Michael B. Duff

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Archive for the ‘Twitter’ Category

Kevin Smith uses podcasts, Twitter to prosper in the age of niche marketing

I’ve never really been a Kevin Smith fan.

Kevin Smith is a director, responsible for some of the most influential films from my youth. “Clerks“,”Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma” – his Jay and Silent Bob characters are cultural icons, but I never really drank the Kool-Aid.

Smith is a stoner icon, and while I’m cheerfully libertarian on paper, I’m incredibly conservative in my private life. I was born a 50-year-old man, so now that I’m 40, I feel like I’m finally growing into my age.

So yeah, I’m not his target audience, but I’ve heard Kevin on a couple podcasts lately, and I can’t help but admire his honesty.

Kevin Smith has no illusions about who he is or what he’s here for. He makes no apologies and wears no masks. He’s been incredibly forthright about his successes and failures, and he doesn’t hide from his mistakes.

He wears his mistakes like NASCAR racing endorsements, plastered in plain sight, as if he’s daring the world to notice them.

I admire this because Smith is not your standard bulletproof celebrity, divinely aloof from all criticism. He’s naturally touchy and oversensitive, but he confronts critics head-on, effectively leading with his chin.

He’s got one of the most popular Twitter feeds on the Internet – 1.8 million followers at the moment – and he posts to it constantly, presiding over an army of rabid fans.

Smith made news last year when a major airline declared him “too fat to fly” and forced him off a plane after he was (comfortably) in place with his seatbelt on.

Smith told the story on Marc Maron’s podcast back in January. He got bumped from the plane and begged the airline management for help. When they were condescending and unhelpful, he basically said, “This is your last chance to do the right thing. If I walk away now, in 30 minutes you’re gonna come looking for me.”

Smith was already a “Twitter millionaire” by that time, and he decided to put his fans to good use. He began tweeting like a madman from the airport waiting area, liberally copying messages to the airline’s public relations address.

Thirty minutes later, the manager tracked him down and offered him anything in the airline’s power to give, if he would just stop tweeting.

Don’t you wish you had 1 million Twitter followers?

A cautionary tale about customer service in the Internet age, but there’s a bigger point here, too. When the entertainment press turned on Smith for “bullying” the airline, he realized that a man with a million Twitter followers doesn’t really need the entertainment press anymore.

These days Kevin Smith is truly a “citizen of the Internet.” He’s on tour now, promoting his film “Red State,” but the core of his business is the close relationship he’s built with his fans.

He’s never going to make a Michael Bay blockbuster, but he’s not trying to. I think Kevin Smith is the first of many artists who are going to triumph in the age of niche marketing.

Kevin Smith isn’t making films for “everybody.” He’s found a core audience of fans who love his work and they generate enough revenue to keep him working. In 20 years the whole industry will be like this.

We’ll always have blockbusters, but increasingly, the Internet and alternative media will allow artists to create things cheaply and distribute them directly, bypassing traditional gatekeepers — forcing distributors to come chasing after them.

You don’t need a contract. You don’t need an agent. Just start throwing stuff on YouTube and see what sticks. You won’t get rich overnight, but you’ll be working. You’ll be making art for people who “get you” and that audience will grow every day.

Kevin Smith is exactly the kind of artist who will succeed in the new model. He’s brash with critics and humble with fans. He’s working on a personal level, telling stories that come from his life. He’s a one-man marketing machine who engages with his fans on a level that would terrify a traditional director.

But there’s one more thing that makes Kevin Smith special. Since 1994, he’s been working with Jason Mewes, a self-confessed drug addict who’s using the power of podcasts and public confession to stay sober.

Mewes works with Smith on the podcast “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old,” where he regales the audience with hilarious (and harrowing) tales of drug abuse and recovery. Oversharing as rehab? Not a treatment for the shy or faint of heart, but it’s working, and when you’re playing on the edge like this, results are all that matter.

I’ll never be a Kevin Smith fan, but I think he’s a good person, and the Internet rewards people who tell the truth and play it straight. I think Kevin Smith has stumbled onto a business model for the new millennium, and that a thousand directors will follow in his wake.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 24, 2011 at 05:24

Posted in Movies, Podcasts, Twitter

Charlie Sheen takes his act to Twitter, but is it wrong to watch?

