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May 26, 2019
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Get ready for a new era of personalized entertainment

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New machine learning technologies, user interfaces and automated content creation techniques are going to expand the personalization of storytelling beyond algorithmically generated news feeds and content recommendation.

The next wave will be software-generated narratives that are tailored to the tastes and sentiments of a consumer.

Concretely, it means that your digital footprint, personal preferences and context unlock alternative features in the content itself, be it a news article, live video or a hit series on your streaming service.

The title contains different experiences for different people.

From smart recommendations to smarter content

When you use Youtube, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Netflix or Spotify, algorithms select what gets recommended to you. The current mainstream services and their user interfaces and recommendation engines have been optimized to serve you content you might be interested in.

Your data, other people’s data, content-related data and machine learning methods are used to match people and content, thus improving the relevance of content recommendations and efficiency of content distribution.

However, so far the content experience itself has mostly been similar to everyone. If the same news article, live video or TV series episode gets recommended to you and me, we both read and watch the same thing, experiencing the same content.

That’s about to change. Soon we’ll be seeing new forms of smart content, in which user interface, machine learning technologies and content itself are combined in a seamless manner to create a personalized content experience.

What is smart content?

Smart content means that content experience itself is affected by who is seeing, watching, reading or listening to content. The content itself changes based on who you are.

We are already seeing the first forerunners in this space. TikTok’s whole content experience is driven by very short videos, audiovisual content sequences if you will, ordered and woven together by algorithms. Every user sees a different, personalized, “whole” based on her viewing history and user profile.

At the same time, Netflix has recently started testing new forms of interactive content (TV series episodes, e.g. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) in which user’s own choices affect directly the content experience, including dialogue and storyline. And more is on its way. With Love, Death & Robots series, Netflix is experimenting with episode order within a series, serving the episodes in different order for different users.

Some earlier predecessors of interactive audio-visual content include sports event streaming, in which the user can decide which particular stream she follows and how she interacts with the live content, for example rewinding the stream and spotting the key moments based on her own interest.

Simultaneously, we’re seeing how machine learning technologies can be used to create photo-like images of imaginary people, creatures and places. Current systems can recreate and alter entire videos, for example by changing the style, scenery, lighting, environment or central character’s face. Additionally, AI solutions are able to generate music in different genres.

Now, imagine, that TikTok’s individual short videos would be automatically personalized by the effects chosen by an AI system, and thus the whole video would be customized for you. Or that the choices in the Netflix’s interactive content affecting the plot twists, dialogue and even soundtrack, were made automatically by algorithms based on your profile.

Personalized smart content is coming to news as well. Automated systems, using today’s state-of-the-art NLP technologies, can generate long pieces of concise, comprehensible and even inventive textual content at scale. At present, media houses use automated content creation systems, or “robot journalists”, to create news material varying from complete articles to audio-visual clips and visualizations. Through content atomization (breaking content into small modular chunks of information) and machine learning, content production can be increased massively to support smart content creation.

Say that a news article you read or listen to is about a specific political topic that is unfamiliar to you. When comparing the same article with your friend, your version of the story might use different concepts and offer a different angle than your friend’s who’s really deep into politics. A beginner’s smart content news experience would differ from the experience of a topic enthusiast.

Content itself will become a software-like fluid and personalized experience, where your digital footprint and preferences affect not just how the content is recommended and served to you, but what the content actually contains.

Automated storytelling?

How is it possible to create smart content that contains different experiences for different people?

Content needs to be thought and treated as an iterative and configurable process rather than a ready-made static whole that is finished when it has been published in the distribution pipeline.

Importantly, the core building blocks of the content experience change: smart content consists of atomized modular elements that can be modified, updated, remixed, replaced, omitted and activated based on varying rules. In addition, content modules that have been made in the past, can be reused if applicable. Content is designed and developed more like a software.

Currently a significant amount of human effort and computing resources are used to prepare content for machine-powered content distribution and recommendation systems, varying from smart news apps to on-demand streaming services. With smart content, the content creation and its preparation for publication and distribution channels wouldn’t be separate processes. Instead, metadata and other invisible features that describe and define the content are an integral part of the content creation process from the very beginning.

Turning Donald Glover into Jay Gatsby

With smart content, the narrative or image itself becomes an integral part of an iterative feedback loop, in which the user’s actions, emotions and other signals as well as the visible and invisible features of the content itself affect the whole content consumption cycle from the content creation and recommendation to the content experience. With smart content features, a news article or a movie activates different elements of the content for different people.

It’s very likely that smart content for entertainment purposes will have different features and functions than news media content. Moreover, people expect frictionless and effortless content experience and thus smart content experience differs from games. Smart content doesn’t necessarily require direct actions from the user. If the person wants, the content personalization happens proactively and automatically, without explicit user interaction.

