Christopher Dodd & the Dream of the 90s

The other night, in part to celebrate Internet Blackout Day, I watched about five episodes of Portlandia online at various digital locker site including (somewhat ironically) Megaupload. It wasn’t as straightforward as Googling Portlandia and clicking on one of a myriad of links which took me directly to a video – as Uncle Rupert would suggest – but it wasn’t all that tough either.

I do have my limits. I don’t download music, TV shows, movies, games, etc. illegally. I don’t use torrent sites or sites like Megaupload to download the assets to my computer. I’m a streamer – I only watch what people put up there. Maybe that’s morally a grey area, but hey.

The thing is, I don’t want to do even that. Before resorting to Megaupload and friends, I tried to find a 100% legit way to watch Portlandia but, living in Australia, I was pretty much screwed in terms of immediate gratification.

iTunes has Portlandia episodes… but only in the US store. You can get single episodes of Portlandia for $1.99 or all of Season 1 for $6.99 via Amazon Instant Video. Oh… sorry. “Due to location restrictions we cannot process your order. Amazon Instant Video customers must use a US credit card and billing address. Orders can only be completed by US residents while inside the United States – the 48 contiguous states, Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.” Granted the Portlandia DVDs aren’t region restricted, but unless I wanted to pay for superfast shipping I’d be waiting about 4 to 6 weeks. I could wait to see if Foxtel ever picks it up (I’m sure none of the commercial networks would touch it) but with nothing in the press about it, it would be way longer than 4 to 6 weeks.

While we don’t have to wait as long (if at all) for the more successful or more mainstream shows, but shows that appeal to a smaller audience here in Australia often get doomed to purgatory. Wanted to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm when it was big in the States? You’d be up til 11 or 11.30, if you could figure out which night it was on in any given week. 30 Rock? Same thing. Channel Nine showed Season 1 of Community on their GO! network, but kept Season 2 in reserve. Which meant that for the longest time iTunes only sold the first few episodes of that season. Just in case, I guess so they’d theoretically have a larger audience. And Season 4 of Merlin? While that series aired recently on Channel 10, you still can’t buy it on iTunes (you could get each episodes of Seasons 1–3 about a week after they went on air here, so I’m not sure what changed).

Personally I wouldn’t care if I had to pay more than the US does to download something before it aired here, as long as I had the option (and it wasn’t exorbitant). I’m sure Amazon could serve me up a market-specific price, especially since they know exactly where I live. Could the profit from selling direct to regional users plus the increased profit due to fewer people consuming the content on the grey market (shall we say) be greater to or equal than the expected value of the profit from regional rights sales? I don’t know enough about the economics of this industry to say either way, but for some ‘long tail‘ properties it would most likely hold.

The media industry needs to stop trying to carve up the world into neat, compartmentalised slices. With the internet, we have more information about what’s great and what’s crap than we ever did, and we get it instantaneously. You can’t ‘manage’ launches and properties like you used to – if you try, your most interested consumers and customers will have already consumed your product by the time you work the deals to get it to them. And then you’re left with nothing but scale to save you, hoping that a lot of people who value your content less are still around to care.

Last night I downloaded a short documentary on street photography – it was great. I even bought it outright, though not through any service I’d ever heard of before. The movie was available for sale or rent through Distrify. It was a great experience. I watched the three minute trailer and decided I wanted to see the whole thing. So I could either spend $3.99 to rent it or $8.99 to buy it outright. I chose buy – $5 more wasn’t all that much and I got to support the work of a collective of artists that admired. After paying with PayPal I downloaded the MP4 file to my computer. That easy. Had I not had the option to ‘try and buy’ so easily, I would have been scoring Goggle to see if there were any places to watch it in full (without actually downloading it). The documentary is definitely a long tail kind of thing (I imagine its audience would be relatively small, but passionate and eager to consume media on the topic – at least I am!), and Distrify is a great long tail distribution method.

I’d hazard to guess that a large percentage of people who ‘steal’ media online would stop if there was an easy and cheap way to get it, especially amongst those living outside the US. Maybe that’s the agenda MPAA chief Christopher Dodd should be driving – an agenda of change and exploring/encouraging new business models – instead of making veiled threats to politicians who aren’t corrupt enough to stay bought.

Fool me once, shame on you.

Neighbour cat.

In recent days I’ve become enamoured of the Hipstamatic iPhone app. It’s a camera app that let’s you combine ‘films’ and ‘lenses’ to get some really interesting looks that approximate a plastic camera. While I love the way the photos look, there are some there are some nice touches that kind of give you a bit of the mystery and magic you get with analogue. You can shake the iPhone to get a random combination of film and lens so you have no idea what your image will look like when its done. And it’s not an exactly instant thing. After you take your photo, there’s about three seconds of ‘developing’ and a few more seconds of ‘printing’. Lights flash and glow, showing you that progress is being made, and it adds to the anticipation enough to make it fun without taking so long it makes you impatient.

