Jason Hirschhorn is on the beach – literally. As planes fly overhead, he’s decompressing from an intense 16 months at MySpace. Taking a break from big media culture as the MySpace he helped to reshape prepares for a fall launch.
Hirschhorn has always been a bit of a media-giant outsider, more of a startup entrepreneur whose creations and vision have drawn him in – time after time.
So jumping from one of the largest media jobs in the business without a clear landing space doesn’t seem to phase Hirschhorn. If it does, he doesn’t let on.
His story starts, as with most modern day computer nerds, in high school. Hirschhorn had an Atari and was hacking away in BASIC. At the age of 15 he was a club promoter, and so the mix of music and technology was early on one the things that connected for him.
While getting his BS at NYU – he was an intern for Warner Brothers Records – and as the web began to take off, he took interest in the “Ultimate Band List,” ubl.com, which eventually became “Artist Direct.” Says Hirschhorn, “I always thought I could do better.”
“I started out building sites around music that ultimately I was gooing to call ‘MusicStation’. One of the sites was ‘MusicNewsWire’ before RSS that basically ran perl scripts that combed the Internet and took music headlines down and sorted them, and it was basically an aggregation hub. No editorial at all, it was all basically scraping stuff. Then I found a guy in New Orleans that was listing all the music that were playing all the late shows at night and he called it ‘RockOnTV’ and I called him up and bought it for a very small price and I hired him and I said, ‘we should look at every TV schedule and turn it into music listing. And this was my first stab at curation.'”
Hirschhorn and his partner scoured TV listings, looking for patterns that would trigger musical connections.
“The Brady Bunch is on today – the Brady Bunch episode with Davy Jones (from The Monkees), but that’s should be a music episode to because Davy Jones is an artist. So we started to basically cherry pick every show, regardless of whether it was a performance or not, and make them into music listings, and then link it up with the data provided by Muze, a music data reference company that creates, and we built a big website.”
As MusicStation grew, music industry heavyweights took notice. And before long, executives at MTV came and knocked on Jason’s door. But to their surprise, there was no huge team of editorial workers – just an Upper East Side apartment and a bunch of computers. They bought the company, and at 28 Jason Hirschhorn’s Mischief New Media was inside the belly of the beast, trying to be an entrepreneur at Viacom. Hirschhorn says big companies can “operate” better than they “innovate” – a clue about the challenges of running MTV’s digital assets for six years.
“I was a kid of pop culture and I knew every movie and I knew all the music and when I thought about things I thought about arranging them.”
But his vision was always more than robotic aggregation. “An algorithm couldn’t tell me why I should like music, I needed to know that an artist was influenced by this, or that an artist liked a certain guitar line in a song and that influenced them for another song.”
“And curation came out of, really artists liking one another, that was how I discovered things, not through algorithms, so it was a very human thing, not a technology so to speak. So, you’d read an article where Diddy said his favourite band was Coldplay. Now, an algorithm would only put Diddy with other hip-hop and now you’re reading between the lines of what artists like about each other and how they influenced one another.”
“At the end of the day, I love Pandora, I love Amazon, all those things are phenomenal, but what they don’t give me is context, or context that I can understand. So, you’re suggesting music because it has a three chord progression, or it has woodwinds in it, that’s Greek to me. But, if you tell me that I would love this song and you’re able to write something about it in a headline, or the subhead that makes a connection, that’s curation.”
Hirschhorn is back in entrepreneur mode, thinking about what’s next… and what’s next may just be the thing he did first – finding, filtering, and recommending. Curating content.
“In the early days, you had this tremendous amount of emotional connection. The emergence of MTV was very much a trend magnifier, they took trends the masses did not understand and curated them and magnified them and made them big. And then when the internet arose, filters like ‘Boing Boing’ or ‘Google’ became sort of the loved brands, the ones that sort of made sense of all of it for you. But, when you get a lot of text back and it’s just samplings of a page, it’s not the same as someone that you trust telling you which one you should go for. Because there’s this infinite amount of content out there on the Internet.”
“When I left MTV, Sling was a technology that allowed me to watch all the TV I loved outside of my home, but there was so much video on MTV and other channels and there was so much video on the Internet, what we aimed to build as entrepreneurs was a place where we curated. So Sling.com was a beautifully built video website that was programmed on a daily basis. Curation was a huge part of that in a world where Hulu and YouTube did almost no curation.”
“I believe in curation and I’m always amazed but also incredibly suspect of algorithmic curation, because I think sometimes it can implode on itself, meaning it thinks it knows you, and therefore never introduces anything new to you.”
