By Mike Gaston, CEO, Cut
Hunter S. Thompson wrote “In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.” He may have been referring to Nixon’s White House, but he could’ve easily been talking about the Internet — where what he wrote isn’t just an aphorism; it appears to be the actual metric for success.
Clumsy thieves grasping at shadows — formats, data, technology, viral rubrics, etc. produce a fleeting certainty, the intoxicating effects of mimetic desire. Of these temptations, we’re all guilty. Who can blame us? The Internet is a human centipede and no one wants to be at the back of the line. But in your haste to move up the ranks take care not to develop a taste for this bullshit. Because if you can’t stop doing the following you aren’t just guilty, you’re also stupid:
1. Stop thinking data matters more than a coherent editorial vision.
The way data is used to predict “virality” is usually wrong. When you gather metrics on the videos you or others have made that have gone viral, and then reverse engineer rubrics out of them to templatize your work, you’ve engineered your own obsolescence.
Applying inductive reasoning won’t tell you what will be viral. You’ll be lucky if it tells you what was/is viral. Unless you’d rather be known as a messy assemblage of loose and dated viral features instead of a publication with a voice, focus on developing an editorial vision before trying to find the perfect metrics package.
2. Stop trying so hard to build a shittier, less effective, Buzzfeed.
They will always be shittier and less effective than you. It’s their value proposition. They’ve built that machine to scale. He wrote with begrudging respect.
3. Stop trying so hard to be “viral.”
Years ago, during a brainstorm session in an Internet marketing startup, an analyst said he had a connection to Lou Ferrigno and asked if anyone had any ideas. After a few minutes I pitched:
“Tight shot of a man working out. Cut to a wide shot. He’s on a total gym but it’s in the middle of the forest. A lion yawns at his feet. He looks up at the camera, smiles, and says: ‘Did you know that the fastest growing nail on your hand is on your middle finger?’ Then, grinning so wide it might be a grimace, he flicks off the camera. Smash cut to black. Titles: The More You Ferrigno. Falcon cry, dolphin laugh, panther growl.”
I was joking.
Three weeks later I found myself standing in the middle of the woods watching Lou Ferrigno carrying a pug in a baby bjorn feeding rainbow sprinkles to a taxidermy deer head.
“I guess this is my job now,” I said, to no one in particular.
It bombed. I had tried to gather up the features of what I thought would spread at the time (absurdity + nostalgia + self aware deprecation = Betty White/Chuck Norris) and ended up producing something affected and aimless. When I look around at what’s being produced now, that’s a lot of what I see — aimless affectation. Only instead of trying to be absurd, publishers are trying to be “authentic” and instead of nostalgia they’re going for “diversity.” Unfortunately, instead of actually being authentic and diverse, the work comes off as insincere tokenism.
4. Stop following best practices.
There are no best practices. Rubrics, formulas, and best practices are comforting illusions of permanence. Don’t get lulled into complacency. Treat your work as a problem you constantly have to solve for.
5. Stop debating between quality or quantity.
Why do we still pretend that these two things are mutually exclusive? It’s about value. If you can look at something you’ve made and not understand its value, neither can your audience. That means be critical.
The first video I killed was one of the videos from our 100 Years of Beauty series. I asked my team to tell me their thoughts:
- “What if we switched out these poses?”
- “I think we should change the grading.”
- “This music doesn’t drive it.”
Plus half a dozen other points.
I explained to them we could do all those things, but it wouldn’t make the piece good, because it was fundamentally shit. It was shit from concept through research through execution. That video’s problems couldn’t be fixed in post. And yeah, we could probably still get a bunch of views on it, but if we get into the habit of compromising on our values to satisfy short term viral goals, eventually we’re going to get lost in the noise.
I told them, from now on, when you open up a laptop to review a first cut of a video that’s behind schedule and over budget,I want you to know in your heart that it’s shit. And then over the course of time as the video plays it proves to you that it’s good. Most of the time it won’t do that. Most of the time it’ll still be shit. But if it doesn’t make you want to kill yourself, maybe we launch it.
Being this critical doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice being fast or inexpensive. In the first nine months of 2015, Cut produced the equivalent 1.375 videos per producer per week. Our fully burdened costs were so low that I’m not going to write them down because no one would believe me. Being critical means looking at your work the way your audience does and asking — “Why should anyone give a shit?”
Bonus things you can stop doing…
- There are a million opportunists with zero vision, good at using the chaos in this industry to fail upwards at ludicrous speed. Stop hiring them.
- Exoticizing other countries and people like amateur 19th century anthropologists.
- Trying to make Snapchat a thing. It’s already a thing and you’re not relevant to it.
- Using words like “content” and “millennial” in your ideation sessions.
- Saying “ideation sessions.” It’s a brainstorm. There’s nothing lean or innovative about taking a two syllable word and replacing it with a four syllable word more commonly associated with serial killers.
- Making videos of things that should just be articles.
Mike Gaston is the Creative Director and co-founder of Cut.com. His work is regularly featured on Buzzfeed, Mashable, Elite Daily, The Huffington Post, MSNBC, and Gawker Media. Recent projects include “The Primary Instinct,” a feature length concert film premiering at SIFF starring Stephen Tobolowsky and the “100 Years of Beauty” series which was featured at TED 2015. He is mostly known for a video of grandmas smoking weed for the first time.