Our cofounder joins a panel on infrastructure
Amplifier’s CEO Jef Sewell appeared at ROFLCon II as part of a panel about Internet infrastructure. The transcript for that panel appears below.
XIAOCHANG: welcome to the running the tubes panel about the infrastructure of the internet. what’s more sexy than infrastructure? discuss your role in internet culture.
JEF: we started despair.com in 1998 as a parody products company. we wanted to sell directly to an internet audience. demotivators® took off really quickly.
JEF: This experience led Joel Bush and I to start Amplifier. We’re the distributor for a lot of internet content sites. We do fulfillment, screenprinting, print on demand for The Onion, Red vs. Blue, Penny Arcade, other sites. they’re quintessentially ROFLcon types. I don’t have permission to mention all our clients.
PETE: I’m from omni consumer products corporation. you may remember that from another event. I defictionalize fictional branding and products. if it’s awesome, I can probably make it and it’ll be really good. brawndo, true blood. just signed a deal with sony to do stay-puffed marshmallows from ghostbusters to coincide with gb3 next year.
LARRY: I’m the community manager of ocremix.org. ocremix was started in 1999 by DL (dj pretzel). reimagination of videogame music. dave created the site to stay sharp on his musical skills and do something creative with that. there were a lot of sites out there in terms of rearranging video game music. there was no place on the internet to get videogame music reinterpreted in all kinds of styles (jazz, classical). it used to be an ugly orange website. 2k+ free remixes so far. all content free. around the time of first roflcon, was working with capcom on street fighter. working on album projects. donkey kong 2 country remix. david wise contributed the credits remix. goal is preserve videogame music and demonstrate that it has the same longevity of other kinds of music out there. metroidmetal.com does awesome remixes of metroid soundtrack.
AARON: I run a little website called urbandictionary.com. largest repository of cusswords, slang words, made up sex acts. 5 million submissions, 10 years. pretty fun to work on.
XIAOCHANG: feel free to tweet at me if you have a burning question, otherwise use backchannel. the internet – what do you think it’s about? you are the enablers of the roflworld. you create platforms and tools required for people to create great things. what’s the process behind the curtain?
JEF: there’s two ways to monetize an internet audience. I don’t think monetization is a bad thing. First, you can sell the audience via advertising. “I have a huge audience for sale, I want your money.” the other way is to “Sell products directly TO your audience.” Amplifier’s platform starts with that premise. you should have diversified revenue sources. [popular sites] need to turn on a direct-to-community ecommerce channel in addition to advertising. we make it easy to come in and turn on a store, have shirts, print-on-demand products for sale. we do everything white label. you have no idea there’s this intermediate company in the mix. it’s about the creators and their relationship with the audience.
PETE: the internet is about doing whatever the hell you want. if your interest is cats flushing a toilet, you can put it on the internet and it’ll be great. why can’t you do that in real life and do whatever you want? real life is very much like GTA. instead of doing the mission where you need to go kill a bunch of guys shooting at you, which is hard, you can steal a Cadillac and spend an hour and a half trying to high-jump that onto the subway tracks. that’s like the internet.
LARRY: I can’t follow that. our role in what we do online is to preserve video game music and bring it to a new audience. we’re there to open peoples’ minds to video game music as viable art. we allow all genres of music. you need nostalgia/good memories of things you played in your childhood. hearing a remix in a genre you’re not comfortable with. offers a platform to expand the kind of art that people check out and are into. part of ocremix’s mission is to build the composers of tomorrow. people wonder ‘how do you get into videogame music and do it on a professional level’. we have a high bar and reject 80-85% of the music sent to us. we’re pretty internet SRS BUSINESS about what we do. by having a high bar for the content, we’re enabling them to become very good musicians and have a shot at doing what they love and want to do. for those that want to be hobbyists and not have professional aspirations, it takes a lot of focus/creativity/passion and we want to cultivate that. as far as monetization, we give away our content for free, but we do ad revenue. it’s still a gateway for us to get professional opportunities. capcom gave us the soundtrack opportunity after they played our music at their cons. different model than despair or omni, but allows us to pitch our opportunities for professional ventures.
PETE: I forgot to use ‘monetization’.
AARON: urbandictionary challenges the authority of the dictionary and legitimizes the language we use in our day to day language. spam was just added to OED, but has been in use for 15+ years. every 40 seconds someone adds a definition, and volunteers review. within 30 min, goes live. about monetization, the way we make that work is we sell the audience via advertising. there’s on-demand products – you can get any definition printed on a mug or tshirt. and we have a book deal – urbandictionary and mo-urbandictionary.
XIAOCHANG: it seems like you’re challenging the authority of who can produce/consume. how have internet creators changed over the time you’ve been doing what you’ve been doing.
