And a Farting Preacher Shall Lead Us

Until I heard that preacher fart, I was never much of a believer in user-generated media. I don't mean garden variety user-generated content (UGC), which embraces blogs, a few digital photo postings, and the endless scrolls of reader comments. I've always believed that community interaction is a more important part of the online mix than most traditional publishers admit. I'm talking about the more ambitious amateur media making, that vox populi revolution the Internet was supposed to spark. I was here in 1998 to see the crash and burn of so many attempts to organize garage bands and personal Webcam shows into populist big media rivals. The eternal democratic fantasy was that accessible digital media and free distribution would at long last unleash the people's (always, the people's) creativity in personal media-making. How oppressed we had been by some media industrial complex. Generally what we got instead was a lot of crappy music, animation, and Web shows that circulated among a small network of über-geeks. Perhaps one or two (remember that dancing baby?) popped up for a nanosecond of mainstream fame.

Now to the Farting Preacher. This series of five-minute movies is a wonderfully crafted mash-up; a set of clips of a recognizable televangelist that the satirist punctuates with loud farting noises. Don't smirk, because even this jaded middlebrow laughed and laughed at this rude one-note joke made artful by sharp editing (the reverend seems to comment on every burst) and great timing. I don't know who made these shorts, and they probably should keep their ass (pun intended) well-covered to avoid a lawsuit. Nevertheless, it has bubbled (no pun intended) to the top of Google's new video search portal, where you'll find a trove of homegrown media sharing space with major networks' libraries.

Farting Preacher embodies a confluence of forces that together make user-generated media a real force. First, it expertly re-mixes mainstream media with video capture and editing tools, which, incidentally, my 13-year-old navigates better than I do. The digital toolset is easy and accessible enough to make Farting Preacher on any PC. Second, new venues like iTunes video and Google now give such work a fair chance to surface from the ecosphere of tagging, recommendation, and search engines that have created a new kind of parallel bestseller list running alongside familiar branded fare. And finally, there is a generation of young media prosumers, raised on blogging, proud of their digital acumen, and bursting with years of elementary school self-esteem building. They are primed for self-expression, and they are deeply interested in the amateur utterances of their peers. Witness the failure of Web site community in the '90s and the incredible popularity of the similar MySpace less than decade later. Toolsets, infrastructure, and the audience have evolved to make user-generated media a viable threat to mainstream media.

The circumstances for reception are shifting as well. In the five months I have owned my video iPod—where I also have my $1.99 episodes of Monk, Alfred Hitchcock, and The Office—I find myself spending more time away from mainstream fare. Subscribing to offbeat and homemade media and having it sync to my device is not a geeky exercise anymore but a no-brainer. Rocketboom, arguably the first vodcasting hit, is every bit as compelling as the (also very good) shorts from And it just started auctioning off ad space on eBay. Weird mash-ups like a re-mix of the silent film classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a freaky soundtrack and blackout sketches from garage band comedy groups now have a platform. The real worry for big media is that much of this stuff is more creative and entertaining than what passes for "professional" informational and comedic programming.

The threat user-generated media poses to mainstream media is not necessarily about draining ad dollars so much as diverting attention from big-brand mindshare. The engines are now in place that put homegrown and Hollywood-grown media on the same results page. Yet there are only so many hours in the day. As attention moves from the root of the tail to its increasingly slender length, less time is being spent with the media that costs the most to make. I can feel that economic shift occur on my own iPod. I may have purchased a handful of music videos and TV episodes, but not as many as I would have if garage band productions like Rocketboom and Ministry of Unknown Science didn't divert me each day. The shift in my viewing habits is incremental, to be sure, but in the media economy, percentile changes in spending equal billions of dollars and give cable executives sleepless nights.