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The Modern-Day Water Cooler

The world shifted when YouTube and other online video platforms democratized video distribution and original content.

Re/code illustration; original image: iofoto/Shutterstock

Before the digital revolution, content brought fans together around a physical water cooler. Content came to the crowd, and due to limited television options, small groups had a greater likelihood of watching the same episode and chatting about it the following day.

Competing for mindshare against only 100 channels (many of which lacked original premium content), NBC’s Must See TV (“Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends”), for instance, connected people in break rooms and around dinner tables with a commonality of content. Family members argued over whether Ross and Rachel would ever end up together. A scarcity of channels extended the influence of popular shows beyond their respective time slots.

The world shifted when YouTube and other online video platforms democratized video distribution and proliferated original content. Now anyone with a webcam can become a creator and reach billions of viewers. There are more than 1,500 channels on YouTube alone, with more than 500,000 subscribers. Digitally-born creators like Ryan Higa and Jenna Marbles average more than five times more views than some of the most popular cable television shows.

Viewers are watching more diverse channels that target their particular passions. In addition, between YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other portals, there are numerous distribution outlets available to consume this content at asynchronous times, further fragmenting the audience. Content is now everywhere all of the time. But video aggregators are built upon the same distribution-consumption paradigm as television. There are limited ways for creators and fans to truly express themselves and interact with each other.

Second-screen apps claimed to have discovered the water cooler, only to find that most people don’t care to toggle between two screens simply to check in to a show and read IMDB information about the actors they are watching. This is particularly true in an on-demand culture. Mobile has become the first screen for millennials, and a complementary viewing app does not function for modern-day consumption habits.

But fan demand is exploding, and content is a natural resource (a creator can’t produce enough videos to satiate fan appetite). Creators of all types are increasingly looking for ways to extend the conversations around their content and engender greater engagement beyond consumption. Where does this modern-day water cooler exist?

It does not live in one place. Rather, it is mobile — just like its patrons. Today’s water cooler isn’t tangible — it is comprised of the collective of fans who may be thousands of miles away from each other, but who share a common passion.

In a world of memes, GIFs, snapping and mobile messaging, fans want to express themselves and communicate with their favorite creators and each other by means beyond hitting a “Like” button and leaving a text comment. There are plenty of ways to watch video online today, and companies continue to financially engineer ways to monetize a view. But a video may only last three minutes. A conversation around that video or fan interaction and creation inspired by the message, passion or interest a video represents can last indefinitely.

A water cooler should not be confused for a soapbox. It demands peer-to-peer interaction between like-minded enthusiasts. It transcends shouting into the Internet and being ignored by followers who didn’t watch what you watched at the same time you watched it. It has no patience for trolls. And it does not appreciate walled gardens being built in open fields.

Rather, the modern-day water cooler offers rich and meaningful opportunities for fans to have multi-directional conversations with their peers and get closer to the content they love. Product innovations such as live video chat, virtual reality and direct-to-fan experiences will unlock the power of these fan communities.

It’s time for content creators of all shapes and sizes — from YouTubers to Viners to media companies — to rethink how they empower fans to participate, create and converse, and not just consume. The water cooler isn’t broken — it’s just unplugged.

Sam Rogoway is CEO and co-founder of Victorious, a mobile platform that powers superfan apps for the world’s biggest creators. Rogoway previously co-created and launched “Braindex,” the world’s first show distributed initially as an interactive iPad app; it became a No. 1 iPad app and was nominated for an Interactive Emmy Award. He also founded and served as CEO of the popular travel social network TripUp, which was acquired by Sidestep/Kayak. Reach him @samrogoway.

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