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AMERICAN SUBURB X

 

 

Follow THESE AMERICANS on Instagram.

 

Enjoy the ride.

 

http://instagram.com/theseamericans

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Apparently Women Love This 13-Year-Old Skateboarder Named Baby Scumbag

Steven Fernandez, aka Baby Scumbag, is just a normal 13-year-old skater from a bad neighborhood in LA. A normal 13-year-old skater who’s sponsored by a bunch of companies, has 38,000 subscribers onFacebook and 140,000 followers onInstagram, and gets photographed with guns and sexy (adult) women. He’s been skating since he was nine (here’s a video of him at 11), but unlike other absurdly talented kids likeRene Serrano and Evan Doherty, he’s developed a whole persona that revolves around trying to get girls and eating junk food (again: typical 13-year-old). It’s hard to tell how much of that is him putting on an act and how much of that is real, but either way, young Stephen knows more about what people on the internet like than all the “social media gurus” two and three times his age put together. I called him to ask what he wants to be when he grows up.

VICE: Hey, Steven how’s it going? I didn’t force you to miss school, right?

Baby Scumbag: Hey, VICE lady. Just chillin’. Just got home from school. Got out a little early.

You like school, or what?
Yeah, school is cool, but it’s kind of tough out here in poverty. You see a lot bad stuff around here, like gang-related stuff, drugs. I live in Compton, California. The border of South Central.

So, you’re super popular at school, right?
Nah, I’m just a normal kid going to school. An average teenager.

How did you get start getting sponsored?
Well it all started when I had posted a video of skateboarding, and people actually enjoyed watching the video. As I started making more videos, I started getting more sponsors as well.

What’s a typical day in the life of Baby Scumbag?
Hang out at school, homework, skateboarding, maybe even go film. And a little masturbation.

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Ten days ago, the social video app Cinemagram was hovering around No. 50 in the iOS U.S. photo and video category. The company needed about eight Amazon servers to keep itself running. It had a respectable number of downloads, but no real pop.

Then it released a new version that, among other tweaks, required users to create accounts in order to use the app  – effectively making Cinemagram a social network rather than just a GIF creation tool.

Temo Chalasani

The pickup was nearly instant. Cinemagram shot up to the top of the App Store — it went as high as No. 2, and is currently No. 4. The five-person company needed as many as 720 Amazon servers before figuring out how to be more efficient. They’re now at about 300.

Today, the app is nearing five million downloads, with hundreds of thousands of daily active users growing at a rate of 10 percent to 15 percent per day, according to internal metrics.

(Check out the App Annie charts to see how things shot up shortly after the new release on Oct. 10.)

I met Cinemagram founder Temo Chalasani for a hurried lunch amid Amazon outages on Monday, during which he described a bit more about how his company emerged from relative obscurity to madcap momentum.

To be sure, it’s entirely unclear what angle this particular growth event will look like in a few months. Will this be the beginning of the Cinemagram hockey stick? A spike that recedes back to normalcy? Will everyone get caught up in the “is-it-the-next-Instagram?” hype and then regret it?

Chalasani is the first to admit that there are many mobile social video apps. And many of them are trying various tricks to make video more snackable and mobile-friendly — for instance, Vine, which was recently bought by Twitter before even being released, promised to make it simple to make little video summary highlight reels.

And, actually, when I first talked to Chalasani in April, he wasn’t calling Cinemagram a video app. Rather, it was a GIF creation app. Basically, you could make a sort of hybrid photo-video where you animated one part of a photo while leaving the rest frozen by “masking” it. The effect can be really cool and mesmerizing when done right.

It turned out that people liked creating these nifty, artsy GIFs, but they also just liked making short, silent personal videos. A few months ago, Cinemagram started offering the option to post straight videos without doing the GIF animation trick. Today, 75 percent of Cinemagram videos have no masking effect.

Still, the original concept of animated GIFs provided some constraints for videos that actually work nicely on mobile phones. Cinemagram’s “cines” are limited to two seconds, and are silent. They’re so short that they’re basically just moving pictures. And they automatically repeat, so they’re easy to tune in and out of.

“This is not the kind of video you would find on YouTube,” said Chalasani.

Rather, it’s the kind of video that’s incredibly easy for people to make and watch on mobile phones.

Chalasani pointed out that two seconds is actually a normal limit for the length of a shot you’d see in a movie — only a professional editor would cobble tons of these little shots together.