Creating smart content requires both human curation and machine intelligence. Humans focus on things that require creativity and deep analysis while AI systems generate, assemble and iterate the content that becomes dynamic and adaptive just like software.

Sustainable smart content

Smart content has different configurations and representations for different users, user interfaces, devices, languages and environments. The same piece of content contains elements that can be accessed through voice user interface or presented in augmented reality applications. Or the whole content expands into a fully immersive virtual reality experience.

In the same way as with the personalized user interfaces and smart devices, smart content can be used for good and bad. It can be used to enlighten and empower, as well as to trick and mislead. Thus it’s critical, that human-centered approach and sustainable values are built in the very core of smart content creation. Personalization needs to be transparent and the user needs to be able to choose if she wants the content to be personalized or not. And of course, not all content will be smart in the same way, if at all.

If used in a sustainable manner, smart content can break filter bubbles and echo chambers as it can be used to make a wide variety of information more accessible for diverse audiences. Through personalization, challenging topics can be presented to people according to their abilities and preferences, regardless of their background or level of education. For example a beginner’s version of vaccination content or digital media literacy article uses gamification elements, and the more experienced user gets directly a thorough fact-packed account of the recent developments and research results.

Smart content is also aligned with the efforts against today’s information operations such as fake news and its different forms such as “deep fakes” (http://www.niemanlab.org/2018/11/how-the-wall-street-journal-is-preparing-its-journalists-to-detect-deepfakes). If the content is like software, a legit software runs on your devices and interfaces without a problem. On the other hand, even the machine-generated realistic-looking but suspicious content, like deep fake, can be detected and filtered out based on its signature and other machine readable qualities.


Smart content is the ultimate combination of user experience design, AI technologies and storytelling.

News media should be among the first to start experimenting with smart content. When the intelligent content starts eating the world, one should be creating ones own intelligent content.

The first players that master the smart content, will be among tomorrow’s reigning digital giants. And that’s one of the main reasons why today’s tech titans are going seriously into the content game. Smart content is coming.

An Equity deep dive on Patreon

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The popular TechCrunch podcast Equity this week launched a new series called Equity Dive, wherein a host interviews the writer of the latest edition of the Extra Crunch EC-1.

If you’ve ever wanted to know everything there is to know about Patreon, the platform that connects creators with fans and their wallets, then this is the show for you. TechCrunch Silicon Valley editor Connie Loizos speaks with Eric Peckham who spent hours upon hours meeting with the Patreon team to learn its origin story and the ins and outs of its business practices to get the company to where it is today.

As Eric says:

The way to think about how Patreon has evolved is I see it in kind of three stages, which was this initial crowd funding platform, and then evolving beyond that to try and be a destination platform for consumers where there would be great content that you just go to Patreon to find and you go to discover creators, kind of a marketplace model. They moved away from that. That was somewhat of a gradual shift and essentially the decision was it’s not good to be stuck in this game of trying to be yet another destination platform for consumers competing with YouTube and Instagram and every single media site out there. Really the opportunity and mission underlies our work is about helping creators and enabling all these independent creators to sustain themselves and to build thriving businesses.

They shifted, they now describe themselves as a SaaS company actually, which is very different from framing yourself as kind of a consumer destination. The long and short of it is they see this opportunity, which is a growing market of independent creators around the world who are building fan bases, and for that particular type of SMB they want to provide essentially the full suite of tools and services that they need to run their businesses.

For access to the full transcription, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 


Connie Loizos: Hi, I’m Connie Loizos and I’d like to welcome you to our first Equity Dive. Once a month we’re going to be dedicating an entire episode to a deep dive into the life of one company. This month I’m joined by Eric Peckham, who has reported extensively on the crowd funding membership platform Patreon. Hi Eric.

Eric Peckham: Hey Connie, excited to be here for the first Equity Dive.

Connie Loizos: Same, so Eric you and I ran into each other first in Berlin but we don’t know each other very well. I’d love to hear more about you. You’re based in LA, and from what I understand you are a media industry analyst. Is that correct?

Eric Peckham: Yes, so I cover through both my own newsletter Monetizing Media, the happenings of the global media and entertainment industry. It’s kind of a very business minded lens on media and entertainment.

Connie Loizos: Well I read your extensive coverage on Patreon and it was really impressive, and I wondered considering how much you wrote, is this sort of a long interest of yours this company or how did you decide to settle on this for your first deep dive for TechCrunch?

Eric Peckham: Yes, it was an exciting process digging into this. We made a short list of exciting companies, a lot of unicorn companies or late stage startups we thought were about to become unicorns, and Patreon jumped out for a number of reasons. One is as someone who runs his own newsletter I have had subscribers to that newsletter suggest creating a Patreon. I’ve looked into it before, so I had a little bit of a creator perspective of just wanting to better understand Patreon and other options in the market. I think from a bigger picture, more of a Silicon Valley perspective, Patreon’s a really fascinating company. They’ve raised over $100 million from top PC firms like Index, CRV, they’re the dominant player in this space they’re targeting, but it’s kind of them versus just the big social media platforms. There isn’t the startup that’s comparable in size to it and it’s really trying to own this whole territory of independent content creators, surveying them with different business tools or services.