AARON: I’ve noticed a few things on the site about people over 10 years. for a dictionary site, people who come to the site don’t read. their attention span has declined over the years. TL;DR defines how people interact with urbandictionary.
PETE: there’s a lot more people who think they know what they’re doing and talk about it in all caps. youtube made the internet better. youtube comments are good. those are my customers, don’t talk about that!
LARRY: who would have been able to do urbandictionary 10 years ago? the platform wasn’t there. being able to do all this stuff online allows us to do whatever the hell we want and have a platform to do it. lemon demon and what the buck would have had no way to do this stuff 20 years ago. people get fired for doing that kind of stuff. if you had a mundane job and then did ‘hot for cleavage’, you might get fired. doing this online gives us a great venue to do what you love and make money off it.
JEF: Pete Hottelet is an exemplar that the media forms people are used to working in are no longer dictated by traditional distributors and models. I’ve brought some props.
These are 1948 record sleeves from the very first album cover put out by Columbia records. they were colorful and not just plain brown paper sleeve. a 23-year-old [designer Alex Steinweiss] said ‘look, we gotta do something different and cool’ and convinced them to put out what is almost like a box set. as a result, people in the internet space who don’t have to deal with movie studios can say “I’m bored with the packaging and design and want to take control”. they’re starting to use the layers of their product to deliver a higher signal message.
PETE: It’s like the record equivalent of installing MS office from 3.5” diskettes in 1993. did they really split the music across all of those?
JEF: 4 minutes per side, they split it across the records. it’s got a book spine.
PETE: essentially, everyone has the capacity to just do what they want. the educational system in US has 18 years of people telling you you can’t do X, Y, Z, and then you have to learn how to do things in 4 years. the internet is changing that for the better.
XIAOCHANG: where does production of physical objects fit into the system?
LARRY: stuff is available for free digitally, but we’re working on a super duper secret physical album. the only value we’ve found so far in doing physical media is that in the music culture, people like something to hold sometimes that is more tangible and has more weight. we’ve done promo albums that we’ve given away at cons. doing stuff digitally has been liberating. little to no overhead, able to get and share immediately. not sure what the benefit is beside having and holding. if you had to physically deliver david after dentist to 50 million people.
PETE: you might fit him in a suitcase, but then he might die.
JEF: despite the differences, you buy the shirts. you want to identify yourself with that tribe. people who provide some way to do that and sell something are satisfying the audience’s demand. even if you consume the comic online, it’s a crowdsourced form of patronage. if they put something up for sale and you buy it, it sends money to those guys and says ‘keep doing what you’re doing’. it doesn’t require one person with a $50k check. it’s a physical way to identify yourself. you then are paying the person to become a salesperson for them. you’re walking around with a shirt that causes people to get interested. there’s something possible with merch design that has not been possible for 100 years.
JEF: We’re going from a mass-production/mass-distribution model with 1000′s of identical copies in stores to people on internet buying direct. people can take out the barcodes, NYT bestseller endorsement, etc. – the “shelf awareness” for books that live in a store all their lives and therefore need ads printed all over them. you’re free of that. it’s a Sergeant Pepper’s moment. Music was free before on radio, but you bought the album and got an experience out of it. it’s just beginning to flower.
PETE: to follow up on that, Chris Andersen wrote Long Tail and Free. he wrote that ‘atoms are the new bits’ in an article. consider the marketplace as a jar of marbles, those models will be coca cola or vitamin water. they’re giant, but space between marbles is empty. they’re niche markets. you just need to be a few grains of sand and you can kill it.
XIAOCHANG: a lot of what you do depends upon having a community. is the community collaboration where creativity is happening?
AARON: 25 million people per month. only 0.8% of them submit definitions but it’s creeping up. more people are interested in participating and contributing funny stuff. it can scale as long as the reviewers accelerate at the same rate.
LARRY: community driven in that things are sent in by people who want to be featured on the website. we’re trying to become more of a videogame hub than just hosting remixes. as long as it’s natural and fits with the other stuff, we’ve hosted chip tunes of nintendo games. we started doing albums e.g. super metroid. we have 17 of those. interviews with composers. if you look at wikipedia or anything else crowdsourced, you need that if you want to hit a nice broad swathe of people wheter it’s creating content like ocremix or urbandictionary. even fan suggestions on what people want to see. increases relevance and power to audience you want to serve. by summer/fall, going to expand scope and will have more information on what people are looking for (music of videogames).
PETE: if you can crowdsource people to stuff things in boxes in Irvine. I don’t want to pay them, I want them to be free.
JEF: give them stay-puffed marshmallows!
PETE: marshmallows are food. don’t let anyone else tell you anything different.
XIAOCHANG: scalability. what makes things popular on the internet?