A couple seconds is not enough for a plot, but you can maybe get across an emotion or a mood.

As such, cines tend to be quite personal. But like any other social network, Cinemagram benefits from the halo of celebrity users. Below is a popular cine of rapper Tyga’s brand-new son, from a few days ago.

So is that the lesson, then? Slap a social network onto a nifty video app and you’re done? Maybe, but it wasn’t just that, Chalasani said.

For instance, one other recent trick that helped boost Cinemagram growth was better social sharing. Of the major social networks, only Tumblr supports GIFs. So Cinemagram made a sort of widget that makes its videos play in Facebook news feeds.

TechCrunch’s Kim-Mai Cutler also notes that Cinemagram isn’t the only mobile social media iOS app that seems to be growing like a weed; Snapchat is another recent standout. (Super-secret tip: For more on Snapchat, come to our Dive Into Mobile conference next week.)

Cinemagram raised a $1 million convertible note over the summer, and much of the team is in the process of moving from Montreal to San Francisco. Currently, my Cinemagram feed is jam-packed with Silicon Valley investors giving it a whirl.

Besides the VC money, Chalasani and the team do have some semblance of a business plan. They already have a relationship with Red Bull to make highlight reels out of user-submitted cines.

But right now they’re just trying to keep up with hypergrowth.

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With all due respect to the Who, we will get fooled again. That’s what humans do. At one time or another, we suspend disbelief about virtually everything. And why not? As social creatures, we’re wired to trust others.

But what about when we know, with absolute certainty, that someone’s trying to put one over on us and rather than resisting, we embrace it? What does it say about the power of denial, not to mention our thirst for entertainment, when we actively seek out and celebrate artfully executed trickery?

A new show at the Met, Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, shines a thoughtful light on the work of men and women who, throughout the history of the medium, have playfully (and, occasionally, with more sinister motives) doctored their own and others’ images. Not content with merely presenting the works themselves, though, Faking It also holds up something of a funhouse mirror to the viewer’s preconceptions of what photography really is—and what it means.

After all, if photographers, printers and others involved in the craft have for centuries been altering the “reality” of what the camera captures—as, of course, they always have, and always will—then where is the hard, bright line between, say, a masterwork of photojournalism tweaked and perfected in the dark room and a photo adroitly doctored to make a political point? Professional photo editors might be able to say, with absolute sincerity, “That hard, bright line exists here.” But for the casual observer, the lay viewer, that distinction might feel like little more than an academic splitting of hairs; what matters is that a picture elicits a response—and with few exceptions, the images in Faking It do just that.

More than a few pictures in the show are memorable for the very reason that they are so obviously, to our contemporary eyes, manufactured. A French artist’s photo made to look like that of a man juggling his own head (slide 8 in the gallery above) might have stunned people in the 1880s; today, not so much—even if we can appreciate the deliberate effort and even the intent that went into creating it. An image of two Soviet premiers seated together, meanwhile, is so clearly an (altered) attempt to consecrate the mass-murdering Stalin as the rightful successor of Lenin that the picture would be comical if we didn’t have such a dreadful understanding of how brutal Stalin’s decades-long reign really was.

Other photos strike a chord for the simple reason that they are, by any measure, beautiful. The dream-like “Orpheus Scene” (1907) by the early fine-art photographer F. Holland Day is so wonderfully moody that, at first glance, it might be the handiwork of the great French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon.

In the end, perhaps the pleasure we take in these pictures derives not from our sophisticated, skeptical, eminently modern sensibility in the age of Instagram, Pixelmator and the rest, but instead can be traced to a simpler, far more elemental source: our capacity, and our longing, for wonder.

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from Oct. 11, 2012 through Jan. 27, 2013.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

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How can we make sense of it all?
A few weeks ago, I had dinner with Saumil and Sailesh, co-founders of LocBox.* Instagram had just been acquired by Facebook and there was speculation (later confirmed) about a big up round financing of Path. The recent large financing of Pinterest was still in the air, and the ongoing parlor game of when Facebook would go public and at what price was still being played. A couple of months prior, Zynga had acquired OMGPOP.

Sailesh wondered aloud, “How much time do we have for any of these?” “How many of them can coexist?” and “Do we really need them?” My answers were, respectively: “A lot.” “Many of them.” and “No, but we want them.” That dinner discussion prompted some observations that I am outlining here, and I invite you to share your own observations in the comments below.