Connie Loizos: It is really interesting to think the David and Goliath story involves a $100 million venture backed startup versus, as you say, I know these big players Facebook, YouTube. Let’s start at the beginning, so you decided on Patreon for reasons that I can certainly understand now. How did you set about pitching them on this idea? Because obviously you were going to need a lot of access to them, a lot of their time.

YouTube CEO’s latest update details its growth, glosses over content problems

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YouTube highlighted its growth and promised better communication with creators about its tests and experiments, the company announced today in its latest of an ongoing series of updates from CEO Susan Wojcicki focused on YouTube’s top five priorities in 2018. The majority of her missive today – which was also released in the form of a YouTube video – were wrap-ups of other announcements and launches the company had recently made, like the new features released at this year’s VidCon including Channel Memberships, merchandise, and Famebit.

However, the company did offer a few updates related to those launches, including news of expanded merch partnerships. But YouTube didn’t detail the crucial steps it should be taking to address the content issues that continue to plague its site.

YouTube said one way it’s improving communication is via Creator Insider, an unofficial channel started by YouTube employees, which offers weekly updates, responds to concerns, and gives a more behind-the-scenes look into product launches.

In terms of its product updates, YouTube said that Channel Memberships, which are currently open to those with more than 100,000 subscribers, will roll out to more creators in the “coming months.” Meanwhile, merch, which is now available to U.S.-based channels with over 10,000 subscribers, will add new merchandising partners and expand to more creators “soon.”

At present, YouTube is partnered with custom merchandise platform Teespring, which keeps a cut of the merchandise sales while YouTube earns a small commission. The company didn’t say which other merchandise providers would be joining the program.

YouTube’s Famebit, which connects creators and brands for paid content creation, is also growing. YouTube says that more than half of channels working with Famebit doubled their YouTube revenue in the first three months of the year. And it will soon launch a new feature that will allow YouTube viewers to shop for products, apps, and tickets right form the creator’s watch page. (This was announced at VidCon, too.)

Content problems remain

There was little attention given to brand safety in today’s update, however, beyond a promise that this continues to be one of YouTube’s “biggest priorities” and that it’s seeing “positive” results.

In reality, the company still struggles with content moderation. It even fails to follow-up when there’s a high-profile case, it seems. The most recent example of this is YouTube’s takedown of the “FamilyOFive” channel this week.

The channel’s creators, Michael and Heather Martin, are serving probation in Maryland after being convicted of emotionally and physically abusing their children in “prank” videos for their prior DaddyOFive channel. They lost custody of their two younger children as a result.

Unbelievably, the family returned to YouTube as FamilyOFive and FamilyOFive Gaming, and continued to produce videos reaching a combined 400,000+ subscribers. Seemingly without remorse for their past actions, their new channel featured more abuse – one of their children took a shot to their groin in one video, and another was harassed to the point of a meltdown in another.

The family has claimed it’s all “entertainment,” but the justice system obviously disagreed. It’s outrageous that convicted child abusers would be allowed to continue to upload videos of their children to YouTube. The site needs to have much stricter policies not only around bans, but about the use of children in videos entirely. Kids do not have the autonomy to make decisions about whether or not they want to be filmed, and aren’t able to comprehend the long-term impacts of being public on the internet.

While FamilyOFive is an extreme example, YouTube is still filled to the brim with parents exploiting their kids for cash – the stage moms and dads of a new era, raking in the free toys, products, and cash from brands who see YouTube as the new TV, and its creators and their children as the new, less regulated actors.

Unfortunately for children, existing child actor laws that protect children from exploitation and set aside some portion of their earnings outside of parents’ reach haven’t always applied to YouTube stars. YouTube now complies with local child labor laws, it says, but it’s not involved in enforcement. And even with a policy in place, it’s clearly not enough to dissuade parents from filming their kids for cash.

Growth

YouTube’s post today also highlighted other growth metrics. It noted it now has 1.9 billion logged-in monthly users, who watch over 180 million hours of YouTube on TV screens every day. Overall interactions, such as likes, comments and chats, grew by more than 60% year over year, and livestreams increased by 10X over the last three years. Over 60 million users click or engage with Community Tab posts.

YouTube says it answered 600% more tweets through its official Twitter handles (@TeamYouTube, @YTCreators and @YouTube) in 2018 than in 2017 and grew its reach by 30% in the past few months.

And the company noted its plan to expand Stories to those with more than 10,000 subscribers, plus the launches of its new Copyright Match tool, screen time limitation features, and YouTube Studio’s new dashboard which will roll out in 76 languages in the next two weeks.

 

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