The Internet is like New York: You can get anything you want at any time; you just have to know where to find it. Problem is, there's so much weird music, art and film there, it's almost impossible for any of it to attain even a smidgen of critical mass. The counterculture used to be defined by alternative print outlets, public-access TV and community radio, where the niche audiences for high art and low culture added up to more than the sum of their parts.
But with radio having been largely replaced by iPods and streaming audio, cord-cutting luring viewers away from cable TV and to services like Netflix, and print advertising revenue dwindling, the curators have been casualties of the collision of dwindling attention spans and infinite choice.
Unlike the vast wasteland of banal cat videos that is YouTube, Network Awesome (networkawesome.com) – the brainchild of a Berlin-based electronic musician and a Québécois grad-student computer whiz – is curated, which means that instead of search results that vary widely in quality, queries like "British comedy" or even "cats" lead you to clips like TV Offal, a hilarious but little-seen late-nineties series from Britain; and Cat City, a remarkable feature-length artifact of the animation scene in Hungary in the 1980s. The site features more than 3,500 videos, chosen and often annotated by staffers and over 100 volunteers determined to mine the constant flow of footage posted online.
Judging from the response Network Awesome's gotten since Jason Forrest and Greg Sadetsky launched the site in January, 2011, there's a sizable group of people willing to abdicate responsibility for wielding the virtual remote.
"We almost started feeling bad about how much time was being spent on our site," Sadetsky says, with a chuckle, by phone from Quebec City. "We wonder what people used to do before."A grad student in biophotonics (the science of applying optical technology to medicine) at Université Laval, Sadetsky was an admirer of Forrest's electronic music when the pair first came in contact.
After Sadetsky helped Forrest set up his own website, the musician contacted him about a different kind of venture – a site run by humans, not algorithms, that would recommend and show videos culled from YouTube's vast archives. Recalls Sadetsky, "He told me, 'I have this business plan, and people told me I should just do it. I shouldn't waste time. I should just go ahead and do it.' It sounded like a really great project to me."
After a few weeks of building the backbone of the site (the videos themselves are hosted by YouTube, which allows external sites like Network Awesome to stream some of its content), Network Awesome was ready for its soft debut. By the time it was given an official relaunch a year later, it had already directed more than a million video clips to 433,000 users. And its fans are loyal; 33 per cent of visitors returned more than 50 times. According to Forrest, their traffic numbers have almost doubled: "We get between 3,000 and 10,000 visitors a day. Advertisers return our calls now."
The retro-themed site is smartly organized. The curators post six shows a day, from films to TV episodes to collections of shorter videos arranged around themes such as video art made using green-screen techniques, or vintage hip-hop promos. There are also special sections devoted to the work of such auteurs as Japanese animator Osamu Tezuka or to visual artist Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. The specials can run into days worth of footage and often come bundled with related articles from Network Awesome Magazine, a blog written by the site's shockingly well-informed volunteers. You can also just browse the archives, which are organized by such topics as "zombies," "film noir" and "black America."
Forrest takes inspiration from maverick cable TV outlets such as Los Angeles's Z Channel, which in the seventies and eighties programmed a unique mix of art-house cinema and other daring fare. Sadetsky says he hopes viewers can have "that great experience that you could have with TV where you find a channel you like," he says, and zone out to it. "That's just what we're trying to recreate. We want people to be spending hours, not, like, five minutes changing your status or something."
Media outlets everywhere are trying to figure out how to make streaming video into a viable source of revenue – Network Awesome included. The site is soliciting both advertisers and investors, and the founders hope to expand onto new platforms, including mobile and Apple TV, as well as produce more of their own content; they've just filmed 30 bands over five days for a musical variety show whose guests range from Brazilian drone-rockers to puppets that rap in German.
The bulk of the site's programming will likely remain hosted on YouTube; Network Awesome owns the architecture of its site but not the content it links to, so another site with deep pockets could theoretically duplicate its playlists. Still, with media titans having spent the last 20 years focusing on blockbuster franchises, the time and talent required to curate a similar outlet should keep copycats at bay, at least for now.
The way we consume media has changed irrevocably. Most of the time, it involves a kind of fugue state, reflexively snatching tiny bursts of endorphins from barely conscious brushes with social media. For people drawn to sites like Network Awesome, taking the time to experience a carefully selected batch of film, music and art that they weren't aware of beforehand is worthy of their full attention. And they can still tweet about it – afterward.