Wednesday, July 16, 2008

“the difference between online and book publishing is like the difference between riding a horse and eating Chinese food.”

Every day when I wake up, the first thing I do is haul my laptop into bed and click along my Firefox bookmark toolbar for the morning staples: Facebook, Gmail, Perez Hilton, and Overheard in New York. The first three are checked out of necessity (yes, Perez is vital – what if Brangelina’s twins popped out while I was asleep? Which, by the way, they apparently did a few days ago.), and the fourth is quite simply the funniest website on the Internet.

As the site’s title suggests, eavesdroppers all over the city send in hilarious snippets of conversations they’ve overheard. The funniest quotes are published on the website under witty, quip-like headlines created by an editorial staff; it’s truly my favorite cyber destination. So when I learned that I was going to interview Morgan Friedman, the mastermind behind the site, my reaction was as unfortunately screechy as that of a star-struck teenybopper at a Jonas Brothers concert.

Like skinny jeans and ironic sunglasses, the idea for OINY was hatched from a hipster – or, more accurately, from Friedman eavesdropping on a hipster at a café in Williamsburg. “If you want to say something privately, you shouldn’t be in a Starbucks,” Friedman pronounces. “I think people kind of want to be overheard – I may be a voyeur, but so many people are exhibitionists.”

The quirky little website that Friedman launched alone in 2003 is now staffed by a handful of editors, read by “maaaany” people daily, has branched off into sister sites like Overheard in the Office, and has become a book.

Friedman loosely attributes his success to two things: luck, and the comedic philosophy behind The Simpsons. “I’m the luckiest person I’ve ever met – I found something that resonated,” he says. Like The Simpsons, OINY employs a winning mix of high culture and low culture that people seem to respond well to. Though some of the overheard content itself is hardly intellectual (think crazy hoboes, overweight tourists, and drunk sorority girls), many of the clever headlines rely on cultural or political allusions for highbrow wit.

Having put out two books and numerous websites, Friedman transcends the now-fluid boundary between online and print publishing. When I ask him to describe how the two differ, he looks at me like I have an extra nose on my forehead and replies, “that’s like asking me the difference between riding a horse and eating Chinese food.”

As illuminating as that statement is, I ask Friedman to clarify. One point of distinction is the amount of power Friedman has over the website as opposed to the book. “Online you control everything – I designed the site, and I know how many people read it and which quotes are most popular. I know how many people buy the book but I don’t know how much people read of it.”

As a viewer of OINY, I find this Big Brother-esque control sort of creepy. But from Friedman’s point of view, it’s more of a helpful marketing mechanism than a way to sketchily cyberspy on unsuspecting readers browsing the site.

However, there is no such thing as a publishing utopia; though people think that websites are a First Amendment free-for-all, Friedman admits that he was thrown off the Google ad network because OINY was “too raunchy and violated their terms and conditions.” But no worries – Friedman’s morals are in check, and he decided to “lose the money and keep it vulgar,” just like Mom and Dad always taught us.

I have explored the supposed demise of print publishing numerous times, and from countless angles, in this blog, but Friedman provides a fresh outlook on the now-turning-trite topic: “print publishing isn’t dead, it’s just becoming more niche.”

My last post dipped into this idea when I discussed Jewish Book World, a specialized magazine that is able to feature obscure books that, say, the New York Times book reviewers don’t have the time or space for.

Friedman uses a television analogy to explain this phenomenon: “There used to be one T.V channel with a million viewers; today, let’s say there are 100 channels with 10,000 viewers each. It’s the same number of people, but now there’s something for everyone.”

This niche strategy, otherwise known as “the long tail,” is becoming more prevalent as new websites pop up and diversify the information we may access. It’s not that people aren’t reading the news anymore – they are just finding different, perhaps more appealing or convenient, ways to receive it.

1 comment:

dgold911 said...

How exciting for you to interview one of your heroes! (Your fans should know that you have indeed "overheard in New York" and have had a snippet published on the website ). And I agree about print publishing. I personally will never give up my print favorites (the New York Times, New York Magazine and, I admit it, US Magazine) even if I can get the info for free on the Internet.