Subtitle for this one should be, “How to get one million Twitter followers in 25 hours.”

What’s the secret? Be Charlie Sheen.

Not content to be in the punch line of every joke on the Internet this week, Charlie Sheen took “winning” to the next level by starting a new account on Twitter. As I write this he has 1.2 million followers — including, regretfully, myself.

I felt a twinge of guilt as I clicked the Follow button yesterday because the act felt strangely personal, as if by giving Sheen this sliver of attention, I was actually contributing to the man’s downfall.

As I said on Facebook yesterday, “We’ve just given a suicidal narcissist a direct line into the lives of one million people.”

I think there are two distinct groups of people following Charlie Sheen today. Half the people wanted to be there for his first day on Twitter and the other half want to be there for his last.

Half of America wants to see him get better and the other half wants to watch him flame out.

Following a celebrity on Twitter is fundamentally different from reading interviews or watching them on television. Most media appearances are supervised by publicists who keep their celebrities on message and make sure they don’t drift too far from social norms.

Even most Twitter accounts are like that — sanitized, ghost-written lists of fluff churned out by assistants or carefully crafted by celebrities who know how to control their image.

But Sheen is playing without a net, so when the inevitable public meltdown comes, we’ll all have a front row seat. I’m afraid these million followers are going to be like another drug for Sheen, another source of manic energy, randomly prompting mood swings with every snarky comment.

Mark Cina at The Hollywood Reporter says Sheen’s Twitter account is a kind of publicity stunt, organized by a celebrity endorsement firm called Ad.ly. Comedian Patton Oswalt is saying the account is a fake, ghost-written by a service.

Perversely, these accusations are making me feel better. That implies there will be a level of editing here, a layer of cynical insulation between the audience and the star. Does using this spectacle for commercial gain make the situation more depressing, or less?

At first glance this is just another celebrity train wreck, but Spiked Online editor Brendan O’Neill has a different take. In his Wednesday Telegraph column he characterized Sheen’s outburst as a heroic stand against “the therapy police.”

O’Neill’s column was a real eye-opener for me because the average observer looking at our society would say we have no guiding principles at all. We pay lip service to the moral standards of our fathers and grandfathers but we treat most infractions with a wink and a nod.

The media brings us tales of promiscuity, drug use, binge drinking and destructive behavior as if it was all a kind of circus staged for our amusement. Sheen’s high-octane partying has inspired a kind of shameful awe, with the subtext that “all men would do this if they could.”

Our society is willing to tolerate any kind of self-destructive behavior from celebrities, as long as they’re willing to go on Oprah and apologize for it later.

O’Neill says by refusing to accept the diagnosis of mental illness, Sheen is committing the only unforgiveable sin.

“In his refusal to speak their lingo,” O’Neill says,” to play their game, to do what all celebs in his situation must do these days – arrange to be interviewed by Hello! so that they can be photographed weeping while confessing to having suffered a mental breakdown – Sheen is rebelling against the super-conformist modern narrative of weak individuals who need to be saved by psycho-priests. They won’t forgive him for this.”

I would take this one step further and note that the language of moral judgment has been replaced by the language of psychological diagnosis.

Charlie Sheen may be taking drugs, cavorting with prostitutes, risking his life and putting his kids in danger, but we’re not allowed to judge him. We can’t hold him up as a cautionary tale and condemn him as a moral failure. We have to understand him and encourage him to “get help.”

I worry that of these new million Twitter followers, half of them are celebrating Sheen’s lifestyle and the other half have tuned in to watch him die. I worry that Sheen is on his way to becoming a kind of stoner folk hero, and I worry that by subscribing to his Twitter feed, I’m deriving entertainment from the destruction of a human life.

Do these thoughts make me a hopeless prude? Probably. But there’s something very “Roman empire” about the way the mob is embracing Sheen’s lifestyle — celebrating his antics in the arena while they wait for the axe to fall.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 4, 2011 at 12:19

Posted in Columns, Culture, Twitter

Sympathy for the Monster – Why we’re all gonna miss Nick Denton

The New Yorker ran a profile of one of my favorite people on Monday and the whole Internet is talking about it.

No, that’s not true. A subset of media-obsessed digerati are talking about it, and I’m following about a hundred of them on Twitter. So I have seen a thousand posts about Nick Denton this week and I expect to see people quoting this article for years.

