Company), where people can access information from experts in specific fields, rather than just cull the most relevant results from a broad search.

The best answers are given rating points by people who visit the Web site, and it is here that Mr. Koul has answered more than 1,100 questions since the site began operating in December, including "Who did invent the Internet?" and "Can I download episodes of ‘Kitchen Confidential?’ " For now, Mr. Koul says, he enjoys interacting with others from his dormitory room and being recognized as the smartest guy in a digital room. "The only incentive one gets is the satisfaction in sharing some useful knowledge," he said in an e-mail message.

But since Yahoo makes money either by directly putting ads on its sites or indirectly by keeping Web surfers in its network, it is willing to share the spoils with people like Mr. Koul, just as it might pay an entertainment company for access to its content.

The idea of pay for content has been around in a small way for years in publishing; for instance, those who take part in surveys for the Zagat restaurant review books receive a free book. Robert J. Markey, a consultant specializing in consumer loyalty at Bain & Company, said that companies like Yahoo must be careful not to let financial incentives become the only reason for people to contribute material.

"If it’s just about some ancillary reward," he said, "you’re introducing an externality that degrades the value of the community itself. It undermines that whole model."

But while user-generated content can attract lots of attention, so far it has not been regarded as a winning format for major advertisers. A prominent example of this is the Web site, which was purchased by the News Corporation last year. While MySpace is adding as many as a million registered users each week who create or peruse Web pages of other members, sharing photos, blogs and such, it has so far attracted little advertising revenue relative to its audience size.

Viacom’s chief executive, Tom Freston, while promising to expand its ventures in such social networking, said recently, "It’s like inserting the advertising into a conversation between two people, and there are still a lot of questions about advertisers supporting user-created content."

Chris Charron, an analyst at Forrester Research , said people should not be left with the impression that they can make small fortunes sitting in their underwear at home surfing the Web.

"Many users who hope to make a lot of money creating content will probably be disappointed," Mr. Charron said. "All content is not created equally."

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