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What’s Pop!Tech? Ask a ninja…

Kent Nichols, one of the founders of Ask A Ninja, explains video podcasting the best way he knows how – he asks a ninja. (It turns out that it’s about making apple pies for whales.)

Nichols is in an odd situation – Bernie Gershon, the VP of ABC’s digital media group, has been quoted as saying, “shows like Ask a Ninja are our biggest competitors.” It can be disconcerting that ABC – a huge corporate branch of Disney – is considering two guys in a weird apartment their competitors.

He offers us some hard numbers on Ask a Ninja:
– 0 dollars spent on the pilot episode – “Our first capital investment was a $6 lycra ski mask. We were like ‘Man, I hope this pans out.'”
– 1 times quoted in Congress, by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren
– 40,000 “friends” on MySpace
– 300,000 to 500,000 viewers per episode
– 20 million views in last 10 months

The backstory behind Ask a Ninja is a story of failure. He and a partner were writing a show about ninjas living in Orange County, California. They’d agreed to make flash animations so they could do the crazy fight scenes they wanted. They signed an agreement with an online distributor, had their parents invest money, and basically failed miserably, in part because they can’t draw. They asked themselves, “What can we do that would be free, not requiring outside animators and investors?”

So they leveraged the assets they had – an apartment where they painted the walls chromakey green and blue (“Goodbye security deposit”!), a camera with a broken tape transport and a slow laptop. They looked at the business model of the projects they admired: Red Versus Blue, Home Star Runner, Penny Arcade and Rocketboom. So they realized they wanted to build a community and had the possibility of succeeding via advertising and merchandise.

The key to the success of the project, he tells us, is that “We’ve got all this huge ninja information.” Everything we know about ninjas is “absolutely and positively a lie”. The other keys have been the rise of viral video – the appearance of Lazy Sunday on Saturday Night Live (“Hey, if it’s good enough to reinvigorate a calcified comedy brand…), and Network Neutrality. Ask A Ninja made a network neutrality video which got widespread airplay, including being viewed by FCC lawyers, who told the Ninjas, “That’s the clearest explanation we’ve had of net neutrality.”

The project has succeeded, Kent believes, by following some simple rules:
– Distribute without judgement, even if you think what you’ve produced is bad
– Grow with your audience
– Let the content follow the form.

There’s no technical innovation behind Ask a Ninja – vanilla formats and tools. It’s not about the technology, just how you use it. And they’ve most recently used it to explain What Is Poptech 2006, which has answered all of my questions about the conference. (I hope this will be up on their site soon – it’s a pretty astounding explanation of why dark black guarantees beat bright green futures, and why people in bamboo houses should not throw pandas.

After Kent speak, Jonathan Coulton takes the stage and blesses us with “Code Monkey”, “Eat Your Brains” and “Flickr”, a great overview of some of the greatest hits of his “Thing a Week” project. With Anderson, Nichols and Coulton in the same session, we’re experiencing some of the greatest hits of the generative web. If Ze Frank had been able to join – he had to head to NYC to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity – the stage might have actually exploded. Instead, we had Chris Anderson observing: “Google is the world’s greatest tail finder.” I see a new corporate slogan…

3 thoughts on “What’s Pop!Tech? Ask a ninja…”

  1. Ethan,

    I’m going to be giving a small presentation on internet video distribution in Charles Nesson’s CyberOne course.

    You mention Zoe Lofgren citing Ask a Ninja in congress — this is a *perfect* example of internet video succeeding in a way that traditional broadcast never will. A couple of dudes in their basement w/ a camcorder being lauded by FCC lawyers — it’s like some kind of sick Wayne’s World fantasy!

    I am wondering where I might find the transcript and/or quote from the congressional session (I did some googling, but figured you could point it out pretty easily).


  2. Dean. I’m quoting a speech from Kent Nichols at Pop!Tech – you’d need to ask him for that reference, not me. I would assume that if you reviewed house floor debates on Network Neutrality and looked for “Ask a Ninja”, there are not a whole lot of references to choose from.

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