In a nutshell, the Internet has evolved from being a need-driven utility medium with only a handful of winners to a discovery-driven entertainment medium with room for multiple winners. The necessary and sufficient conditions for this evolution are now in place — broadband, real names and tablets are the three horsemen of this New New Web. As consumers, entrepreneurs and investors, we should get used to the fact that the online economy is increasingly blurring with the offline economy, and in the limit, that distinction will disappear. As a result, just as in the real world, the Web of entertainment will be much bigger than the Web of utility.

A Theory of Human Motivation
One framework for understanding the consumer Internet is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which Abraham Maslow put forward as a way of explaining human behavior at large. The core premise is that once our basic needs of food, shelter, safety and belonging are satisfied, we tend to focus on things that are related to creativity, entertainment, education and self-improvement. A key aspect of this framework is that it’s sequential: Unless the basic needs are met, one cannot focus on other things. As an example, a study in 2011 showed that humans who are hungry will spend more on food and less on non-food items compared to those who are not hungry. Using this framework, we can see how consumer adoption of the Web has evolved over the last 20 years, and why all of the ingredients are only now in place for consumers to use the Web for what Maslow called “self-actualization” — a pursuit of one’s full potential, driven by desire, not by necessity.

1992-2012: Web of Need
Between the AOL IPO in 1992 and the Facebook IPO last month, the Internet has largely been in the business of satisfying basic consumer needs. In 1995, the year Netscape went public and made the internet accessible to the masses, I was a young product manager for a consumer Internet company called Global Village Communication. We were a newly minted public company and our hottest product was a “high speed” fax/modem with a speed of 33.6 kbps. Back then, using the Internet as a consumer or making a living off it as a business was rather difficult, and sometimes simply frustrating. In the subsequent years the basic needs of access, browser, email, search and identity were solved by companies such as AOL, Comcast, Netscape, Yahoo, Google, LinkedIn and Facebook.

2012-?: Web of Want
Today, the billion users on Facebook have reached the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy on the web. All of our basic needs have been satisfied. Now we are in pursuit of self-actualization. It is no surprise that on the Web, we are now open to playing games (Zynga, Angry Birds), watching video (YouTube, Hulu), listening to music (Pandora, Spotify), expressing our creativity (Instagram, Twitter, Draw Something), window shopping (Pinterest, Gojee*) and pursuing education (Khan Academy, Empowered*).

The Web Is Becoming Like TV
How do we make sense out of a Web where multiple providers coexist, serving groups of people who share a similar desire? Turns out we already have a very good model for understanding how this can work: Television. Specifically, cable television. The Web is becoming like TV, with hundreds of networks or “channels” that are programmed to serve content to an audience with similar desires and demographics. Pinterest, ShoeDazzle, Joyous and Alt12* programmed for young, affluent women; Machinima, Kixeye and Kabam programmed for mostly male gamers; Gojee* for food enthusiasts; Triposo* for travellers; GAINFitness* for fitness fans and so on.

In this new new Web, an important ingredient to success is a clear understanding of the identity of your users to ensure that you are programming to that user’s interests. The good news is that unlike TV, the Web has a feedback loop. Everything can be measured and as a result the path from concept to success can be more capital efficient by measuring what type of programming is working every step of the way — it’s unlikely that the new new Web will ever produce a Waterworld.

Why Now? Broadband, Real Names & Tablets
As my partner Doug Pepper recently wrote, a key question when evaluating a new opportunity is to ask “Why Now?” Certainly, companies like AOL, Yahoo and Myspace have tried before to program the Web to cater to interests of specific audiences. What’s different now? Three things: Broadband, real names and tablets.

The impact of broadband is obvious; we don’t need or want anything on a slow Web. With broadband penetration at 26 percent in industrialized countries and 3G penetration at about 15 percent of the world’s population, we are just reaching critical mass of nearly 1B users on the fast Web.

Real names are more interesting. In 1993, the New Yorker ran the now famous cartoon; “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” This succinctly captured the state of the anonymous Web at the time. Reid Hoffman and Mark Zuckerberg changed that forever. Do we find Q&A on Quora to be more credible than Yahoo! Answers, celebrity profiles on Twitter more engaging than Myspace and pins on Pinterest more relevant than recommendations on early AOL chatrooms? I certainly do, and that is largely because Quora, Twitter and Pinterest take advantage of real names. Real names are blurring the distinction between online and offline behavior.