Ben McGrath has written an awesome piece here — a (relatively gentle) biography of a transformative media figure. It’s not a puff piece or a hit piece; it’s just journalism – an honest portrait of a guy who has taken the “mean and mysterious” thing about as far as it can go.

I’ve been following Denton for years, since Gawker was just a cheeky blog about New York. I always thought he was creating the future of journalism, but this piece has showed me something else. Gawker is still the future of journalism, but that future will never quite arrive.

Any minute now Gawker will experience a perfect nanosecond where they are the world standard for digital journalism; then, an eyeblink later, some other site will leave them behind.

Nick Denton is one of those people who seemed destined to change the world; but the world does not change for nice people. McGrath’s article makes him sound like a charming sociopath, like there’s an alternate Nick Denton out there somewhere, collecting victims in the back of a white van.

Denton is an agent of change, like a forest fire burning away dead wood. And if your reputation gets caught in the blaze, well, that’s just what fires do.

A random quote from Denton reminded me of something in my favorite book. A mentor figure in “The Diamond Age” is devoted to the cultivation of subversiveness in the young. He’s worried that the children in his society have become too comfortable, too complacent, too accepting of authority.

He wants to create an educational program that will encourage the development of entrepreneurs — a new class of subversives who will create a better world by tearing the old one down. Nick Denton is the ultimate subversive – a natural subversive who revels in the destruction of old media, even as he craves attention from the giants who came before.

The most surprising thing in this piece is the sense that it’s all getting away from him. Gawker has become so successful, it can’t really be about New York anymore. Denton created this empire by pandering to his audience, giving them exactly what they want and ruthlessly rejecting anything that didn’t bring in traffic.

But Gawker’s new national audience doesn’t really care about New York anymore. The media figures that Denton loves to provoke are just a bunch of “Old White Men” to them. Denton’s latest attack on New York Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman got 6,000 hits. Candid photos of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg got 300,000.

Nick Denton is the Rupert Murdoch of digital media, but he can’t indulge personal obsessions on Gawker anymore. The readers are in charge now, and Nick is just along for the ride.

This is the real difference between old media and new media. People aren’t afraid of Nick Denton; they’re afraid of his readers. Old media is about what readers should want. New media is about what they actually want. And what they want is so raw, even Nick Denton sounds overwhelmed by it.

McGrath says, “Denton’s own writers live in constant dread of diminishing word counts and the inevitable dumbing down of the culture.”

“How things show up on Twitter, these days, matters more than the full text,” Denton says.

Nick Denton may be a monster, but he’s not the real enemy. He was just the first guy to see the shape of this, selling news to the invading army of Internet users, hungry for snark, gossip and celebrity flesh.

Denton’s successor won’t be a ruthless Brit with a soft spot for Spy Magazine. The next Nick Denton won’t even be human. The next generation of gossip sites will be soulless collections of algorithms and keywords, sucking in readers with laser-targeted bursts of text, precisely measured to match their attention spans.

I’m tipping my hat to the monster here because I remember what really made Gawker great; the one thing McGrath leaves out of his profile. Nick Denton built his empire on voices. Gawker conquered the Internet because Nick Denton has the best “ear” for writing talent that I have ever seen.

The profiles treat them like interchangeable parts, but Denton’s empire was built on the writing talents of people like Elizabeth Spiers, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk – writers who brought the snark but kept that tiny bit of humanity that let you know you were still reading a real person. That personal touch is the difference between news and blogging and it’s that personal touch that kept readers coming back.

Denton has abandoned that strategy now. He doesn’t even measure repeat visitors anymore. There’s no time to form a personal relationship with a writer; no time for any of that sentimental nonsense, in this brave new world of big ads and unique visitors.

Nick Denton is at the mercy of his readers, and now so are we, as the “golden age” of blogging makes way for a new kind of industrial revolution.

People love to hate Nick Denton, but we’re gonna miss him, when word counts shrink to character counts and writers are replaced by blade servers running Microsoft Snark.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 11, 2010 at 04:53

This is a job for Mythbusters

The minute that kid was found safe Adam Savage turned to his wife and said, “Oh god, Jamie’s gonna strap me to a balloon. If the producers call, tell them I’m sick.”

