The History of VideoSift Part I

To commemorate the launch of VideoSift 5, I'm writing a series of blog posts covering the history of VideoSift. This is part I, but there is a prelude here.

I remember the first YouTube video that really hooked me. There’s a good chance it was the same one that got You- SNL’s Lazy Sunday. I saw it posted on Metafilter and then it was everywhere. Some think this single video was the cause of YouTube’s meteoric rise. At the beginning of 2006 though, the ecosystem for online video was still pretty scattered. Both Google Video and YouTube were gaining traction, but there were scores of other competitors trying to get on the new, no longer postage stamp sized Flash embedded video bandwagon.

I was an active member on Metafilter at that time and fell in love with the way a good web community works. I was impressed by the selflessness of the members and the civility and decorum of the comments. Most of all, I liked the fact that self-promotion was not allowed. This seemed the way to create content that did not turn into a spam fest. So much of the Internet is about “look at me”, it was nice to have a corner of the net that was “look at this great thing I found”.

The idea for doing a “Metafilter” type video site was bubbling around in my head in that little chiropractic office (see prelude). I wanted “”. I wanted it so bad that in some of the promotion emails that I sent out after launch, I mistakenly called VideoSift “VideoFilter” in the copy. I give MetaFilter and its founder Mathowie full-credit for the kernel of the Videosift community culture.

In trying to come up with a good name for my new idea – I remembered an article from Salon about the “naming industry”. All the good one word .com domains are gone. Consulting companies had emerged would take disparate words, put them together and register the .com domain. They were then sold for sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to big corporations looking to rebrand themselves. An example from the article is

I spent a lot of time in my head working through names. VideoJam, VideoCrack, MetaVideo – most of the choices were either taken, or kind of lame. I wanted a name with the word video in it, but that also said something about the community. “Meta” would have been a good prefix, because the idea was to take video from its original source and raise it to another level.

Because I was working for myself, I wasn’t leaving the house until 10:30 AM. I ate a leisurely breakfast with my kids. I was in the habit of making them pancakes. A particular recipe I liked called for sifting the flour before mixing in the other ingredients. We had a big rusty flour sifter. Sometimes there was crud in the flour, and it would be left on the wire mesh of the sifter, while the pristine flour was in a neat mound in the bowl. Eureka.

Even before I registered the domain name, I had been heavily modifying the open source content management system, Pligg, to fit my needs. Pligg is a CMS that originally tried to offer a UI similar to Digg – a link voting site that was huge at the time.

I seeded the site with as many good videos as I could find, and then made it public. Initially, the only promotion I did was to post it to the Metafilter Projects section and the Pligg forums. Straight-off the bat we started getting some good traffic. I attribute most of the initial success, again, to Metafilter. Metafilter Projects is a nice way to announce new web projects and Matthowie himself gave us a nod of approval on his blog.

To this day, I don't know why VideoSift really took off. It wasn't first to market - there was another video voting meta-site called VideoBomb (now defunct) that kicked off a week before us, and had lots of press attention. I was so pissed because even though I had been working on it for over a month, it made VideoSift look like an also-ran.

Some blogs were starting to link to VideoSift based on the positive reception on Metafilter. One of these blogs was a new "boingboing-esque" blog called "The itinerateSurfer" (now defunct). The proprietor was a young man known as "Sourbrew" on Metafilter. We exchanged emails and started Google chatting. I was happy to have someone to share my experience with. Someone who understood the language of page views and visits and launching a new web site.

After the initial buzz started to die down, I was worried that the momentum would end. I began to post more videos myself to make sure the content was fresh. There was no "hotness" algorithm on the front page- if a post got 3 votes it made it to the top of the front page. I also made a sockpuppet account so it didn't look like all the posts were from me. I can now exclusively reveal that my sockpuppet from those early weeks was @alowicious.

Sourbrew was based on the US East Coast. He helped to keep videos posted during prime time in the US while I was asleep in Australia. Traffic was getting lower and we started to wonder if VideoSift would have a future. As we were both active members on Metafilter, I asked Sourbrew to post VideoSift content to the Metafilter front page as if it was something he had just discovered. This is a clear violation of Metafilter rules as he was definitely involved in VideoSift by that time and it would be considered a self-post. Here is the post that kick-started VideoSift and set it on the road to become a growing, self-supporting community.

I realize this is hypocrisy. I run a community founded on the merits of no self-promotion, yet baked into our site's beginnings is an act of self-promotion and disregard for the rules of a similar community. I regret this. It's rubbed me like a piece of sand over the years. I also think there's a good chance the VideoSift might not have survived without that spark.

From that day forward, Sourbrew and I did not need to work on creating content. Instead we were admins and moderators. As VideoSift really started to take off, Sourbrew decided that he wanted to use his real name. He became known as James Roe.

Still to come:
  • Enter the Lucky760
  • VideoSift's Polish holiday
  • My meeting with the Reddit team in San Francisco
  • Michael Arrington makes a fool out of me
  • I throw an entire community under the bus

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