Silicon Valley plays host to two very different opinions about how we should find great videos online.
One angle is that your friends are posting all the best videos online, and you need only check Facebook to find something to watch. The other angle posits that algorithms are the key — formulas that comb the web automatically to find videos you might like based on other videos you've already liked (think Netflix). The best solution is probably some combination of the two approaches, but with each week that goes by comes a new app to solve "the internet's video discovery problem" in one way or the other. Evidently, the jury is still out on which way is best.
N3twork is the latest, an iPhone app created by Neil Young, one of the most successful mobile game-makers in history. At Ngmoco, Young's games like Rolando and Eliminate topped the App Store charts for years. After selling Ngmoco in 2010, Young started thinking about new problems to solve on mobile. He arrived at "interest-centric" social networks with feeds that focused more on your tastes than your friends. He thought: how would a TV work if it knew about everything you liked?
Young calls his app "the first personal television network" — a stream of videos from 6,500 sources like YouTube, Vimeo, and The New York Times that's always changing to fit you. The app ignores all the videos your friends are posting on Facebook and Twitter, and instead focuses on learning more about what you like. While N3twork does ask you to follow some more generic channels like #Sports or #Fashion upon opening the app for the first time, the real focus is on much smaller channels like your favorite sports team, favorite artists, favorite genres, and favorite places. Each channel gets its own hashtag, which serves as a live feed of content imported by N3twork or clipped by N3twork users. Like on Pinterest or Facebook, you can drop URL links you like straight into the app for your followers to see, or you can also upload a video of your own into the app.
It's hard to put a finger on exactly what N3twork is. It's like Reddit, but just for videos, or like YouTube, but with specific categories you can follow instead of just channels. It's also a bit like Pocket, the app that lets you save websites to read later, since N3twork lets you easily create a queue of stuff to watch. The app does include some novel functionality of its own, like a clever browsing interface that shows GIF-like video previews instead of static image thumbnails. Any video app or site could benefit from cloning this feature. N3twork also includes an impressive AirPlay implementation that turns your iPhone into a futuristic TV remote. But otherwise, N3twork feels like a combination of many other services without any one killer feature.
In my tests, N3twork works best when you're bored and aren't looking for anything in particular to watch. The app's home feed does a decent job of showing relevant videos based on the content you've already liked inside the app. But, as I tested N3twork I couldn't help but think — isn't a lot of the best video content in places N3twork can't scrape, like HBO, Vine, Netflix, Hulu, and AMC? Some of this content does exist inside N3twork, but it isn't surfaced in any way besides through the app's hashtag channels. Yahoo Screen, on the other hand, categorizes videos by the channels you already love, like The Onion, CollegeHumor, and Comedy Central. To find Onion content in N3twork, you'd have to search for it specifically or try surfing the #Comedy page.
"Internet video is no longer just about keyboard cat."
"We're not interested in competing with Hulu," says Young. "Our revelation is that there's amazing free video content on the internet and you will never find it, like that 45-minute interview with Rick Rubin or that four-minute landscape video of Japan." In other words, Young hopes that N3twork's ability to surface lesser known videos will be its calling card. However, the app's ability to find what's hot depends on users, which it doesn't yet have.
Further, I'm not quite sure that N3twork has nailed down when you're supposed to use it. The app includes videos of all shapes and sizes that doesn't fit a specific desire, I've found, unless you're the kind of person who says "Man, I would love to watch a video right now." Whereas on Facebook or Twitter, friends are generally posting timely videos, which you can then talk about with them. But do you hunger for more? "Solving for discovery in internet video is a constant theme for every cord-cutter and 'cord-never' we've spoken to," says Young. "The challenge is educating people on the idea that internet video is no longer just about keyboard cat. You won't find the best stuff unless you have the app."