Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Blogger Success Story: Rogue Interview with James Kotecki, Part I

Plenty of times in my life, a door has opened but I passed it by. Not ready to enter. Too busy to enter. Or didn't think entering was a good idea.

I'd like to make excuses for letting so many months pass between the time of this interview and appearance of the article, but truth is I grabbed the opportunity as it came knocking and didn't have time to follow-up. Unfortunately, this interview wasn't the only one that slipped through my fingers from GW's 2008 Politics Online Conference.

My only saving grace is the timelessness of the topic. What was relevant then is still relevant today. James Kotecki is a good egg, the kind of young man most people cheer. I can't tell you what a relief it is to finally print this interview. But I don't think I had a choice. If I simply let it go, the world would be a less enriched place. I couldn't have that kind of pox hanging over my head.

James is a true Internet pioneer with pearls of wisdom. For better or worse, here's what transpired in the lobby of the D.C. Renaissance Hotel, March 4th or 5th, take your pick since it's been too long to remember, 2008.

The first thing that strikes me about James Kotecki is his fresh-faced optimism and youth. Here's someone whose meteroic rise in the blogosphere took him from a college dorm to the featured video blogger on YouTube, to a featured subject at The Washington Post, to video correspondent at Politico in less time than it took Barack Obama to lay claim to the Democratic presidential nomination.

James is an instantly recognizable Internet celebrity. Still, I get the feeling he's such a trusting young soul that if I dangled some colored candy and called to him from afar, "Hey little boy, come with me for a mouth watering treat," he'd follow the candy, no questions asked.

Ah, but in reality, Mr. Kotecki is one of the scheduled speakers at a busy conference in downtown D.C. Hundreds of people mill about. I just happen to be at the right place as he disembarks from the escalator.

Composure, composure. My first inclination is to gush. But then, it's easy enough to tell him I'm a fan and ask for an interview. James is more than happy to comply.

Classy. A guy who quickly reached the stratosphere but doesn't mind giving back.

"James Kotecki," I call out walking in his direction. "Do you have time for a brief interview?"

"Uh, sure, no problem," he responds sounding somewhat unsure. Maybe he's not used to being recognized by complete strangers at a 500 plus person conference. "Let me just tell Julie Germany [head of IPDI] I'm here."

"No problem," I reply and hover nearby.

This is one fish I don't want to get away. Julie is surrounded by a small crowd of people as James confirms his arrival. They speak briefly and glance my way. Maybe he's also confirming my media credentials. No matter. This was one conference where I somehow procured a media pass rather than sneak in and play correspondent.

For moral support or perhaps because he didn't want to leave her stranded, James insists on locating high school sweetheart now fiance, Emily Freifeld, a podcaster at The Washington Post, before he'll sit down.

Certainly. No problem. Anything to make him comfortable. I suppose I could be a stalker, a fan-crazed nobody who likes to corner Internet celebrities for no purpose other than the thrill of playing news reporter. By all means, find your fiance.

Inside interior of Rennaisance Hotel is very plush
Emily is waiting patiently in the plush lobby of the Renaissance Hotel. We make our way back up the escalator, finding a relatively quiet spot with a comfortable looking arm chair and love seat. Emily, who is also young and fresh-faced but with a slightly greater air of worldliness, reconnects with James out of earshot. They speak briefly and agree to provide a few minutes of his time.

I am both relieved and nervous with nothing prepared other than my zeal to document James's formula for success and follow it to a tee.


SCPB: How did you get out there, noticed, picked up for a professional job on the Internet? Some background, please.

JK: Blunt force was the key.

No, basically, it started off with a web cam. I had a web cam to video chat with Emily. We were going to different colleges, so I got this web cam and I thought okay, why not start making videos?

SCPB: What year was this?

JK: This was a little over a year ago. January 2007. I started making videos. I thought there’s so much stuff out there on YouTube and so much of it is bad. Yet, that stuff is getting a lot of views. Maybe people will look at my stuff too. I think I can have something to say.

I made a couple videos about politics because politics is my favorite subject, it has been for a while. The first few videos I made were ... very boring and very bad.

SCPB: How so?

JK: In the sense they were just talking about what the mainstream media was already talking about. It was basically me mimicking what they were saying about the front running candidates at the time. They were bad in the sense that they weren’t entertaining, especially the first video. It was just me in my dorm room talking to the camera in a very deadpan sort of way. My energy was very low. There was nothing visually interesting. After doing this, I realized I needed to be doing something different. So, for the next video ...

SCPB: Wait. How did you realize you needed to do something different? Was it because your videos weren’t getting a lot of views?

JK: There were two reasons. One, Emily told me I needed to do something different (Emily laughs) because she said I needed to be something more interesting. But also, I watched it myself and thought this isn’t even something I want to watch. So there’s no possible way anybody else wants to watch this (laughter).

The first thing I did was make my videos a little more visually interesting by taping pictures of politicians to pencils and flipping [them] around. It was kind of like imitating picture in picture, you know, inside a newscast. I didn’t have the technology to do that, nor did I have any idea how to do that. I just put their pictures on pencils and flipped them around. And that was very appealing to people.

I also realized that I needed to pick something different for a topic. This whole broad idea, just politics generally, was too vague and too bland.

SCPB: Too much like everybody else?

