<videovortex> nyt piece on joost

Geert Lovink geert at xs4all.nl
Tue May 15 09:49:56 CEST 2007

May 13, 2007
A Diet, Oddly Bland, of Continuous Images and Chat

IN the short history of the Internet, most online
videos have been funny, fleeting clips lasting only a
few minutes — sometimes just seconds. Web sites like
YouTube and MySpace are populated with bite-size
videos that the youngster down the street whipped up
in his spare time. And media companies like Viacom and
NBC have posted abridged versions of popular shows on
their Web sites.

But the future of online television may lie with
longer programs, the kind that merit curling up on
your couch rather watching from your office chair.
Most video viewing, after all, is still on television
sets, and many people turn them on for hours at a
time. In contrast, Nielsen Net/Ratings finds that
consumers visit YouTube on average for only 11.5
minutes at a time.

With this in mind, my husband and I logged on to two
new Web sites last week that portray themselves as the
future of television — they stream long-form content
mimicking television, but they also let viewers use
their computers while watching.

We wanted to see how long we could stay interested in
TV online — how long it could keep us from turning on
our BlackBerrys, our other laptop or regular
television. To give the sites a fighting chance, we
plugged our computer into the overhead projector that
normally connects to our cable box, dimmed our lights
and poured some drinks.

We visited Joost, founded by the team that first
created Kazaa, a peer-to-peer music network. Kazaa ran
into copyright woes in 2001, and the team then
introduced Skype, an Internet phone service now owned
by eBay.

Joost has been available in trial form to a small
group of Web users for a few months, as has Babelgum,
a site backed by the Italian telecommunications
magnate Silvio Scaglia. It will open its doors in a
broader test run for consumers on May 31.

Both sites require a quick download to get started and
a continuous Internet connection. Babelgum runs on the
QuickTime program, which can also be downloaded free.
Babelgum will be available only for PCs at first, but
by the end of the summer a product is planned for

The main difference between these sites and YouTube is
the nature of the content: it is full-length and
professionally edited. Like YouTube, the content is
free. Yet, as we all know, nothing is ever really
free. Joost required me to register my age, gender and
other details, and both Web sites say they will
monitor your viewing patterns. Joost says it does this
so it can produce “personalized television supported
by advertisements that are most likely to interest

In the advertising industry, sites that ask for user
data upfront are a treasure trove for companies that
want their brands pitched to just the right people at
just the right time. Joost has already signed up more
than 30 major advertisers, including Microsoft,
Unilever and United Airlines.

Within a few minutes of logging on to Joost, Motorola,
Hewlett-Packard and Kraft all zapped ads at us.
Babelgum will not have ads until later in the year and
is planning to make its ads skippable during the trial
period — an option that consumers will appreciate but
advertisers will begrudge.

Joost’s interface is flashy — colorful globs float by,
converting the screen into the equivalent of a giant
lava lamp. Babelgum has a more streamlined look, with
black screens framing programs as they load. Babelgum
viewers will be able to rate shows they watch, and
sign up for “smart channels” that recommend programs
based on past viewing. Joost has more gadgets to play
with for now, including TiVo-like controls to pause
and fast-forward while you watching, but finding them
can be confusing until you are accustomed to the

Joost features programs from television brands like
Comedy Central, National Geographic, Adult Swim and
Sports Illustrated (yes, there is a swimsuit channel).
Babelgum is staking out its turf with television
programming that is popular overseas — BBC
documentaries and sports events sponsored by Red Bull,
are two examples — and niche content made by
independent producers in the United States.

As we watch the Guinness World Records TV channel on
Joost, boredom creeps in. How long can you watch
television these days without doing something else? My
husband pulls up his favorite technology site
alongside Joost because he has become annoyed with the
sometimes choppy images. Soon, he pulls out his
laptop, too, and turns on the regular television.

Time passes — and I cannot sit still. I reach for my
BlackBerry to check e-mail. But wait. Joost and
Babelgum have solutions for the multitasker
generation. Even as they mimic television, these sites
incorporate the social networking and communication
tools of cyberspace. Television programs on Joost are
played in windows overlaid with screens that allow the
communication addict in us to IM our friends within

Salvation. I send my friend Aaron an e-mail invitation
to join Joost.

We meet in the Live at Much channel. There are 19
programs here — all interviews with musicians. First
we watch Beyoncé, then Nelly Furtado, then John Mayer.
Aaron (otherwise known by his screen name fLocker)
tells me what he is switching to as he clicks through
(we spend about an hour doing this but I’m sparing you
from a full transcription).

     fLocker: Now I’m watching Jay-Z.

     LouiseStory: I can’t keep up with you!

     fLocker: Nah, I think I just have ADD. I can’t
just watch one thing for too long.

An ad for Garnier Fructis hair conditioner appears on
my screen. I wonder if Aaron sees the same ad.

     LouiseStory: What ad are you seeing?

     fLocker: I think it was a car commercial. Didn’t
pay attention to it though. Haha.

     LouiseStory: Are you watching real TV while using

     fLocker: Haha, yea kind of.

     LouiseStory: Braxton and I got bored, so we have
four screens going.

     fLocker: Well, I’m sitting on the couch in front
of the TV, and it’s on. But I’m mostly watching this.

AARON tells me that chatting while watching TV is
nothing new for him. He did it when AOL introduced
Instant Messenger; he and his friends sent instant
messages while their television sets were tuned to the
same channel. Joost simply enables chatting and
viewing on the same screen. (Babelgum plans to
introduce a chat tool this summer).

After using Joost for 60 minutes we decide to say

     LouiseStory: It’s awkward saying goodbye on Joost.

     fLocker: Why is that?

     LouiseStory: Cause we both know we might both keep
watching. There’s an expectation in instant messaging
to keep talking. If you’re online you have to be

And, if you are below a certain age, your eyes can’t
resist shifting from screen to screen on multiple
devices. By the time we turned off Joost and Babelgum
last week, we also had turned on our regular
television, two laptops and BlackBerrys.

Traditional television is competing with newer
technologies for our attention, even while we watch,
because TV is a one-way medium. Our experience with
Joost and Babelgum made us think that the services
should add more televisionlike content to expand the
range of people who might watch.

They also should probably stick to their strengths as
television sites where consumers can multitask while
watching. At least for me, they have the potential to
refocus my attention in the living room on fewer
screens — maybe even (perish the thought) just one.

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