If you want to find water, you might hire a diviner. How do you find out which voices in the new web content world really matter?
We're accustomed to "reputation" being awarded by a combination of our surfing habits and the reputation algorithms of a Technorati or a digg. But there's a moment of truth here. Good content has to matter; good content needs a point of view. Neither of these necessarily make for popularity.
I spent some time speaking with Gary Murray at Mixcast, Royce Dixon of Streetz iz Talking, and Josh Berman at Soul Gorilla.
Mixcast, a Content 2.0 website hosted out of New York, has fast become a popular channel in America's urban and hip hop culture. That popularity should spread beyond its self-imposed confines. Mixcast comes with a strong point of view.
The website is a collection of web TV channels aggregated from around the urban world, drawing in new media producers and channels whose small home audiences add up to one global community, audience and producers, sharing a particular urban experience.
Royce Dixon is a former restaurant, bar, and Jamaican carry-out owner from Washington D.C. Royce now runs Streetz iz Talking, a reality documentary company that produces films about what he regards as America’s other mainstream – the down and out, drug addicted and apparently marginal that inhabit the abandominiums of DC, New York and… the list is long.
Soul Gorilla, another Mixcast channel, reaches across the urban communities of America, Asia and Europe from Seattle. “We’re working with amateurs and pros alike, explains channel organiser Josh Berman. “Some of the guys are film school graduates, trying to tell the world what Seattle is about and create an entertaining concept and a brand.”
In the case of urban Seattle, that brand focuses on the achievements of the black American population. Brand urban Seattle talks to the world without seeking a permit from a network broadcaster or an international sales and distribution deal. The
Internet is the only way for brand urban Seattle to grow in a wider consciousness.
Two members of Soul Gorilla are also dancers with the Massive Monkeys, world break dance champions. The Gorilla’s site features videos of the Monkeys dancing around the world, bringing Seattle’s underground culture to appreciative audiences in Europe (they recently won the British break-dancing Open championship) and Asia. “They’re treated like Gods in Korea and Japan,” says Berman, who adds they are relative unknowns at home.
The fandom and stardom that impacts only lightly on the culture of Seattle explains a little of how Mixcast works. When pieced together, the marginalised cultures of all urban centres add up to a huge cultural movement.
“Our channels bring their own audience to Mixcast,” says Murray. “These guys are already established in their own urban culture and they bring that audience to us and then there’s cross over between them and other urban audiences.”
In the first two months of its existence Mixcast served a million videos of urban culture made by people who have no access to television as producers but who nonetheless aspire to a story-telling role.
“There are no outlets except Gary and Mixcast,” says Dixon, who recently shot a couple of movies on crime and homelessness in Washington DC. “The [broadcast] networks were not an option for us. But I knew I had a voice and wanted to reach people. If you don’t know anybody in the media you don’t have that voice.”
Dixon makes his films by living with down and outs and mixing with the bystanders of American crime. In one he’s talking with a drug addict who the night before witnessed a vicious murder, in others he’s talking with the homeless about why they want to be on the outside of society.
“I follow them when they steal and do drugs,” says Dixon. “It’s raw footage of what’s going down on the streets. I mean I edit but I don’t censor.”
The reporter with a sympathetic ear for the underdog is nothing new but it has, more or less, disappeared from broadcast screens. In the pursuit of reality TV, terrestrial channels have, Dixon argues, lost sight of reality.
Dixon's films are raw and the voices can be repetitive, yet you sense even from an old media perspective you would not want to censor them, either.
To the creative youth of Seattle, fans of Soul Gorilla's output, mainstream America’s ignorance of regional and urban aspirations, particularly black aspirations, is the pain that fuels their desire to populate Mixcast with characters from the Seattle and DC story lines.
While the drive behind Mixcast comes from that alienation it is nonetheless a creative force and also an entrepreneurial one.
The unheard but creative youth of America’s big cities see an opportunity to make their futures financially and artistically by networking the urban underground across the globe.
These are the dispossessed only in the sense that they did not, until now, possess a medium for communicating outside their immediate environment. Many though are already successful creatives and their means of communication is now at their door.
Gradually, as such marginalised voices aggregate into forceful cultural movements with a means of expression at their disposal, it will become necessary to re-evaluate our own cultural habits.
It may be the lasting impact of the web’s singular capacity to give expression to different value systems, that those of us who wish to can already escape our attention-deficit present and go to places like the DC abandominium.
As movies, the documentaries on Mixcast may not have the flair of a Michael Moore but then, they're all the better for that.