And here’s a quote from @MikeNelson on Twitter: “Science literacy matters: No one in #balloonboy story did the easy calculation to show that a 10-ft. balloon can’t lift a 60-80 lb kid!”

Meanwhile, back at the studio:

“How many Mylar balloons do we have in the shop?”

“Twelve, sir!”

“We’ll need more! And get me 50 garden gnomes filled with sand!”

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 16, 2009 at 07:53

Posted in Science, TV, Twitter

The week everybody banned Twitter

This was the week that everybody banned Twitter.

Mike Leach made headlines Monday, instituting a no-Twitter policy after Brandon Carter and Marlon Williams used Twitter accounts to complain about the team.

Corporations and media organizations across the country are struggling with the issue as social media chips away at their power structures and threatens to compromise their public image.

ESPN has clamped down on its employees, allowing only “official” ESPN-sanctioned use of social media tools.

But Rob King, ESPN.com editor-in-chief, doesn’t want anyone to call it a ban. He told Sports Business Daily, “The word ‘ban’ suggests that we’re not letting employees engage on these platforms at all … and that could not be further from the truth. We want to uphold the same editorial standards for reporting something, regardless of the medium.”

The Washington Post has also cracked down on its reporters this week, implementing a policy that has New Media critics shaking their heads. The policy was implemented after Raju Narisetti, one of the Post’s managing editors, posted two (rather innocuous) political opinions on his Twitter account.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

October 2, 2009 at 10:39

Posted in Best Of, Columns, Twitter

It’s time to kill Twitter and Facebook

Hats off to Michael Arrington from Techcrunch for his awesome interview with the Google Wave team.

You can find video and a transcript of this interview at Techcrunch.com but I wanted to take a minute and hit the highlights here.

My favorite moment comes toward the end of the interview when Michael asks them if they’re building “a Twitter-killer.”

He pitches it like a joke, but the question is dead serious, and the reaction is priceless.

Google VP of Engineering Vic Gundotra actually shakes his head and says, “Michael, Michael, Michael…”
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Written by Michael B. Duff

June 12, 2009 at 14:13

Twitter tried to kill Patrick Swayze today

Fortunately, it failed.

A hubbub broke out on cyberspace earlier in the day after a Jacksonville, Florida radio station sent out an instant message on the popular Twitter social-networking site saying the 56-year-old actor had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. 97.9 KISS-FM, sent out a Twitter message about Swayze to its 309 followers after seeing a report on another Web site. The report spread like wildfire across the Internet as concerned cybercitizens forwarded it to their friends.

I found a Twitter site for 97.9 but I found no reports of Swayze’s death and no report of injury to any member of the “Dirty Dancing” cast.

Did they remove it? Are they innocent?

Either way, Swayze is one of the hottest topics on Twitter right now.

As a fan of the movie “Roadhouse” I would like to start the counter-rumor that although Swayze was stalked in the woods and attacked by cancer, he was able to use advanced Taoist martial arts techniques to rip its throat out and deliver a righteous beating to the evil corporate land developers who tried to infect him.

Hang in there, Patrick. Nobody puts Swayze in a corner.

UPDATE 5-20: Our sister paper in Jacksonville has more detail on this story, although they can’t confirm or deny the role of WFKS KISS-FM in the rumor.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 19, 2009 at 18:13

Posted in Movies, Twitter

Twitter, Facebook and the Internet hype machine

Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand Twitter.

Most of the people hyping it now don’t get it either. Twitter has been picked to be the Next Big Thing. It’s a legitimate phenomenon, but after a while buzz turns the corner into hype and the media beats it to death.

These Web sites start out as hip, cool communities that attract early adopters. College students and young professionals join. Links to the service are passed around the blogosphere and the first news stories start to appear.

News coverage builds for a couple months and some producer decides to put it on CNN. The service gets a flood of 30- and 40-something users and (more often than not) suffers catastrophic failure due to high traffic.

The service buys better hardware and the hype machine kicks into high gear. Cable networks devote longer segments to the service and technology columnists start writing “how to” pieces, making sure to remind readers about the “scoop” they wrote about the service six months ago.

The demographic profile of the service starts to shift as bored GenXers and net-savvy Boomers start playing with it at work. Bloggers see their parents and their shift managers sign up for the service and start writing “Is Facebook over?” posts.