JK: Exactly. I started pecking ... hunting around. I came across a video from Chris Dodd who was running for president at the time. It was basically just him in a somewhat low “res” video, very simple video straight talking into the camera kind of like a video blogger would, you know, like other video bloggers on YouTube.

And on the video description it said, “Upload a video response.” So, I thought okay I will. I’m a political geek. I'd like to talk to a presidential candidate Senator. Sounds great. I did a video response critiquing the way he was using his video to communicate. "You know, can do this better." "You’re not doing this as well." "Why are you in a building that looks like it’s just in a random warehouse somewhere? It’s kind of off-putting," "You could be talking to the camera this way..."

SCPB: A kind of a snarky comment video?

JK: It was a bit snarky, but it was also things I believed he should be doing better. I think it was well-intentioned snark.

SCPB: Were you an early supporter of Dodd?

JK: Uh, no, I was not. I just thought it would be cool to talk to a presidential candidate. I realized this could be somewhat of a niche for me, that not a lot of people were talking about how the candidates were using online video.

At the time, this was in January ’07, early February, I looked around for other candidates who were also using online video to communicate and there were, maybe, six presidential candidates total I could easily find. Soon, I began to discover more and then more of them started to get their own YouTube channels and online video. So, I made videos about all of them, commenting about how they were using the web and how they were using online video.

SCPB: So distinguishing yourself from the pack was pretty important.

JK: That was key, to have a niche, to be one of the first people to talk about something. Also, I kind of embodied the niche in the fact that I was just using a cheap web cam myself to communicate from a college dorm room. I was embodying the very trend of online video communication I was discussing. I also talked about how YouTube can be used as a two-way conversation between candidates and voters. Not just as a one-way broadcast, but the voters can talk back and the candidates can talk back to them.

After a while, YouTube featured one of these videos which gave me a lot of popularity and got me on the radar screen of The Washington Post. YouTube was very interested in a similar message. They used my video as a way of promoting that message, of conversation, of using it more in more interesting ways than just what politicians were doing at the time. Unknowingly, I was helping them out. In return, they helped me out. In a sense, it was mutually beneficial for them to feature that video for awhile.

SCPB: What about people who aren't promoting a message YouTube is pushing or necessarily likes. How can they get featured?

JK: When you talk about pushing, there’s never been any kind of control over my videos, there’s never been anything like that. YouTube has reached out to and wants to make a more concerted effort to reach out to people who are creating consistent content at a certain level of quality to promote that. Not about ideology or what it is specifically, but just on a general level they want to keep promoting the best content, they want to encourage the creators of that content to keep creating. Featuring my video was one of the ways to do that, same as featuring other videos across a number of different genres.

SCPB: YouTube was a stepping stone.

JK: Featured videos led to The Washington Post getting in touch with me for an article Jose Antonio Vargas was doing. I think it was specifically about web video, maybe just the Internet and politics in general. Once your name is in The Washington Post, even as a person related to this topic, more and more media sources begin to contact you. At that point, I kind of became a kind of – quote unquote – expert.

And like I said, the fact that I was a college kid in a dorm room using the same technology I was talking about gave me a lot of credibility. A lot of credibility that I might not have otherwise had.

Also, I spoke about a topic that was hot in the media. They needed stuff to talk about, the election was heating up. Online video was happening, but there were very few people who understood it. I realized early on that, you know what, I may not be able to understand everything there is to know about this, but I can probably understand more about or as much about this as anyone else. Because it’s so new, it’s a wide-open field for understanding. I can just start giving my opinions on it. If that catches on, then I will be credible because no one else will know more than me about it.

SCPB: But was there more to it than just the topic? Not everyone can latch on to interesting topics that haven't been done before.

JK: I thought about early on going off the model of Jim Cramer whose show Mad Money on MSNBC was very popular. Not because his stock picks are good necessarily — lots of times they’re very wrong – but because he’s consistently entertaining.

SCPB: The entertainment factor.

JK: I knew that if I was entertaining that would be my insurance against otherwise boring content or even wrong analysis occasionally. If I was entertaining, people would come back and keep watching me. I wanted to maintain a high energy level, throwing in visual gags, throwing in pencil puppets lots of times.

SCPB: I think you’ve identified two things here, correct me if I’m wrong, for finding success on the Internet. Authenticity and the entertainment factor. Is there anything else?

JK: No, that’s exactly right. I guess the other third thing is articulation of a message. The message I crafted about how politicians should use YouTube in politics evolved because I looked at more videos and kept making commentaries. I realized that some of what I was saying could be unified to similar ideas across different videos and different political spectrums.

But, I think entertainment is probably paramount because if it’s not entertaining, no one’s going to watch it. If they have fifty other videos on the page, they can easily click away. If they’re bored for a second they can watch something else.

Authenticity is probably next. Having the information be solid is what kept me going to media shows and everything else like that.

It was, in fact, one really reinforcing the other because it wasn’t just that I was popular on the Internet. I was also becoming more of a quote unquote expert in the field through the mainstream media. People who saw me on those channels, I’m sure reflected back positively on my blog and my videos. And so, it’s reinforcing. It’s not one or the other. And it’s not bashing, I’m not one of those bloggers who would bash the mainstream media necessarily because it has been an important part of my success, as has the Internet. It’s worked together. I think that’s an example of what’s going to happen in the future, like, there’s no, there’s just going to be less and less separation between what people call “The MSM” and bloggers. It’s just basically one big blob of media content that is completely interdependent.

Read Part II of this interview here.