Here's how to game the system

Times Staff Writer

You'll pardon the comparison, but when last month YouTube disabled a function that had allowed users to see how many total videos the giant database contained, offering only that the number was in the indistinct "millions," I couldn't help but think of McDonald's. The numbers have gotten so big, it seems, the formality of keeping track is no longer worth the time it takes to change the sign.

If you're an aspiring YouTuber (or any other kind of media creator, really), how do you compete with literally untold numbers of other video makers across the world, all of whom have equal access -- more or less -- to low-cost equipment and zero-cost distribution?

In a fundamental sense, the answer is the same as it's always been online: You've got to get noticed. A few years ago, that was a little easier. YouTube was still a mostly American phenomenon and was mostly populated by regular old Yous. Now it's been fully colonized by entertainment companies hawking TV shows, movies and music. And videos from two seconds to two hours are rushing in by the hundred thousands from all over the world -- the site has 19 international versions, and the top videos are now very often in languages other than English.

With the volume of new videos up past 11, the approach to getting noticed has escalated too. The brightness of many of YouTube's original stars (Brookers, LisaNova, thewinekone, et al.) has waned, making it seem more difficult for homegrown stars to succeed on clever writing and talent alone. Now it's turned into a kind of contest about who can hit the high note at just the right moment to grab a microsecond of the collective attention. And a group of five Belgian filmmaker-pranksters-activists may be one of the early masters of this game.

For the last several months, iPower, as the group is called, has had a constant presence on the site's most-viewed list, with a strange, twice-weekly video series starring 27-year-old Chiren Boumaaza as a video game "expert" who has spent so many thousands of hours playing World of Warcraft that his game avatar, Athene, has become invincibly powerful. Other players fear and even revere her (this is role-playing nerd-dom, remember).The show's central joke, then, is that Boumaaza has become so obsessed with his character's game-world fame that he adopts the character's pugnacious, trash-talking identity even when he's not playing. His silent, sullen, hot-looking girlfriend, Tania, is always dutifully by his side, getting verbal abuse and occasional affection from him. Adding a layer of hilarity is the shirtless, scowling Furious, who wears a black cap and a trim blond beard, and whom Athene always introduces as "my boyfriend," even though neither of the characters is intended to be gay.

iPower has managed to score more than 20 million views in the 20 Athene videos they've made since late March. That makes them one of YouTube's hottest hit factories.

Maybe they're on to something.

For starters, sex. Take a look at YouTube's most viewed list and you will see that it's generally dominated by videos with either sexed-up titles, risque thumbnails -- the tiny preview image that represents each clip -- or, most often, both. Instead of trying to fight the tide, iPower has co-opted that old trick and made a kind of running joke out of it, complete with random capitalization. Every video they release has a ridiculously gratuitous and misleading title: "Sex and Porn is fun", "Get free sex," "Sex and self pleasure" and "Is Hardcore Porn/Sex Good for you?"

As for the thumbnails, iPower has a secret weapon there too. It's Tania -- played by Tania Derveaux, Boumaaza's real-life girlfriend of nine years and one of the five core iPower members. Derveaux appears on most of iPower's thumbnails, always in various states of undress. It's another cheap but highly reliable way to pump up views. iPower likes to say they're using other view vultures' strategies against them, but that can start to sound a little too convenient. Even Tania admits it. "I'm a bit of the package," said Derveaux on the phone from Belgium, adding that she's not necessarily comfortable showing off her body, but she grins and bares it anyway. "It's with a goal. I know it's necessary to reach a lot of people, and for that I'm willing to do those things."

And iPower videos definitely provoke discussion. As of this writing, their most recent video, "Is Hardcore Porn/Sex Good for you?," was not only YouTube's No. 2 most viewed of the day but had drawn 1,300 comments since it was posted Sunday, putting it firmly in the day's most discussed videos worldwide.

But there's another surprising twist to iPower's m.o.: The above-mentioned clip is not an episode of Athene but rather one in a second parallel series of clips that iPower puts out under the same account. The "iPower clips," as they call them, feature all five members doing a round-table discussion of social and political issues, bound together by their general philosophy of self-actualization. "Hardcore," for example, takes on the topic of suicide, in which the crew passes along positive messages that depression is temporary and treatable. In other videos, they've tackled Net neutrality, censorship and corporate hegemony. These videos have very little cursing and no sexy stuff -- with the elevated level of discourse and serious tenor, the iPower clips are almost the opposite of Athene, yet many of them score just as well.

The crew sees their iPower message as the medicine and the Athene clips as a big, fat spoonful of sugar.

"Whatever is most efficient to get in the spotlight," said iPower tech guru and spokesman Reese Leysen on the phone from Belgium, "that's what we do."

"The way to get lots of views on YouTube is to have a mix of sexiness and total absurdity," he continued. "And make sure it appeals to a big demographic." In this case, they started with the world of online gamers. World of Warcraft, with more than 10 million active users as of January, has about the same population as Belgium itself.

The show, which can be raucously funny, is also shoved full of profanity, slurs, sexual references and gratuitous visits by Tania. YouTube has nothing like the rating system the movie industry imposes on itself, nor the set of appropriateness standards such as what the Federal Communications Commission enforces on television. YouTube's most boldface restrictions are the ones against nudity, copyrighted content and anything illegal. Other than that, anything goes.

And that's another dynamic Boumaaza exploits in his portrayal of the foul-mouthed, irreverent Athene. Breaking character for his interview, Boumaaza said that, although "Athene" is a satirical show in which the characters are essentially self-mockeries, the creators don't shy from controversial language, images or topics. "You have people that get offended and start to talk about it, and you have people that understand it and bash the people that don't get it. And that way, you generate talk. There's no better way to market your stuff than people start to talk about it to other people."

iPower has succeeded on YouTube in part because they've trained themselves in the art of attracting attention. Before they were on YouTube, they started a political party called NEE (Dutch for "no"), which was meant simply as a way for Belgian voters -- who are required by law to cast ballots -- to voice their dissatisfaction with all the other choices. Leyden said the group passed out fliers to every mailbox in Antwerp.

In a later campaign, they lampooned the promises of political parties to deliver tens of thousands of jobs by starting a stealth campaign wherein Tania was the candidate but, instead of offering the Belgian public 100,000 jobs, she guaranteed she would give 40,000 . . . uh, sexual favors.

Getting noticed, on YouTube, as in life, is as much art as science.


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