Lonelygirl15 mystery continues

Okay, I will admit up front that I have way too much time on my hands, and probably shouldn’t be as fascinated as I am with the real story behind some webcam clips by someone calling themselves “lonelygirl15” on YouTube — but at least I’m not the only one. Unbeknownst to me when I wrote my first post on it a little while ago, TV writer Virginia Heffernan at the New York Times was also following the tale of Bree and her boyfriend Daniel (see here and here and here, whose video clips are consistently among the most-viewed on YouTube (Business Week media writer Jon Fine has also been writing about it).

Her latest update delves into one of the popular theories about Bree, who from her videos appears to be the home-schooled daughter of religious — and possibly missionary — parents. The theory is that the clips are “viral” ads for some kind of forthcoming movie or other production, although there are just as many who believe Bree (who has had an email conversation with Ms. Heffernan at the Times) is a real person. The NYT blogger’s latest post refers to one of the proponents of the “Bree is fake” theory, a filmmaker named Brian Flemming who has written extensively about it on his own blog, and raises the possibility of an interesting twist: that he could actually be the one behind what he is debunking (he says he isn’t).

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice in Wonderland said. Is Bree a more elaborate version of a kind of Blair Witch web campaign? Perhaps. Does it really matter if she is real? Probably not. But I find myself fascinated nevertheless. If nothing else, I find it interesting how quickly people — even regular, non-media people — jumped to the conclusion that it was fake.


In other YouTube mystery-related news, the New York Times has a piece about “FunTwo” — the Asian guitar wizard who plays an incredible version of Pachelbel’s Canon on the electric guitar. Virginia Heffernan revealed his identity on her blog earlier this month.

Web 2.0 skepticism is good

I don’t want Nick “The Prophet of Doom” Carr to feel bad, but another blogger has usurped his place as my favourite Web 2.0 skeptic: he writes the Dead 2.0 blog, a refreshingly critical and quite often witty look at the bubblicious goings-on at TechCrunch and elsewhere. An anonymous blogger known only as The Skeptic, he runs buzzwords like RSS past his mom to see whether she can make heads or tails of them, and he takes a hard look at new Web 2.0-ish services such as Kaneva and the new VOIP service Hullo.

In one of his latest posts, The Skeptic looks at the recent trend of venture capitalists investing in blog networks such as Om Malik’s at gigaom. He even does some original reporting, by emailing Om and Paul Kedrosky (also a skeptic on this particular issue), and my blogger/tech writer colleague Mark Evans from the National Post. Strangely, he didn’t reach out to yours truly for my thoughts on the issue; it’s possible he was intimidated by the overpowering intellect displayed in this blog, and felt shy about approaching me 🙂

All jokes aside, The Skeptic’s feed should be part of your daily blogosphere intake, regardless of your thoughts about the Web 2.0 phenomenon.

CNet seems happy to blow bubbles

I don’t usually like to take shots at competing media (okay, that’s not really true — I kind of enjoy it), but the piece of “news analysis” over at CNet speculating about the value of YouTube has kind of gotten under my skin. I know it’s tempting to take the money that Sony paid for Grouper and divide it by the number of users and then multiply by YouTube’s user base, because I and many others in the blogosphere did exactly that when the news first came out earlier this week.

But at least TechCrunch threw in some caveats about the ComScore numbers for Grouper, and several other people — including Cynthia Brumfield at IPDemocracy and Rafat Ali at PaidContent — have mentioned that the Sony purchase had little to do with the number of users and everything to do with the company’s peer-to-peer technology. The CNet article has a somewhat skeptical comment from an analyst about whether YouTube is really worth $1-billion, but says nothing about how the figure was arrived at based on the Grouper deal, or why there would be any problem with doing simple multiplication based on dodgy traffic figures.

To make matters worse, the piece dredges up a piece in Business Week from March that said Facebook was looking to get bought for $2-billion — a piece that was also widely criticized for being based on little more than a rumour, and was subsequently denied by two Facebook founders. That’s not much depth from an article that goes under the heading of “news analysis.” It makes the bubblicious piece in Business Week about Kevin Rose of Digg look like investigative journalism (Business Week has also jumped into the YouTube valuation pool).