AARON: urbandictionary has a ton of people, decent products. as it scales, there are technical challenges. urban dictionary week on facebook. some random dude changed their status and said “copy definition of your first name into your status” and it exploded. went from 1 mil/day to 10mil pageviews a day. to make sure the website didn’t fall over, took a lot of work. not free to scale that fast.
JEF: you’re using zazzle, right, so you don’t have to pay the overhead? how does that work technically?
AARON: it’s a pretty simple integration between our sites. my site generates the content that shows up on zazzle. zazzle makes it look 3d even though the thing doesn’t exist in the real world, customer gets motivated to buy it. just because the week is over doesn’t mean you can’t still do it.
PETE: change ‘sex queen who smokes newports’ to ‘parliaments’ for Nicole. I’m completely serious.
LARRY: djpretzel runs our website. really just one guy. most of what we crowdsource is the music that’s sent in and the team that works on evaluating the submission. part of being able to post more music faster is having a team of volunteers in place. what AP has seen is, real world people see websites like ours and think ‘oh crap, that’s a cool idea, if only I had thought harder, I would have made that website’. when people see it’s out there, they contribute and build upon what you’re working on?
Audience: Did BitTorrent help?
LARRY: BitTorrent came out in 02. we started using it in 02. we had generous people that loved our music so much they gave us free mirrors. we have one or two we pay for. snowball effect. it’s just about being persistent and getting it out there, finding influential people.
JEF: You want to outsource as much as possible. Except for Aaron back when it was urban-dictionary.com hosted out of his dorm.
AARON: the guy who owned the version without the dash let it expire, and then I snapped it up.
PETE [to AARON]: you own gonorrhea.com
JEF: Operational expertise doesn’t come with creativity. [production & distribution] fixed costs are incredibly expensive. For example, as a fulfillment company, Amplifier [handled] the Lance Armstrong Yellow Livestrong bracelets. This was truly an historic viral product where everyone had to have one. Everyone. Presidential candidates, Matt Damon, the 2004 olympians. [it was insane.]
We shipped nearly 40 million wristbands with over 140 temps. it forced reinvention of our platform to scale to the next level. You have to look at what you can outsource to avoid adding fixed costs to your business.
PETE: for me it’s problematic. my solution is to eliminate the human workforce and replace them with intelligent robots. I haven’t figured that out yet. human beings are expensive and you have to feed them and they go to sleep at night. that’s terribly inconvenient.
XIAOCHANG: monetization vs. commercialization. diluting things as they get bigger and broader?
PETE: monetization and erinaceous are my most favorite words.
JEF: This is an original medium. there are pitfalls. Pete, the stuff you’re putting out is unbelievably well-executed and makes you want to own it physically. it’s accretive because you’re not actually creating a secondary product and slapping it on something. [like a logo on a tee shirt.] you’re trying to make something that does more than what your website can do. it’s like an artistic medium or candy.
PETE: I’m proud that every bottle of true blood weighs exactly 2 english pounds.
LARRY: sure, there are pitfalls if you’re stupid. you have to do it right. the problem people have when people make money off their product is that they sell out. we’re working with a company, we have a high standard for music, we don’t fuck around. it’ll be the first time in 10 years we’ll say ‘here’s something you have to pay for’. by doing it for 10 years and not compromising, people will come through for you.
AARON: what’s attractive is that it’s so authentic. everyone is a random english speaker. bad spelling/punctuation. no editing involved. directly from source. maintain authenticity. no “urban dictionary powered by ge”. moving slowly with expanding business model. direct to consumer stuff resonates with audience. much prefer over weight loss or punch the monkey.
Photo by Pete Karl II
JEF: at great personal expense, we created our first book. [When Demotivators® first went viral] we were asked to pitch book ideas by some of the biggest publishers out there. but why take their money and do it on their terms? We decided to satirize management guides with a book called The Art of Demotivation™ . Despair created a guide, unlike other management books, was actually true. Look, today’s employees have outsized views of their importance. executives MUST cut them down to size. I mean, these ideas, this is dangerous stuff. And we as executives don’t want employees to get the keys to the kingdom [by getting their hands on this book and its secrets.] So we needed a layer of protection. So we created a secondary cover (Which we called “The Undercover™”) to put over it when unattended. That dust jacket reads “Ethics, Integrity, and Sacrifice in the Workplace.”
JEF: “Something which all executives know their employees could care less about. We hired the creator of the Wall Street Journal Portrait Style to illustrate the book. During collaboration, we decided to one-up ourselves and added a second version. We put a lock on on the book. Then we had 2 books. One for first time managers at the price point of $24.95 version. We called it The Manager’s Edition. “
JEF: ”The locking version we named The Executive Edition. It has gold, gilded edges, a ribbon, and 2 keys for executives to lock it from prying employee eyes. “
JEF: “But if you’ve got two editions of the book, you naturally need a third to round out the set. So we created The Chairman’s Edition that ships in a custom cigar humidor.”
