By Dave Huth
Critical commentary and ponderous ramblings about new ways to make media, and new ways to watch it. My own observations and opinions, open for response and discussion. Join the conversation!

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October 19, 2005

"Show" or Tell: Where's the Themed Content?

At the Converge South conference a couple of weeks ago, Amanda Congdon from Rocketbook delivered a presentation entitled "Themed Content for Videoblogs." Introducing her topic, she said "I'm dying for shows!"

What does she mean? I think she's talking about what a number of vlog-watchers are talking about. I hear this cropping up in online discussions and video conferences. And I confess, sometimes I'm the one bringing it up. My echo of Congdon's question, "Where are the shows?" usually comes after I try to explain to my friends why videoblogs are so great.

The conversations often go like this:

Me: Wow I watched more than 15 videoblogs last night.
Friend: Really? What were they about?
Me: Uuhhh...

Or sometimes, if I'm feeling ambitious, like this:

Friend: So what are all those video thingers you watch about?
Me: Well, see, in this one, this person sort of just talks about her life, like what she thinks about how many choices of shampoo are at the store, and she'll take her camera to the store and shoot herself talking about it.
Friend: You mean it's a show about shampoo?
Me: No, she talks about whatever's on her mind, it's different all the time.
Friend: You're kidding, right?

Some videobloggers don't want to discuss this subject. They hear a call for "shows" as a call for old, dead media. They see vlogs as a wholly unique and personal expression of free speech that should not be shackled with the conventional expectations of old media. "Hey man, I'm the media now, back off! You don't like it, then don't watch!"

The question at hand is, why are so many (the majority by my estimation) videoblogs not about any single thing or set of things? Or as wikipedia characterizes them, "personal?" They don't seem to have a theme or focus. They can't quite be described as being "about" something. (This includes my own vlog). In other words, they're not shows.

I concede that the folks who don't want them to be shows (for lack of a more imaginative term I'll call these good people "vlogging purists" in this post) make a compelling argument. It goes something like the following...

Videoblogging at its core is about The New Way. A new way of making media. A new way of distributing media. New paradigms, new approaches, new rules -- scratch that: no rules! We needn't limit our new selves with old expectations, which were created by our old nemesis, TV.

The categorization of "shows" by genre, subject, and content is mostly the result of generations of marketing and advertising trend-setting. Slicing communities into demographics, pigeonholing individuals as consumers, and creating expectations based on the dominating agenda: to sell us all something.

The purist argument insists that we don't want to be sold to anymore, and I happen to agree (mostly). So now this raises a fascinating question that the purists deserve an answer to: if there were no money at stake, what would media look like?

For the sake of fairness and simple intellectual curiosity, the vlogging purists deserve the space to find out what happens to media when the corporate interests (such as "audience size and attention span") no longer dominate.

If you don't have to maintain a Nielsen rating, if you won't lose your job when viewers get bored during sweeps, if you don't need to wrap it all up in 22 minutes between commercials and before the Seinfeld reruns come on -- if you don't have to worry about any of that, then why not shampoo?

Discovering this radical concept of newness is an organic process, and will take time. Old habits need to be examined, debunked, and discarded. New ways of framing content need the freedom to emerge over time. Not to put too fine a point on it: NO SHOWS!

This is an idea that does have appeal, and it has the potential of producing new genres and ways of seeing the world. In the meantime, I enjoy watching people work this out. It's not always Shakespeare, but it's something new and interesting and it should be allowed room to breathe.

But then what is there for Amanda Congdon, who still wants shows, but not the old kind of shows, she wants shows made by new creators for new audiences from a new point of view. She does, after all, participate in making one of her own.

Where are the vlogged sitcoms? Where is the vlogged murder mystery? It doesn't have to slavishly immitate Hollywood. In fact it would be better if it didn't, I'm ready for something subversive like The Blair Witch Vlog.

The podcasters seemed to figure this out fairly early on. Podcasting's infancy spawned "soundseeing tours" of the walk to the train station ("Now I'm walking past a fire hydrant.") I like these personal podcasts and I'm glad they're still around.

