Ten Questions with Amanda Congdon
Amanda Congdon was one of the first, if not the first, videoblog sensations. As a host of Rocketboom, she had approximately 300,000 viewers in the spring of 2006. She extended her online fame to a television appearance on the CBS television show CSI. (This is the show—which I love—where all the cops are good looking; DNA tests come back in a few hours; fingerprints get matched in seconds; and crime labs are well-funded. When will CSI need a Japanese-American blogger for a cameo role?)
On July 5, 2006, Amanda dropped a bomb by announcing that she would no longer be hosting Rocketboom. This created an additional round of exposure and some controversy in the blogosphere. Many details about her are here on Answers.com. I met with Amanda when she interviewed me during her cross-country videoblogging trip called “Amanda Across America.”
Question: What’s a nice girl like you doing driving across the country in a Ford hybrid interviewing geeks?
Answer: I wanted to do a road trip to see this great country of ours first hand—I sound like a Republican! So it makes sense that when it finally—at long last—came time to move to LA that I’d do it up right. I love America; I care about the environment; and I’m fascinated by independent media makers, so I was determined to make this trip happen.
Question: What have you learned by doing this?
Answer: Americans are obsessed with money. I know it’s common sense, but driving across the country and actually, literally—seeing all these different Americans living such radically different lives—it was fascinating that they all seemed to be concerned about the same things: where their money was going, how it was being spent, how much they were saving, and on and on. It was quite eye opening. Whether they were rich or poor—or somewhere in between—everyone seemed to have money on the brain.
Question: How would you describe the co-existence of old and new media?
Answer: New media is teaching old media a few tricks like interactivity, and treating participants with respect and, let’s face it, old media knows the ropes—it has the experience. We haven’t yet figured out a perfect way to put a price tag on interactivity—or engagement—something that new media shines at, but we will in time...a very short time.
New media is like the fiery teen who has just started to develop her own identity. It’s an identity which is unique from the identity of her old media parents, but it shares many similarities too. She wants to break out on her own, but she always crawls back home to mom and dad when she needs cash. In a couple years she’ll be an adult though, and she’ll be able to live on her own—and in harmony with her parents if I have anything to say about it.
Question: What did you learn from your six weeks working as an employee at a major ad agency in New York?
Answer: I learned that I could never, ever handle having a regular day job. My personality is just not nine-to-five compliant. I have all the respect in the world for people who have office jobs, and I’m not just saying that. I feel that way maybe because having a regular job is quite literally something I could not do.
If I could have handled it, I would still be at Saatchi sharing a cubicle with some guy who never bothered to learn my name. If I wasn’t doing whatever it is you call what I do, I’d probably be a professional skydiver or something else wild. I’m a risk taker because I have no other choice. That’s what people don’t understand. I’m physically unable to do anything else. Sitting in an office on any regular basis would give me heart palpitations.
Question: What really happened at Rocketboom?
Answer: What a mess. Maybe someday in the future I’ll be more comfortable giving a play-by-play, but the wound is too fresh at this point. Suffice it to say, this struggle was about control. It wasn’t about money, and it certainly wasn’t anything romantic.
Being told where to live and what to do isn’t really my style. Nor is it my style to have everything I do owned by any one person or company. You just can’t wrap me up and put me in a closet only to take me out when you—and you alone—need me. I’m not a robot. I’m a human being.
There is a huge difference between a true partnership and an employer-employee relationship. I thought I was involved in a partnership, but that was a guise. When this became clear to me, and I brought it up and pushed back, I was demoted to “face” status. This wasn’t what I signed up for. This wasn’t what was promised. And everyone was shocked that I’d stand up for myself? Please.
I was never just “talent.” That’s a mistake a lot of people make when they are trying to understand what happened. Probably because I’m a woman—yeah, I’ll go there. I wrote and produced Rocketboom. I had to—at this point, I think that’s pretty evident.
Loss of control is scary at times, but I think it’s the first lesson of new media. You can’t go around trying to control everything like you are Rupert Murdoch.
Question: What did you learn from this experience?
Answer: Have every little detail, no matter how minute, in writing. Otherwise, people tend to rewrite history. My mom always told me that good contracts make for good partnerships. I should have heeded her advice!
Question: What do you say to people that think you’ve moved to LA and sold out to old media?
Answer: I expected that criticism, and it’s a legitimate concern. I consider myself in a position of great responsibility because any Internet personality who is dabbling with big media is under a tremendous pressure right now to do the right thing—and not screw things up for everyone else.
If people looked at the details instead of skimming surface, they’d find something surprising. And that is this:
I have much more control working with old media than I would have had if I stayed at Rocketboom, which essentially became old media in new media’s shoes. Now I’m in the exact reverse situation. It’s truly ironic. I retain full creative control of my show. I’m totally doing my own thing and the network is comfortable with me just being me.
The best way to illustrate this is to transparently break down the process of how exactly I got involved with the network:
The network calls my agents.
My agents set up a meeting.
I walk into the room, shake hands, and nod.
I quiz them about new media to see if they know what they are talking about. They do!
They quiz me about what my role at Rocketboom really was—that is, Did I really write it?
We determine that we like each other.
They ask me what I want to do next.
I say, “Create a videoblog about the changes happening in media.”
They say, “Okay, go write a pilot and come back and we’ll organize a camera crew for you.”
I do just that.
It was pretty simple, yet wholly surreal. Working with “the big boys” wasn’t supposed to be so easy. The one thing I will say though is that the editing style for videoblogs is different than that for TV, and that was a hurdle. It’s still a hurdle. I’m picky about the way my videos are cut because I don’t think the TV flashiness works online. It’s been a learning process on both ends when it comes to what happens in post.
Right after Rocketboom blew up, I said publicly that if I could work with old media in a new media way, that I’d do it. At that time I wasn’t sure if it was possible, but that’s exactly what I’m doing. That’s where a lot of the innovation needs to take place, and the industry is ripe for it.
At the end of the day, it just comes down to the people you work with and how good your contracts are, really. And luckily I’m working with the best of the “old,” and my lawyers are excellent. So what would I say to those who say I’ve sold out to old media? “Dig deeper. Otherwise you just sound jealous.”
Question: What’s your response to critics that say you are popular primarily because of your looks?
Answer: I challenge them to do a little thinking: Is that really an intelligent argument? Look at all the pretty, out-of-work women wandering the streets of LA and New York looking for acting gigs.
Anyone who gave even the most minimal amount of thought to the subject should be able to recognize that being pretty doesn’t guarantee work in the entertainment industry. Not by a long shot. Is this not extremely obvious? You need a lot more than looks to get anywhere in this world.
Question: Are you saying that you think you’d be where you are if you didn’t have your looks?
Answer: No, society doesn’t play fair. Looks definitely help—but they can also get a person absolutely nowhere if they’re the only tool in the toolbox.
Question: What’s your advice to teenage girls about creating a profile on MySpace?
Answer: Do it! It’s fun! I love MySpace even with all its issues but use common sense. Don’t reveal your exact location or give out your phone number. And please, PLEASE, don’t post revealing pictures or join any of those weird webcam chats that spam you. It’s not a good idea under any circumstance.
Question: What do you want to be remembered for when you die?
Answer: I’d like to be remembered as a risk taker and an innovator...someone who marched to her own drum, lived by her own rules, and didn’t take shiitake from anyone.