Oh, and one more thing (I can’t resist): the dollar values that have been paid for other companies do not “beg the question” of how much YouTube is worth. They raise the question — begging the question means something else entirely.

Is Amazon eating Sun’s lunch?

Amazon doesn’t get a whole lot of love from the “Web 2.0” crowd most of the time — perhaps because it’s kind of a Web 1.0 company that just sells books and other stuff, and happens to use the Web to do it. The giant retailer has added some wiki-type features and other interactivity, but other than that it’s pretty much just a retailer. Bo-ring. Except, of course, for the odd announcement like this one, about Amazon providing what amounts to “grid computing” services — a distributed server network that Web companies can effectively use as their own back-end network.

Nik Cubrilovic, who is a smart guy and runs a Web-based backup company called OmniDrive, has the details at TechCrunch. Apparently (warning: I am not a hardware guy), companies can effectively create a virtual server structured in any way they wish and then upload that image to Amazon’s equipment — that is, its S3 network — and then their service treats that virtual server as though it was just down the hall in a machine room. Users are charged for CPU usage and bandwidth at what appear to be fairly competitive rates (although Nik has some concerns there). We Break Stuff likes it.

This sounds a lot like what Sun Microsystems has been trying to do with its Grid Computing solution, which the struggling server maker — which put the dot in Web 1.0, to paraphrase its famous slogan — launched in 2004, but has apparently had some trouble getting rolling (and getting customers for). By way of a quick comparison, Amazon charges 10 cents per CPU hour for its service, while Sun charges $1 per CPU hour — although I’m sure there are differences of which I am not aware. Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz wrote a blog post with some background about Sun’s grid efforts back in March.


There’s a good look at and discussion of Amazon’s EC2 here, and some good comments about its benefits and/or weaknesses at the Reddit page about the announcement here.

FreshBooks gets some props

Anyone who followed the development of mesh, the Web 2.0 conference (sorry O’Reilly) that I helped organize back in May, will know that one of my fellow organizers was a guy named Mike McDerment, co-founder and CEO of a company that was then called SecondSite — Mike’s connections within the Web startup and DemoCamp scene in Toronto and elsewhere really helped us get some grassroots support for mesh, which was invaluable. Plus he’s a really nice guy, which always helps 🙂

Around the same time as mesh was taking shape, Mike’s company was re-branding itself as FreshBooks (something he announced at mesh) and adding some new features to what was already a pretty killer product — an Web-based invoicing system for small and medium-sized businesses that is dead simple to use. It’s nice to see that the hard work Mike and his team have put in over the past little while has gotten some recognition from TechCrunch, which profiled the company on Wednesday.

Congrats, Mike.

Getting Creative with the patent system

In a lottery-like windfall settlement that likely has the champagne flowing at Creative Labs’ headquarters, the compay has just gotten a cheque from Apple for $100-million (U.S.), thanks to a patent on the navigation system used in the Creative Zen players and — as it turns out — the ridiculously successful Apple iPod (and just about every other MP3 music player out there, including my second-hand Dell DJ). As usual, Steve Jobs summed it up best, by saying: “Creative is very fortunate to have been granted this early patent.” I’ll say. Staci over at PaidContent quite rightly calls this comment a candidate for understatement of the year.

It is kind of ironic — as I think one commenter at the unofficial Apple weblog mentioned — that a company whose name is Creative has resorted to suing its much more successful competitor rather than trying to outperform Apple on features, but the patent system is the patent system (broken or not), and Creative beat Apple to the punch by several months in filing the Zen patent. At one point, Apple asked the company for help with what would become the iPod, but they couldn’t agree on terms. Would it have been better for Creative to have been partners rather than adversaries? Who can say. At any rate, $100-million makes up for a lot of mistakes.

Yes, it’s always about Dave

I must admit I was somewhat interested when I saw a mention of Dave Winer’s new (or not so new, depending on whom you read) mobile “river of news” thingamajig — if only because I have used a BlackBerry and a Treo and a UTStarcom Windows device to read RSS feeds, and have yet to find anything that I really like. Google’s mobile version of its Reader comes close, but it has its flaws too. So I checked out the mobile feed that Dave set up for the New York Times, and for the BBC, and it looked OK. But it still was kind of klunky in a way that is difficult to describe, as far as navigation is concerned.

