INTERVIEW: Lisa Cohen of WitStream.com
If you’re simultaneously obsessed with social media but irritated by the sheer banality of most content, (It’s raining. We get it.) WitStream.com is the place for you. Founded by television producer Lisa Cohen and co-operated by comedian Michael Ian Black, WitStream is a hand-picked collection of Twittering comedians, writers, and humorists, whose updates are savory little nuggets of freshly-fried funny.
Perhaps the best part about WitStream is that the users (including Matt Braunger, Rob Delaney, Myq Kaplan, and Laurie Kilmartin) engage in conversation with each other in a way that’s easy for an audience to follow. No “@” symbols and re-tweets here; comedians ruffle each others’ feathers in real time, and you get to watch.
The site officially launches today, November 2, and is celebrating with an A-list show TONIGHT at Comix, featuring Michael Showalter, Baron Vaughn, Pete Holmes, Doug Benson, Josh Fadem, Morgan Murphy, and, of course, MIB himself.
Rooftop managed to tear our eyes away from WitStream activity long enough to catch up with Queen Bee Lisa Cohen.
ROOFTOP: Who came up with WitStream?
LISA COHEN: Yours truly! I was on jury duty in January and I was playing with my phone out of boredom. I was on Facebook, and I realized that usually there’s nothing to read. Nothing good on people’s updates. Just crap.
I had Facebook friends who were comedians who didn’t have fan pages, or they had a 5000-person fan limit on their page. Some of them, you couldn’t even friend them because they had hit their limit. I thought it would be really great if I could get rid of the other stuff and just follow these funny guys and be entertained. If you like a comedian, it’s usually because you like their personality, not just their jokes. That immediate connection to a performer is a really unique thing to stand-up comedy.
ROOFTOP: How did you connect with Michael Ian Black for this project?
COHEN: We knew a couple of people in common, and Michael is obviously one of the better Twitter users out there. He’s always on the list of who to follow when you’re on Twitter. He’s a great writer, and saw WitStream as having potential to turn tweeting into a real art form.
ROOFTOP: What makes WitStream different from, say, a Twitter aggregator?
COHEN: There’s a whole language to Twitter, and it makes it very difficult to read. I want to get rid of all those codes, the hash marks, the abbreviations, to make it really accessible and make it easy for people to read and follow the conversation.
Twitter is really a double-edged sword for me. It’s a great way to get the word out about my own projects, but at the same time, there’s this assumption that it is the main platform for this type of writing, and it’s become so big that it’s turning into a marketing tool. And the people who are actually using it creatively don’t belong in this gigantic sea of people who are using it for cooking and medicine. Every brand out there is now tweeting. Twitter is going to become more and more commercial. If you think about the TV model, you watch a half hour of television and 22 minutes of it is actual content. Twitter is become less and less about content and more and more about marketing, and I think the content needs to be in its own space.
There are Twitter aggregators out there and it doesn’t take a lot of knowledge to compile a list like that, but that’s where I think me and Michael can take it a step further, and make WitStream like our own show that we’re producing. Because, on the aggregators, the users aren’t conversing with each other.
ROOFTOP: Are you hoping to create a conversation between the comedians and users, or will the comment function be strictly for participating comedians, and users will observe their banter?
COHEN: Right now, the subscribers are just observing, but, as I’m learning, the site is a very living, breathing organism that will grow based on what our users need. For sure, there are a lot of huge fans out there who would love to connect with the WitStream comedians. And the contributors will really benefit a lot from giving users a bit of access. The thing that these comedians really love about Twitter is the ability to connect with people.
We’re thinking about giving subscribers their own feed, and the ability to customize and sort their own lists, or comment on comedians’ posts without adding to the feed. There’s a benefit to be able to create this private workout room for comedians that the rest of us can eavesdrop on.
After all, these are the guys who are constantly jawing, and watching them try to outdo each other is a show in and of itself.
ROOFTOP: Does WitStream collect ALL tweets from each participating comedian, or do you pick and choose what’s funniest? Are the participants logging into WitStream separately from Twitter to tweet there?
COHEN: The people who are on Twitter have a choice, wherein we can pull their tweets simultaneously, or they can post on WitStream and we’ll put it back on Twitter for them. We want to make it easy on people. We don’t want them to change their lives. Our hope is that they’ll decide that WitStream is a more fruitful experience for them than Twitter, but for now, we can make sure their stuff lives on both places.
Ultimately, we can exist without Twitter, but I don’t need to take Twitter down.