“It was very, like, guys lighting their balls on fire. It wasn’t family-friendly.” That’s how Jonathan Skogmo, founder and CEO of the burgeoning internet-home-video empire Jukin Media, describes the early days of internet video — about a decade ago. Internet users of a certain age probably remember Ebaum’s World and Stile Project, two legendarily lousy websites full of shocking and often-pirated videos, neon captions and ads for hardcore porn.
Jukin is the unlikely 2016 evolution of those sites. Even though you’ve perhaps never heard of the brand, you’ve definitely seen some of Jukin’s hits. Remember the “Pizza Rat” who pulled a slice down the stairs of the subway? Or the oppressively adorable moppet who tells another moppet, “You poked my heart”? These are the type of videos that Jukin finds on the cusp of virality, attains the rights to and boosts through its social channels toward Today Show-level ubiquity. It’s a simple but powerful formula for virality that’s not just earning money (anywhere from $15 to $20 million in 2015, the company told Wired) and accolades (props from TechCrunch, Digiday and the like) but shaping the character of The New Internet of today: family-friendly, mass-produced, “epically” positive and corporate controlled.
Here’s how it works: in an office in Los Angeles, Jukin’s team of 20-or-so millennials scour YouTube, Vine and pretty much everywhere else for home videos that seem about to go viral. A telltale metric is the number of views a video is getting as it’s organically passed along social networks, but Jukin also has the art of the keyword search down to a science. So, if you title a video of your cousin’s failed attempt at a double backflip on a trampoline, “Idiot TOTALLY wipes out on trampoline,” one of Jukin’s researchers will find it, because, of course, he has a search set for “wipes out.” If Jukin thinks it has potential, the researcher will begin calling you, calling your office, calling your family — who even knows how they find you, but they do. “We have highly technological ways” and a whole team dedicated to tracking people down, Skogmo says. (It sounded less sinister when he said it.) Jukin will make a bid on the rights to the video — either with a flat fee (somewhere between $200 and, in extremely rare cases, $5,000) or they’ll negotiate a revenue split (often, 50/50). You accept, because why not? Might as well make some cash.
As the video of your cousin enters into Jukin’s system, it feeds their distribution network. The page views rack up as it’s fed into FailArmy, Jukin’s YouTube channel with 9 million subscribers. Perhaps it’s inserted into a “best of” compilation from that week or that month — hitting even more eyeballs. Then, a 6-second clip of your cousin at the exact moment his face makes contact with the ground runs on the FailArmy Vine account. People are sharing it all over the place. If you’re lucky, you and your cousin see yourselves on BuzzFeed and you’re invited to appear on Good Morning America. Sure, this is the best-case scenario, but it’s Jukin’s goal—what they’d like to make happen to around 200 videos each week.
Skogmo’s background in pre-internet media provided the entire basis for Jukin. “One of my first jobs in Los Angeles, after being here for a few months, was being a researcher on a clip show,” which he describes as a “redneck America’s Funniest Home Videos.” In late 2005, after graduating from Chicago’s Columbia College and heading west, Skogmo made the then-radical decision to use the internet to find funny clips for TV. Imagine the internet that year: YouTube had just launched, and your typical experience with online video involved a lot of buffering. In that world, tracking down content creators wasn’t such an easy task, but Skogmo excelled at it and was made a producer on the show, before leaving to found Jukin in 2009.
Today, he lets other people do the searching. Thanks to Skogmo and his team’s curatorial eye, Jukin knows how to give its different audiences what they want: FailArmy’s 9 million followers watch horrifying accidents and blooper reels; People Are Awesome’s 700,000 subscribers watch thrillseekers leap off of cliffs and guys in wheelchairs doing pushups upside-down; The Pet Collective’s 600,000 animal lovers watch as many cute animals as they can stomach.
Through these channels and more, Jukin’s videos are promoted to roughly 14 million followers (and go on to deliver more than 200 million views per month). But that’s just the beginning: Jukin also has arrangements with Good Morning America and the Today Show to supply them with videos they think they’d like (they call their service The Wire), as well as funneling videos to clip shows like MTV’s Ridiculousness and Fox’s World’s Funniest. (Jukin is a producer on the latter.) Online publishers — from Hearst and Conde Nast sites to Complex and ViralNova — have deals with Jukin to access The Wire and grab videos “before they become viral.”
So Jukin likely makes thousands off that clip — between licensing and simple web ads. The kid who filmed it? Well, he has his hundred or maybe even thousand bucks. It’s way better than zero.
There’s nothing wrong with Jukin. It’s a company that’s aggressively on the side of fair use and copyright law. And they’ll defend their content: If anyone tries to use the video, either ripping it whole or making GIFs or screenshots, Jukin attacks, sending out alerts according to the the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Jukin sends “thousands of DMCAs per month,” says Skogmo. “We take our rights management very seriously.” It attempts to pay actual money to content creators — even if they’re mostly teens making videos of themselves getting injured.
However, as a fan of the internet-at-large, it’s hard to not see Jukin as a death knell to the wildness and weirdness of the mid-aughts internet, along with the anonymity and basic shittiness of the first wave of video content. In those days, content went viral in bizarre, inexplicable ways, through word of mouth and repetition on private message boards and email chains. Even the IRL identity of Goatse — a celebrity on the early shock-internet, thanks to photos of his anus stretching to a seemingly impossible diameter (warning: do not Google) — took literally years to find and is still practically unconfirmed.
This doesn’t happen anymore; now, the often gross, often painful world of user-submitted videos has been thoroughly disinfected by Jukin (and, to a lesser extent, by other companies). They’re often providing people’s only access to viral videos. You see what they want you to see. Compare Jimmy Kimmel’s “internet-breaking” twerk fail video (which ended up being staged) to Chris Crocker’s 2007 super raw “Leave Britney Alone!” rant (which went viral because it was uncomfortably emotional, not because a company like Jukin thought it was supposed to).
While the internet as curated and policed by Jukin is fairer, it’s also less interesting. Viral videos aren’t something you discover; they’re served to you on Jukin’s conveyor belt. Weirdness must die when it’s as thoroughly controlled, promoted and capitalistic as it is now.
“For me, this is about entertaining with the most organic, most authentic footage there is,” Skogmo says.
But the truth is, by the very act of participating, he’s killing that process.
Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Popular Science, The Awl, Gizmodo, Fast Company, BuzzFeed and elsewhere. He grows vegetables on his fire escape.