The book is printed on superpremium german paper, hand-bound in french goat leather. endpapers marbled and made by hand. It ships inside a locking cigar humidor. It’s $1300. And we’ve sold 13.
JEF: inside this, in the bottom of the humidor, there are slits. and there’s a light-activated chip with a speaker. as soon as they pull the book out, the author Dr. E.L. Kersten starts talking. “Tim Hwang, Welcome… to The Chairman’s Edition.” We wanted it to be direct and personal . It expensive to create, but well worth it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: name the 13 companies we don’t want to work for?
JEF: They’re among the most profitable in the world.
PETE: sex panther cologne. if you open it, it growls like a panther. and we didn’t raise the price. it’s for the lulz.
XIAOCHANG: audience question: what are the barriers to getting duff beer in the grocery? what’s the most popular fictional item?
PETE: a couple of twilight fans have spilled over and started buying pure blood. shipped an entire container to australia. like a real train car shipping container.
XIAOCHANG: urbandictionary being cited in the courtroom. only for sovereign state of rofl?
AARON: surprised it shows up in the courtroom, but I like it. it’s supposed to be real. first big breaks was when a judge in the UK used it to figure out what two rappers were saying in the courtroom. or ‘hoe’ in nevada license plate.
audience: PH, how did you get started bringing these products to market. takes a lot of money.
PETE: I’m a random guy, I started doing it because it was funny. bad way to start a business. you remember brawndo two years ago…
LARRY: I double-fisted brawndos on a panel.
PETE: It took me a year to find people to talk to and give them all my money and 12 months later end up with a warehouse full of neon green potable liquid with equivalent of 4 mountain dews or 2.5 redbulls. I earned the money because I am a badass. There is an american-made tombstone vending machine.
XIAOCHANG: how does ocremix develop musician creativity?
LARRY: all content peer-reviewed and judged on factors – arrangement creativity. don’t accept copies or covers of songs. production quality – does it sound good, are instrument balanced? djpretzel used to do it all on his own. he started judges panel in 2002. I started in 2004 and head up the judges panel now. we’re hardline music quality critics. most judges are musicians. a couple aren’t including myself. we listen, compare it with the original, tell them what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong. workshop forms where the community can evaluate as well. tips and tricks, lending insights to help people get better. system is developed so that you can come in not knowing about music, no experience, not playing an instrument. we have the resources for you to get feedback. if you stick with it in 2-3 years coming from nothing, you can be making professional quality music. it’s what we’re all about. if you don’t have the skills yet, we’re the place to learn and have a badass time doing it.
XIAOCHANG: audience question: any plans for urban thesaurus?
AARON: I have the domain name, but people can’t spell ‘thesaurus’. I have the ability to tell you what the synonyms of hoe are.
XIAOCHANG: audience question: what services/software help you keep growing?
AARON: managed hosting (voxel) based out of NYC and singapore. thorough, qualified, trust them with 24/7 operations. not the kind of thing I can host off a powerpc 6800 under my dorm room.
LARRY: liquidweb is our hosting. dave does all the coding. xml, c jargon. I don’t even know. I can speak more on how we keep our stuff organized. google docs for having team work on one thing at the same time. social media. everyone does it now, but there are ways to let people into your communication streams and show them what you’re working on. that’s where the people are (twitter/facebook). put your message out there and great things will happen.
JEF: We’ve used yahoo for ecommerce hosting. the rest of Amplifier’s systems are complicated.
AARON: I use ruby on rails. it’s pretty sweet.
PETE: I make stuff, I’m not a software person.
XIAOCHANG: you’re not only facilitating creation, you’re documenting it. social collections of things that people have said about our culture. what will archaeologists think we do?
JEF: I’m an Ecclesiastes guy. It’s all vanity. With all these disposable products, there won’t be a Demotivator® anywhere after 3000 years. People will look at the Internet as the advent of the network model/globalization.
LARRY: we claim stuff is free and educational and fair use. companies pimp our stuff all the time. they know we’re there and like what we’re doing. have we removed stuff? yes. we had a bunch of crappy stuff a long time ago and removed it. in 3k years, when people dig up hard drives and t-shirts.
AARON: I have to take down stuff with credit card numbers, full names. library of congress is archiving urban dictionary.
PETE: I’m concerned with the year 5 billion when the sun explodes. just so you knew it’s coming.
LARRY: there will be no record of what we did. so have fun and do whatever the hell you do and enjoy life. have fun. I’m a total hedonist. do what you want and your life will be awesome.