A different-from-usual topic today: technology.
This week my Chromecast dongle** arrived, and we got to play with it this weekend. So far, we have used it to stream YouTube videos to the TV. Mostly, these were videos about the game Minecraft**, which my sons love to watch. [**Note: for those unfamiliar with Minecraft or Chromecast, at the end of this post I have given some background information that you can go read, and then pop back up.]
We have for a few years now been one of the (fast-growing) "streaming-only" TV families. This means, we have no cable. In fact, we don't watch regular TV. I suppose we could get regular broadcast channels, but why? Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and DVD/Bluray, we have more to watch than we ever could. With no commercials. (The only downside to which seems to be that when we are watching regular TV at someone else's home, my boys find the commercials more interesting than anything else. Kids and novelty, sigh.)
In addition to streaming to the TV, though, my boys sometimes want to watch videos on YouTube, on a computer. At first most of these were funny and marginally-inappropriate videos they found out about at a friend's house or something. Nowadays, though, mostly the boys want to watch YouTube "channels" about Minecraft and/or other video games.
When we first started playing Minecraft, my older son found a great set of "introduction to Minecraft" videos called "Survive and Thrive." Visiting it just now, I see that in just the year since we first found it, the channel has gotten way swankier and more elaborate.
Such swankification, expansion, and success are found throughout the weird world of YouTube personalities focused on Minecraft. I was prompted to write this post because I was stunned this weekend to realize that one of the Minecraft-video-makers my sons have loved for months, who goes by the handle Sky, now has 5 million subscribers. Yeah. Seriously. 5 million. The phenomenon is impossible to ignore, at these numbers.
Personally, I somewhat prefer the lady-style humor and voice of Cupquake, another popular...I struggle for the word. Video blogger? I guess. But I have to admit Sky is pretty funny. And I love that (seemingly, at least) he built his empire on the genuine force of his own personality. Well, and the awesomeness of Minecraft.
What is really fascinating, though, what got me musing, is realizing that to my kids, these bloggers are more famous than, say...well, anybody. My boys really have no idea which TV shows are popular at the moment, and don't see commercials, except on YouTube. They only know about Bieber, Psy, etc. from school friends. But Sky? Cupquake? Say those handles and you will trigger a gush of in-jokes, smiles, and stories from them.
It is such an "End of Big" phenomenon. It is a cliche at this point. But I do not think that most people have really processed how fundamentally the internet has undermined the power of being big. As Nicco Mele asserts in the subtitle to The End of Big, David really is the new Goliath.
Back to Chromecast. I think that I think we will see this phenomenon moving broader, with Chromecast. Because I do not understand why so many people pay for cable. Why watch what's being served on some kind of "buffet" for your consumption, over on cable, when on the internet you can find some channel or other to fit your very, very specific tastes. And stream it straight to your TV, wirelessly, instantly, at no extra cost (beyond your equipment and high-speed internet costs)? Truly, there is no reason except habit. And Chromecast is the kind of grease (butter? sorry, Sky reference there) that seems designed to show a much larger, older group of pop-culture consumers the way out of the cable habit.
**"Minecraft" is a video game. It is "cross-platform," i.e., there are versions available for various different pieces of electronic equipment, like Xbox, computers, and smartphones. We play it on computer. It is really different from most games that I have played in my lifetime, in that (1) the graphics are not an emphasis, (2) there is no plot or even, any real "way to play it," and (3) it is instead a sort of giant sandbox in which you look for resources, obtain them, build things, and interact with the environment.
A couple of other interesting things about Minecraft. While you will see ads for it now, for a long time it basically spread by word-of-mouth. That was how we found out about it, quite literally. My kids and I were at their school playground last summer, and they were playing with another boy, my youngest son's age. I let my kids play some video games, including Plants vs. Zombies, and somehow their imaginary play with this boy turned in to play about escaping from zombies and other monsters. They had a blast. Just before we were leaving, I heard the boy explaining to my kids that these monsters that had been chasing them were from a game called "Minecraft," and we should try it. We went home and tried it, and became big fans, almost immediately.
One other odd thing: for some reason I will admit I am not quite clear about, players quickly began modding--i.e., modifying--the Minecraft game. There are "mods" that do everything from increase the variety of plants available in the game to create automatic mining and industry applications to add superhero trappings and everything in between. It is pretty amazing, the creative energy that has gone into the minecraft modding world. For free. My mind just boggles sometime. Go look here, for just a taste of it.
**Chromecast. Chromecast is called a "dongle," i.e., a bit of equipment you stick in the USB slot that your TV, hopefully, provides. Why would you do that? Well, once you get it set up, it provides an uber-simple way to stream video to your TV.