The Hipstamatic is one of those things I just fell in love with. And when I fall in love with something, I want to know more. So as I am want to do, I turned to teh interwebz to find out if the Hipstamatic was a real camera, like the Holga or Lomo, with an eye to buying one if they were.

I quickly found the ‘backstory‘ for the Hipstamatic. The story goes that the real Hipstamatic was the creation of two brothers, Bruce and Winston Dorbowski, in the early 80s. They wanted to create an inexpensive plastic camera that was accessible to anyone of any age who wanted to take a photo. They made 157 cameras and sold about 154 of them before they were tragically killed by a drunk driver on the way home from signing the lease on a new production facility. No more Hipstamatics were ever made and most everything related to the camera was destroyed in a house fire in 1993. The older brother, Richard Dorbowski, was eventually approached by some developers to create an iPhone app and thus it became so.

I was so touched – I thought it was amazingly awesome that the vision of these two brothers carried on decades later. I teared up. I Tweeted about it. But there was something under the surface that didn’t quite feel right. The photo of the ‘original’ Hipstamatic didn’t look real at all. It didn’t even look like something from the 80s. And it just seemed too convenient that everything was destroyed in that house fire, thus explaining why there were no images made with the camera, why there were no pictures of the original cameras being made.

The 'original' Hipstamatic, at least according to the file name. On one website the 'photo' (erm, CG much?) is credited to 'Master Donut' who, conveniently, is also listed as the creator of the now-deleted Hipstamatic Wikipedia page.

So I did a little bit of digging and didn’t find all that much. Pretty much every story on the web mentioning the Hipstamatic backstory took it at face value and repeated what was on the Hipstamatic ‘tribute’ site that Richard supposedly ran. There was one interview with the guys behind the company who made the app, Synthetic, but they stuck to the story. They even claimed to have used one of the few remaining cameras, but “sadly” they didn’t get to keep it.

Wait. You had an original Hipstamatic in your hands and never thought to take a picture of it?

The credibility pretty much falls to zero right there. A few commenters here and there expressed their cynicism about the story, but pretty much everyone just sucked it up. I decided to do a bit more digging and nothing I’ve found makes me think anything other than this is a story created as part of the marketing efforts.

  • No Wikipedia page for the Hipstamatic currently exists. It looks like it had issues when it was originally created in October 2009, when it was proposed for deletion: no sources, no evidence or assertion of notability; may be a hoax, may be an ad for new iPhone app, may be both”. The page was deleted in September 2010 for using copyrighted material taken from (ironic, no?).
  • A cursory search shows that Richard Dorbowski has a Facebook page and a Linked In page. Both use the same photo of an older, overweight man with a receding hairline shoving food in his face. Both say he’s Chief Comptroller of Neenah Paper in Wisconsin. (There are three manufacturing facilities in Wisconsin, but I don’t think I’m quite motivated enough to call from Australia.)
  • The Facebook page doesn’t have that many posts on it, and they’re either by Richard or by Hipstamatic. No one else. Ironically, Richard installed the Facebook for Android application so I’m thinking he’s not a big user of the Hipstamatic app.
  • The few people searches I’ve done show no ‘Richard Dorbowski’ in the United States, let alone Wisconsin.

A whois on shows a creation date of 2 October 2009 (five days before the first Wikipedia entry was created), but the posts on the blog start in June 2007. The discrepancy is ‘explained’ in that interview with the guys from Synthetic who said, “His blog went offline just after we reached out through email, and we didn’t hear back until we finally got a phone number, which was over the summer (we have since helped him put the blog back online).” Great, except that while there’s a two-year gap at one point, when he returns in June 2009 Richard apologises for not having posted for so long. One month later (29 July 2009) he posts that on that day he met with some guys about a Hipstamatic app. So it doesn’t appear that Richard’s blog was offline during his hiatus or immediately around the time he is supposed to have initially met with Synthetic. There’s only been one post after the domain name registration was created. To me it looks like it was all created after the fact.

So my verdict? Fake. Fake fake fake fake fake. You might have gathered at this point that I’m really bothered by this and you might be wondering why. I loved the whole Blair Witch Project thing when it first came out, and I’ve loved other viral marketing initiatives like what they did with the movie AI. But this is different. In this one, they are using my emotions and my sympathies to hook me into the brand and champion their story. They are using me, and I don’t like to be used. Especially by marketers (and I am one!). I think I’d have less of a problem with this approach if it was a bit more obvious that it was fake. If I didn’t feel slightly stupid when I realised I’d been had.

I still love the Hipstamatic app itself and will happily snap away, giving them my money for cool packs of ‘film’ and ‘lenses’. But I probably won’t go out and recommend it to my friends. I don’t have any particular warm feelings or affinity for the brand, and I should have. Not because it has some kind of tragic and yet inspiring history, but because it’s associated with a great product. The guys at Synthetic threw that away.

I don’t think any marketer today can underestimate the importance of being honest with their consumers. You need to let them in on the joke, not make them feel that the joke is on them.