Finally, the tablet, the last necessary and sufficient piece that fuels the “Web of want.” The PC is perfect for the “Web of need” — when we need something, we can search for it, since we know what we are looking for. Searching is a “lean-forward” experience, typing into our PC, either at work or at the home office. The Web over the last decade has been optimized for this lean-forward search experience — everything from SEO to Web site design to keyword shortcuts in popular browsers makes that efficient. However, smartphones and tablets allow us to move to a “lean-back” experience, flipping through screens using our fingers, often in our living rooms and bedrooms, on the train or at the coffee shop. Tablets make discovery easy and fun, just like flipping channels on TV at leisure. These discoveries prompt us to want things we didn’t think we needed.

Early Signs
This thesis is easy to postulate, but is there any evidence that users are looking to the Web as anything more than a productivity platform? As has been reported, mobile devices now make up 20 percent of all U.S. Web traffic, and this usage peaks in the evening hours, presumably when people are away from their office. Analysis from Flurry* shows that cumulative time spent on mobile apps is closing in on TV. We certainly don’t seem to be using the Web only when we need something.

Economy of Need Versus Want
The economy of Want is different from the economy of Need. We humans tend to spend a lot more time and money on things we want compared to things we need. For example, Americans spend more than five hours a day on leisure and sports (including TV), compared to about three hours spent on eating, drinking and managing household activities. Another difference is that when it comes to satisfying our needs, we tend to settle on one provider and give that one all of our business. Think about how many companies provide us with electricity, water, milk, broadband access, search, email and identity. The Need economy is a winner-take-all market, with one or two companies dominating each need. However, when it comes to providing for our wants, we are open to being served by multiple providers. Think about how many different providers are behind the TV channels we watch, restaurants we visit, destinations we travel to and movies we watch. The Want economy can support multiple winners, each with a sizeable business. Instagram, Path, Pinterest, ShoeDazzle, BeachMint, Angry Birds, CityVille, Kixeye, Kabam, Machinima and Maker Studios can all coexist.

Investing in the Web of Want
The chart below shows that over a long term (including a global recession) an index of luxury stocks (companies such as LVMH, Burberry, BMW, Porsche, Nordstrom) outperforms an index of utility stocks (companies such as Con Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric that offer services we all need). The same applies to an index of media stocks (companies such as CBS, Comcast, News Corp., Time Warner, Viacom) which outperforms both the utilities and the broader stock market. Of course, higher returns come with higher volatility — Nordstrom’s beta is 1.6 and CBS’ beta is 2.2, compared to 0.29 for PG&E. It is this volatility that has cast investing in the Want business as a career-ending move in Silicon Valley for the past 20-plus years. As the Web evolves from serving our needs to satisfying our wants and, in turn, becomes a much larger economy, sitting on the sidelines of the Web of Want may not be an option.

Let’s Not Kill Hollywood
With a billion users looking for self-actualization and with the widespread adoption of broadband, real names and tablets, the Web is poised to become the medium for creativity, education, entertainment, fashion and the pursuit of happiness. As the offline world shows, large, profitable companies can be built that cater to these desires. Entrepreneurs and investors looking to succeed in the new new Web can learn quite a few lessons from our friends in the luxury and entertainment businesses, which have been managing profitable “want” businesses for decades. The fusion of computer science, design, data, low friction and the massive scale of the Internet can result in something that is better than what either Silicon Valley or Hollywood can do alone. It is no wonder that the team that came to this conclusion before anyone else is now managing the most valuable company in the world.

Epilogue
When we go see a movie or splurge on a resort vacation, we don’t stop using electricity, brushing our teeth or checking our email. The Web of Want is not a replacement for the Web of Need, it is an addition. Many of the Internet companies that satisfied our needs in the last 20 or more years of the Web are here to stay. In fact, they will become more entrenched and stable, with low beta, just like the utilities in the offline world. Microsoft has a beta of exactly 1.0 — it is no more volatile than the overall stock market. And for those longing for the days of “real computer science” on the Web, do not despair. Just keep an eye on Rocket Science and Google X Labs — there is plenty of hard-core engineering ahead.