“One of the ways that MySpace stood apart from other social networks is that we have broadcasting mechanisms. If you look at other social networks, no one has them, Facebook doesn’t because it’s very one-to-one. We had your homepages and hubs. That we all felt, should be programmed, so hopefully, if the roadmap stays to what I’ve set it is, there’s a tremendous amount of technology that uses algorithms and whatnot to suggest programming to you and that’s great. Not only is it social, but there is also an editorial bent to MySpace that would allow users as well as people in the marketing or content departments to bubble up the things that they think the audience need to know. “
From his days at MTV, and through all of his gigs, he’s remained the sole curator of an influential industry newsletter called Media ReDEFined (or @mediaredef on Twitter). The 5,000 subscribers are a who’s who of media moguls and managers, with names like Quincy, and Blake, and Jon and Rupert. You figure it out.
Hirschhorn explains how it all began: “The history of Media ReDEFined began when I got to MTV and Viacom, ‘no-one likes a preacher’. They don’t wanna hear, you know, being yelled at or preached to you about what they don’t know about technology and I went back to how I learned about what was going on with media, marketing and technology. I read and I asked questions. And I started forwarding articles around and by the time I left Viacom there was a couple hundred people that I was forwarding to. Then I left and I got emails, ‘oh please don’t stop doing it.'”
“Now I wake up at about six o’clock in the morning and I star the articles that I like in Google Reader. I have about 160 sources that I go through on a daily basis I read about a third of the articles that I choose beforehand, I read all the blurbs entirely. And because it’s mobile, I’ve got access on my iPad and iPhone, so everything’s hooked up to it.”
“Media ReDEFined is truly a trail of my reading and what I’m interested in. I put it into a form that others can then follow. The feedback has been from big executives and regular people who just read stuff: ‘we feel that you know what’s going on’. And it tells me that curation still has a huge part to play in the future and I believe that for all the searching, for all the browsing, the human element of programming and curation is still going to be the major component of the experience.”
“The newsletter comes once a day and the stories are largely ordered by what I’m interested in, not in just the order that I read them. On many an occasion I’ve had heads of media companies tell me that Media ReDEFined gives them anxiety. Because there’s so much they want to read in there and there’s not enough time for them. And that’s been curated!. Some of them print out the articles, which I find hysterical. That to me shows you that even more hyper-curation needs to go on.”
What Hirschhorn has discovered is both the appetite and the limits of his audience. They want him to filter the information he finds – and narrow down to meet their specific needs and interests. Here technology and human editorial are likely to work hand in hand.
“A lot of people including Rupert think I need to curate even more. He says its too much! I said, ‘Rupert, you’re probably right but there’s so much going on right now, it’s truly a golden age of change, you don’t have to read everything.’ And you know, it’s got about 5,000 subscribers now but it’s the heads of the most media and tech companies, all the media journalists, analysts… tremendous amount from startups as well as large companies. It’s become their ‘go to’ thing to read on a daily basis.”
Hirschhorn thinks about his next startup:
“As I was thinking about leaving MySpace, I thought about starting a new company: it’s really going to be all about curation and maybe I’d bypass the web altogether and do newsletters and apps. When it comes to music and movies and fashion and all these different areas, I think there room for ‘ReDEF’ like curation. Obviously some have been done before. And there are great tools that enable quick, ‘hand-done curation.'”
Of his work at Media ReDEFined, he says: “In the future I’m an executive, curator, and entrepreneur, and a little bit of a pundit.”
“The trajectory of my career is very unorthodox and, and, largely of my own creation. I quit two very big jobs without other jobs to go to. My friends, headhunters, colleagues all said ‘you’re nuts.’ At MTV, I was just done, I stayed there for 6 1/2 years. That was my first job at 28.”
“As relates to MySpace, I would say that was really unfinished business for me. It was the biggest audience I was ever going to work with. It was a tremendous 16 months. Personally I have always done small into big, small into big. I believe that my career has a very nice mix of spinning it up and basically selling that into companies who look outside to innovate rather than trying to make change from within.”
So, as the summer winds to a close and Hirschhorn “recharges his batteries” there’s a new company that he’s starting to think about. A curation, newsletter, content offering. Think Fashion reDEFined, Music reDEFined… with a whole bunch of verticals swirling around in his head. Can it be that the idea he had in his east side apartment is more valid than ever? Maybe so.
“I think this idea of the demise of the actual human as the programmer and curator is just not going to happen. There’s something that a computer can never recreate, a human element, a human take on something.”
Steve Rosenbaum is founder and CEO of Magnify.net, a NYC-based Web video startup. He has been building and growing consumer-content businesses since 1992. He was the creator and Executive Producer of MTV UNfiltered, a series that was the first commercial application of user-generated video in commercial TV. Follow Steve on Twitter @Magnify.
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