10 Years Ago Today, Everything Changed
The inside story of making RSS in Plain English
The first video I ever uploaded to YouTube was on November 11th, 2005 and it documented a mystery that, for me, has still not been solved. Watch it and see what you think:
I didn’t know it at the time, but sharing the Twig Mystery video on YouTube was a trial run for an idea that would end up changing the direction of our lives in fundamental ways. An early prototype.
At the time YouTube was less than a year old and just getting started. My company Common Craft, which had been a one person consulting practice up to that point, was ready for something new. As Sachi joined the company in 2006, we were ready to rethink what Common Craft could be and it was clear to us that YouTube was going to be big. But that realization was a long way from doing something about it.
Getting from a gut feeling to an idea requires both time and debate for us. We propose, we deliberate, we suggest and disagree. And sometimes in the middle something pops up and consumes us both. When this kind of idea gets our attention, it dominates our daily discussions and we end up prefacing a point on a dog walk by saying “sorry to keep talking about work, but…” In truth, neither of us are sorry. We love that shit. When an idea is building momentum we feel alive.
In the latter part of 2006, a new idea started to develop and those discussions initially focused on doing something useful as the first priority. What could we do, as Common Craft, to solve a problem?
YouTube was a year old at the time and growing incredibly fast. Soon, our discussions turned to ways we could ride the YouTube wave to new destinations. But how? We had no background in video production. What kinds of videos could be useful? What could two people and a cheap video camera do?
In 2006 YouTube was not alone in experiencing incredible growth. This was the dawn of the social media revolution and ideas like wikis, blogs and social networking were just starting to become known and adoption was slow. Being a big fan and user of these new tools, I wanted more people to use them. I believed they could be adopted quickly by the mass market.
But I also saw problems. These powerful, often free and useful tools all suffered from the same malady: confusion. They were so new and different that most people couldn’t make sense of them intuitively. It was like a huge mountain of value was being obscured by a dense shroud of foggy, technical communication. Clearing that fog was the problem we decided to solve. We set out to make these new tools understandable for people like our parents using the power of YouTube videos. For the first time, we thought about what it means to explain an idea effectively using video.
Our first experiment had me standing in a tiny room in our basement with low ceilings and terrible acoustics. I stood in front of a camera with a whiteboard behind me, where I was supposed to explain these tools by drawing on the whiteboard while talking to the camera.
Looking back, this idea was destined to fail. I had no experience in front of the camera or lecturing on a whiteboard. I couldn’t talk and draw at the same time, so both talking and drawing suffered. I felt and looked like a complete dork. Probably my biggest problem was lack of a plan. I had no outline or script to follow — I was completely winging it. I quickly became frustrated and disillusioned with the entire idea.
Thankfully, Sachi was there, as usual, to find a way to solve the problem. She is our fixer. To her, my frustration seemed premature. She encouraged me to see this was one experiment of many and that the core idea of useful videos was still as powerful as ever. I think my response was something like “well, you try standing in front of that camera.”
It was at that moment that Sachi had a flash of insight that absolutely changed our lives. Her simple and brilliant idea was to put the whiteboard on the floor and point the camera down onto it so that all you see are hands, markers and paper cut-outs on the screen. In that moment she invented Common Craft Style videos and within days we were shooting the first one.
Unlike my first attempts at the whiteboard, this style of video required a bit of planning and a script. We wanted it to be short, easy to understand and using plain language.
Our first Common Craft video was called RSS in Plain English and we made it in an afternoon. I created some terrible drawings, drew some lines on the whiteboard and spoke directly into the mic on the camera. The whiteboard was lit with a collection of bedroom lamps and one of the hardest problems was not hitting the tripod legs and messing up a shot. Those who know me well can easily imagine this being a problem for me.
We did what we could with what we had — and it showed. I look back on the video and cringe because it’s of such low technical quality. But you know what? It didn’t matter and it may have been a big asset. The video was not slick or professional looking and that was a good thing. It was earnest and authentic. But more than that, it seemed useful and that was really all that mattered to us.
Over about two days we edited the video and planned to share it on YouTube. We had no idea how it would be received. It was just an experiment that could easily fail.
On the night of April 23rd, 2007, 10 years ago today, we uploaded the RSS in Plain English video to YouTube and sent an email to a group of friends. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this ugly, horrible sounding, low fidelity video would start a movement and force us to reevaluate almost every assumption we had about our work.
Here’s the video:
In the first 24 hours it went viral (or the 2007 version of viral) and got 15,000 page views on our blog, 50 comments, over 350 bookmarks on delicious and appeared on the front page of Digg.com, which was a big deal at the time. Emails poured in from all over the world. The buzz continued for months.
We struck a chord and I was bouncing off the walls. The idea worked. The video worked. The new Common Craft was lifting off and I’ll never forget that feeling. It snowed.
Today that video continues to live on YouTube and has over 2.5 million views, over 1000 comments and is known as the first “explainer” video of the YouTube era. It spawned dozens of copy cats and put the Common Craft brand on the map. Perhaps most importantly, it jump-started a motor behind our business: web site traffic, coming to watch videos on CommonCraft.com.
But more than traffic, views and accolades, that video came to symbolize something for us. It showed us we work better together. The idea may not have developed without us debating it ad nauseam. The RSS video would not have happened without Sachi’s ideas and input. It was proof that wherever Common Craft was headed, we’d be there together.
Within a few weeks, new discussions started to dominate. These were about future video titles and where this opportunity could lead. Could we do it again? Is this a business? How can we earn a living? Is this really what we want to do? Are we now video producers?
In many ways, we’ve never stopped asking these questions. For 10 years, we’ve constantly experimented and tested what is possible for two people making media and a website. And the experiments continue today.
But there is still one thing that lingers. How in the hell do those twigs get down in the cracks in the patio? It’s a mystery! What do you think?