Cutting-edge bloggers notice the backlash and immediately cancel their accounts, telling everyone that they’re just “too busy” to keep up with MySpace/Facebook/Twitter right now.

Somewhere in a Cupertino basement, three friends with a laptop invent a replacement for the current hot service, adding one or two new features and clearing all the useless junk off the home page. In the dead of night, they launch and send an e-mail to 20 friends.

Your Mom signs up for Facebook and starts sending you pieces of flair.

Facebook burst its hype bubble last year and is now on a slow downward slide. The replacement for Facebook is sitting on a developer’s laptop somewhere, waiting for its big break. Facebook has been taken over by boring old people (like me) who use it to waste time at work. Their status feeds are clogged with cooking advice and pictures of their kids. The 20-somethings are ready to leave but have nowhere else to go.

Here’s the basic rule of Internet hype: When your product appears on the Today Show, it’s over.

Twitter is at the apex of its hype bubble now. Everybody’s heard of it but normal people don’t really know what it is. The old people have invaded Twitterspace but they haven’t quite ruined it yet.

None of this is inevitable, but Facebook has stumbled over privacy issues twice now and the application gimmicks are starting to crowd out the core functionality of the site. There’s no serious competition for Twitter yet, but it won’t be hard to copy their core idea and merge it with something else.

Twitter is “buzzword of the month” right now, the word everyone in the business world is dropping to convince people they’re hip. “And of course our strategy includes Twitter.”

But the Twitter backlash is picking up steam. I saw my first anti-Twitter video yesterday. Critics are trying to dismiss Twitter streams as a bunch of narcissistic yammering. Normal people hear about the 140-character limit on messages and can’t imagine anything substantial being passed along like that.

But 140 characters is plenty of room to post a Web link or a photograph, or to announce an event. It’s also the perfect size for snappy comebacks and one-line jokes. My favorite quote this week comes from comic book writer Warren Ellis.

He wrote, “Things comics writers don’t get to do: Earn money. Gain respect. Experience dignity. Have friends. Have sex. Stop crying.”

That quote swept through the Twitterverse yesterday. The humor of Twitter posts comes as much from who is writing them as it does from what they say.

Here’s Newt Gingrich yesterday: “I got to hold a penguin at the Omaha zoo, its desert tropical (sic) and nocturnal buildings are world class.”

Not world-shattering news by any means, but a cute image to have skitter across your desktop on a lazy afternoon.

My Twitter feed is a stream-of-consciousness Bob Newhart impression. Yesterday I pitched an idea for Watchmen 2 and asked a poster named @practicalwitch about the availability of heavy duty raincoats.

I won’t be headlining a comedy act at UCB any time soon, but the Internet provides a home for people like me. If you’re funny and photogenic you can post your stuff on YouTube and become an Internet video star. But what about the rest of us? The class clowns. The almost-funny. The Frank Stallones of comedy?

Less than .01 percent of the U.S. population appreciates my sense of humor, but now those people can find me and enjoy my ramblings throughout the day. I can’t actually hear them laughing, but I can imagine them laughing. And if Twittering sucks up 15 or 20 minutes of my productive time, at least I’m not running across the office anymore, testing this stuff on guys at work.

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 20, 2009 at 18:29

Posted in Columns, Facebook, Twitter

Twitter stars break new ground, take center stage at Shorty Awards

How much can you say with 140 characters?

More than you might think, after watching the first Shorty Awards. The Shorties were established to honor the smartest, funniest – or maybe just the most popular – people on Twitter.

Twitter is the current big thing in social media. Users can post short messages from computers or cell phones and broadcast to their friends in real time.

“Friends” might mean 50 local buddies, 8,000 people who enjoy your home-grown comedy skits, or the 144,000 people who follow Barack Obama.

The awards honored winners in 26 content categories, covering politics, news, science, travel, video games and the just plain weird.

The ceremony was Wednesday night at the Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Shorty Awards brought Twitter users to the edge of mainstream acceptance but didn’t quite push them over. Big media spent their time fawning over MC Hammer, who did his best to energize the crowd. CNN’s Rick Sanchez did an admirable job as host, providing an island of professionalism and class, even when he was interrupting people with sponsorship plugs.
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Written by Michael B. Duff

February 13, 2009 at 12:00

Posted in Twitter