Disclosures: * indicates an InterWest portfolio company. Google Finance was used for all of the stock charts and beta references.

Keval Desai is a Partner at InterWest, where he focuses on investments in early-stage companies that cater to the needs and wants of consumers. He started his career in Silicon Valley in 1991 as a software engineer. He has been a mentor and investor in AngelPad since inception. You can follow him @kevaldesai.

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Editor’s Note: This article is co-authored by Nir Eyal and Jason Hreha. Nir is the founder of two acquired startups and blogs at NirAndFar.com. Jason is the founder of Dopamine, a user-experience and behavior design firm. He blogs at persuasive.ly.

Yin asked not to be identified by her real name. A young addict in her mid-twenties, she lives in Palo Alto and, despite her addiction, attends Stanford University. She has all the composure and polish you’d expect of a student at a prestigious school, yet she succombs to her habit throughout the day. She can’t help it; she’s compulsively hooked.

Yin is an Instagram addict. The photo sharing social network, recently purchased by Facebook for $1 billion, captured the minds of Yin and 40 million others like her. The acquisition demonstrates the increasing importance — and immense value created by — habit-forming technologies. Of course, the Instagram purchase price was driven by a host of factors, including a rumored bidding war for the company. But at its core, Instagram is the latest example of an enterprising team, conversant in psychology as much as technology, that unleashed an addictive product on users who made it part of their daily routines.

Like all addicts, Yin doesn’t realize she’s hooked. “It’s just fun,” she says as she captures her latest in a collection of moody snapshots reminiscent of the late 1970s. “I don’t have a problem or anything. I just use it whenever I see something cool. I feel I need to grab it before it’s gone.”

THE TRIGGER IN YOUR HEAD

Instagram manufactured a predictable response inside Yin’s brain. Her behavior was reshaped by a reinforcement loop which, through repeated conditioning, created a connection between the things she sees in world around her and the app inside her pocket.

When a product is able to become tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing habit, it creates an “internal trigger.” Unlike external triggers, which are sensory stimuli, like a phone ringing or an ad online telling us to “click here now!,” you can’t see, touch, or hear an internal trigger. Internal triggers manifest automatically in the mind and creating them is the brass ring of consumer technology.

We check Twitter when we feel boredom. We pull up Facebook when we’re lonesome. The impulse to use these services is cued by emotions. But how does an app like Instagram create internal triggers in Yin and millions of other users? Turns out there is a stepwise approach to create internal triggers:

1 — EDUCATE AND ACQUIRE WITH EXTERNAL TRIGGERS

Instagram filled Twitter streams and Facebook feeds with whimsical sepia-toned images, each with multiple links back to the service. These external triggers not only helped attract new users, but also showed them how to use the product. Instagram effectively used external triggers to communicate what their service is for.

“Fast beautiful photo sharing,” as their slogan says, conveyed the purpose of the service. And by clearly communicating the use-case, Instagram was successful in acquiring millions of new users. But high growth is not enough. In a world full of digital distractions, Instagram needed users to employ the product daily.

2 — CREATE DESIRE

To get users using, Instagram followed a product design pattern familiar among habit-forming technologies, the desire engine. After clicking through from the external trigger, users are prompted to install the app and they begin using it for the first time. The minimalist interface all but removes the need to think. With a click, a photo is taken and all kinds of sensory and social rewards ensue. Each photo taken and shared further commits the user to the app. Subsequently, users change not only their behavior, but also their minds.

3 — AFFIX THE INTERNAL TRIGGER

Finally, a habit is formed. Users no longer require an external stimulus to use Instagram because the internal trigger happens on its own. As Yin said, “I just use it whenever I see something cool.” Having viewed the “popular” tab of the app thousands of times, she’s honed her understanding of what “cool” is. She’s also received feedback from friends who reward her with comments and likes. Now she finds herself constantly on the hunt for images that fit the Instagram style. Like a never-ending scavenger hunt, she feels compelled to capture these moments.

For millions of users like Yin, Instagram is a harbor for emotions and inspirations, a virtual memoir in pretty pixels. By thoughtfully moving users from external to internal triggers, Instagram designed a persistent routine in peoples’ lives. Once the users’ internal triggers began to fire, competing services didn’t stand a chance. Each snapshot further committed users to Instagram, making it indispensable to them, and apparently to Facebook as well.

Photo credit: Dierk Schaefer

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