There were a couple of other things that rubbed me the wrong way too, and others have put them into words for me: Paul Kedrosky, for example, was one of the ones who noted that this type of feed is hardly new — as did Rogers Cadenhead, who admittedly has a somewhat fractious past involving Mr. Winer and some lawyers and so forth, and Josh Bancroft (although Josh seems to have modified his thoughts somewhat since).

As usual when Dave is involved, one of the irritants was just the way he puts things — not just grandstanding, as he does about how much money he makes, but also the cryptic comments that make it obvious he’s trying to get back at someone. My buddy Kent Newsome does a good job of describing this Winer M.O., although he is much kinder that I usually am.

As for the idea that Dave’s rivers of news will be easier for people to read than existing solutions, how easy is it to have to bookmark a new URL for every new mobile feed? I get the fact that he’s working on something like mobile Bloglines, which Josh said changed his mind about the whole thing — I just don’t see why he has to pretend that it’s some kind of revolution. Ian Betteridge wonders too, and as usual, Shelley has her own caustic and hilarious take on it.

Is YouTube worth $2-billion now?

So Sony Pictures has gone and bought Grouper, the online video site, for $65-million (U.S.). Okay — hands up, anyone who has heard of and/or used Grouper, apart from reading about it at TechCrunch or Mashable or some other Web 2.0 site. Pretty much what I figured. Although it is a half-decent looking service from what I can tell, it is one of half a dozen video-sharing solutions out there, and is unremarkable other than the fact that it requires you to download a standalone Windows app (a negative in my view) and it has a peer-to-peer aspect to it (Note: In the comments below, Sean says the download is only required if you want to share videos privately).

According to the math that TechCrunch came up with on a per-user basis, using ComScore data, Sony appears to be paying $70 to $120 per unique visitor (and that’s visitor, not user), compared with other recent deals for iFilm and Atom/Shockwave at about $15 to $20 a unique visitor. The one caveat, of course — as with anything that involves traffic metrics — is that ComScore’s half a million uniques is dramatically lower than the company’s own estimate of 8 million. If you use Grouper’s figure, the per-unique is about $8.

Doing some quick math, TechCrunch comes up with a figure of $2-billion for YouTube, which will make co-founder Chad Hurley happy, since the highest we’ve seen so far is $1-billion, a figure that more or less came out of thin air (using ComScore’s traffic from June and the multiple of $15 to $20 per unique, YouTube would be worth about $300-million). Does that make any sense? Maybe to a desperate movie studio or entertainment conglomerate it would (which Om points out Sony most certainly is), but that remains to be seen.

As for what Sony has in mind for Grouper, the talk is about pay-for-downloads and so on, which in typical Sony fashion will no doubt be low-quality and all crapped up with DRM. Davis Freeberg congratulates Grouper for pulling one over on Sony, while Duncan Riley says it’s just a matter of time before Sony render Grouper “so unworkable, unusable and undesirable that it will die an inglorious death.”

Rafat at PaidContent says the site has a solid management team, and maybe Sony deserves some credit for realizing when they need help, while Cynthia at IPDemocracy says it’s about speed to market. Rafat and Cynthia are very kind 🙂

Forget Digg, what about Fark?

There’s been lots of talk about blogs as a business — whether they should be or not, whether they can be or not, what a blog network like Jason Calacanis’s Weblogs Inc. or Nick Denton’s Gawker is worth, what the prospects are for new blog ventures such as Om Malik’s, PaidContent and Huffington Post, etc. And of course there has been much chatter about what Digg is (or could be) worth, thanks to the Business Week cover that said founder Kevin Rose had “made” $60-million.

Business 2.0 has a piece in the September issue looking at successful bloggers such as Mike Arrington of TechCrunch — the Great Gatsby of the blogosphere — as well as BoingBoing and PaidContent, and the Federated Media advertising network run by John Battelle, which sells ads on a number of successful sites, including BoingBoing and TechCrunch. It’s too bad the piece has a cheesy promo blurb (“Here’s how to turn your passion into an online empire”), which sounds a little too much like one of the cover-page come-ons from a supermarket checkout magazine (“Lose 300 pounds in six easy steps!”)

