04 Sep 2013
Over the weekend, Kara Swisher at All Things D broke the news that the crowdsourced translated video site, Viki has been acquired by Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce company.
Viki is part of a small community translation working group with Meedan organized by the good people over at Twitter, so we had a close up look at their excellent segmenting and subtitling software earlier this year. A very big 'mabruk/congrats/parabéns/felicitaciones/zhùhè nín' to the whole Viki team on what is reported to be a $200M deal.
As we develop out the Translatedesk product the Viki.com sale is a big pushpin on the roadmap. Viki is, with this sale, the first real indication of the market value that translation based fan communities can create. All of the 'work' at Viki is done by ad hoc, unpaid, personally motivated fans of shows like the The Sungkyunkwan Scandal. To Viki's credit they are providing these communities with enough of what it takes to feed, nuture, and create effective online communities that they are turning out a remarkable quantity of entertainment programming and providing the backbone of a $200M business.
One thing I learned in our meetings with Viki's Community Management Team Manager Mariko Fritz-Krockow is that they divide the community work into two distinct tasks — segmenting and translating. Each task has its own tool and Viki contributors tend to do one job or the other.
The segmenters - not surprisingly - just work to break the input video into segments. A single segment is a length of spoken video that breaks properly for a single subtitle. Viki has very fine grained tools for starting and ending the segment at precisely the right point in the audio track. They also have developed a six month training curriculum and a 'Segmenting 101' channel where newbie segmenters are connected with mentors. The Viki software only supports one segmenter working on a given video at a time, and every video only has one set of segments for all target languages (cutting segments that work for all languages was flagged as a major challenge for Viki).
Translation on Viki can be more collaborative - many translators can work on the same video at the same time and any given subtitle can be infinitely revised and improved. I was surprised to learn that one of the world's largest translation efforts does not employ any translation memory (TM) or translator augmentation (MAT) tools.
I was also very impressed that Viki has chosen to license their subtitles under Creative Commons licensing - this is what happens when your first investment comes from Neoteny.
It has to be mentioned that the user experience and technology on Viki definitely presents as clean, clever, and fast. The copy and user-engagement is tight and the UX had me contributing to rating translations with no login (the data is statistical, so why burden the user) in a matter of seconds - feeding me random segments of English/Spanish content with a quick sequencing feed as seen below.
Mariko did share with us that it has been challenging to build and maintain the Viki community but that it has always been 100% volunteer. Certainly, Viki's success is primarily due to their vision for the market and decision to position themselves as a content company (most of the other great subtitling projects - run by our friends - at DotSub, Amara, etc. have focused on tools and services). However, Viki would not be worth $200.00 had they not found the right mix to recruit, train, and retain a veritable army of many thousands of volunteers (.5% of whom are working full 40 hours per week on the Viki platform).
In some ways this is just a variation on the standard internet UGC market principle that has many of us recording our thoughts, ideas, and cat videos onto great and valuable tools - aka Facebook or Twitter - and through these incremental contributions creating massively valuable companies. The twist with Viki is that the UGC is user generated work - UGW.
So, why is Viki so successful and what does this teach us about the internet and the people who inhabit it? Well, I think alot of it goes to the act of translation itself. Translating a piece of content is a fundamentally creative act - in taking the Korean drama out of its language and sharing it with another community there is a deep sense of having a privileged role; in the case of the above example - the scandalous team members are acting as the cultural ambassadors on behalf of the Korean icon Yoochun. The internet plus tools like Viki gives those of us who speak another language incredible power and potential.
Viki.com might point to a future where more of the user generated work done on the internet is translation. And more time spent in service of sharing content between language communities means that there will be more people with more shared cultural/creative/political/educational knowledge. And this, we trust, will be a very good thing this beautiful and troubled planet of ours.