Nevertheless, the Business 2.0 piece is worth reading if only for one reason — to realize how staggeringly successful Fark.com is. Plenty of attention gets paid to Kevin Rose and Digg (and rightly so) and to other sites like del.icio.us, and even to political blogs like DailyKos and Instapundit, but not much gets written about the site Drew Curtis put together in 1999 and still more or less runs singlehandedly from Lexington, Kentucky (a location that could explain why he gets so little attention from the Web cognoscenti; ever been to Mike’s house for a party, Drew?).

According to the magazine article, thanks in part to FM and the attention that sites are getting from advertisers, Fark could be looking at $600,000 or so in ad revenue per month pretty soon. According to FM’s site, Fark gets about 5 million uniques a month, which makes it larger than most metropolitan newspapers. And Drew runs it with some help from a couple of tech guys. It reminds me a little of Markus Frind, the little-known web-vertising genius behind the online dating site Plentyoffish.com, which he runs more or less singlehandedly (with some help from his girlfriend) and makes more than $500,000 per month from.

In some ways, Fark was the original Digg. I started cruising it for links to stupid, funny and/or interesting links half a dozen years ago, and it is still as simple as it was then — a series of links submitted by users, with amusing tags, and a comment section for each that is often filled with sophomoric remarks. It’s not all Ajax-y, and its design is sort of garish, but people don’t seem to care. And while Kevin is on the cover of Business Week, Drew is laughing all the way to the bank. (He has some thoughts about Web 2.0 in an interview here).

The only fly in the ointment is that now Farkers (some of whom pay for extra access) know how much he is making, and they are wondering what they get out of the whole deal. Could there be a “user-generated-content” revolt brewing? Maybe Jason Calacanis will start hiring away Farkers too.

Jeff and Mark try to define journalism

Well, I have to give Jeff Jarvis credit — not just for being a tireless standard-bearer for the “new” journalism (even if I do disagree with him a tiny bit now and then), but for being able to write a post that gets a response from Mark Cuban, the irascible blogger and billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner who is himself something of a maverick. How Jeff did that probably won’t come as much of a surprise: he wrote about Cuban’s experiment in business journalism, an investigative site called Sharesleuth.

The idea behind Sharesleuth is relatively simple — Mr. Cuban hired a journalist to do in-depth reporting about dubious publicly-traded companies. The twist is that the billionaire plans to sell the shares of his targets “short” (shorts sell borrowed stock, hoping that the price will go down, at which point they can buy back enough shares to repay the loan at a lower price and pocket the difference as profit). His first target is a company called Xethanol, which is painted as a thinly-disguised stock-pumping scheme involving various disreputable characters.

Jeff’s problem appears to be that Mark is pitching Sharesleuth as the kind of journalism that protects the little guy (who is getting taken advantage of by such stock schemes), but in reality it’s just a way of making more money for Cuban himself. In other words, not journalism. He also takes some shots at the billionaire for effectively lucking into his wealth by selling to stupid companies at the right time — something that clearly gets Cuban’s dander up. Unfortunately, he responds with what I think is an overly defensive post entitled “I know you are but what am I, Jeff?

Cuban takes Jeff to task because his blog is unbalanced and unfair, which is a total red herring, since it’s unlikely that Jeff would claim that what his blog does is journalism in any sense of the word. It’s a blog, which means it opinionated and colourful. Not a great argument, Mark.

One of the reasons it’s unfortunate is that I think Cuban has a pretty good argument to make that Sharesleuth is journalism — albeit a very rigid and narrowly-defined version. In fact, it would probably be in everyone’s best interests if he didn’t call it journalism at all. It’s more like a well-researched report by a boutique brokerage firm (there’s a Canadian oilpatch firm that specializes in such reports). Is that journalism? Not really — but it’s darn close, regardless of the motives of its “publisher.” Some more discussion here by Ben Silverman of FindProfit.