But it didn't seem long before the majority of the podcasters declared, "I'm passionate about something, I'm totally into macrame, I'm going to make a great Macracast!"

Is it somehow harder to do this with video? Is there something unique about spoken language, as opposed to moving images, that tends toward themed content?

I'm aware that there are some videoblogs that are more thematic. Rocketboom is an exercise in programmed content, even though they will often break the programming if the fancy strikes them. We can count on Minnesota Stories meeting a certain loosely held set of expectations. The Steve and Carol Show, while undeniably "personal," is still indeed mostly about Steve and Carol. Vlogs are not universally random rambles.

I'm simply wondering how and where more structure and production programming will appear.

And most importantly for the vlogging community, is there room for both approaches? Will the people who eventually create weekly installments of "Desperate Vlogwives" do so without trashing the Shampoocast? And will the vlogging purists understand that experiments in structured programming represent an expansion of territory, not a betrayal of principle?

Most conversations I have about this with other vloggers end with the un-profound yet nevertheless probably true: "Time will tell."

October 16, 2005

Participatory Journalism: What's in it for the Participators?

According to his online biography at the BBC, Richard Sambrook is "Director of the BBC's World Service and Global News division, responsible for leading the BBC's overall international news strategy across radio, TV and new media."

If anyone at the BBC has a job description that puts him in charge, it's Richard Sambrook. But Sambrook says that no one at the BBC is in charge. At the BBC, the audience is in charge. Sambrook says, "We don't own the news anymore."

On July 7th, 2005, 4 hours after the bombing of the London subway, the BBC had received 20 videos, 300 still images, and 20,000 emails from which to report the events. All of it was submitted to the BBC by Londoners who were nearby when the attack happened.

Sambrook, speaking at a conference on participatory media, said that the BBC had used material from its audience for decades, but this was "on a scale and quality the BBC had never experienced before." This audience created content started to "dictate the line and tone of coverage."

The next day, July 8, the BBC evening news led with a package of video entirely shot on a London citizen's camera phone. Sambrook says the news organization, which reaches 190 million people each week, had reached a "clear tipping point" toward audience media ownership.

Guided by Sambrook and like-minded directors, the BBC is shifting into a highly participatory, interactive operational model. A March 2005 interview with Sambrook characterized the BBC's future as a shift from broadcaster and mediator to facilitator, enabler and teacher.

The approach at the BBC seems to be experimental, covering digital storytelling, requests for a wide range of user created audio, video, and writing, blogging initiatives, and highly interactive Web content.

The BBC is the leading edge of a wave The American Press Institute's The Media Center predicts will create a future newscape where in the year 2021, 50% of the news will be generated and distributed by citizens peer to peer.

The videobloggers are contributing to this wave. In 2005 we've seen an occasionally clumsy but consistent attempt to generate with handheld video cameras and home grown audio setups what in the hands of any professional can only be called "news."

Steve Garfield documents Boston City Councillor John Tobin's political activities (working cooperatively with Tobin). EvolveTV is a news information and commentary program run on what the founders claim is no investment capital. Rocketboom is the daily darling of the vlogosphere, delivering news headlines with humor, but also collecting the video reporting of "correspondents" who deliver video from author interviews to raw disaster footage. Minnesota Stories is a bright star of short, local documentary, sometimes public, sometimes personal.

As vloggers become more settled in their diverse voices, and audiences continue to record news events by being in the right place with the right cell phone, this content will inevitably make its way with increasing frequency into the programming of large media producers, either on TV, the Web, or in print.

Eventually the question will have to be asked: "What's in it for the vloggers?" Clearly this audience-created footage is valuable to the news organizations (like the BBC) who end up holding viewer attention with it. Will broadcasters start paying citizens for the right to reproduce their flickr streams? Will citizen journalists continue to send in their documents for the satisfaction of informing their neighbors?

I would like to see a Google AdSense or Amazon associate sort of arrangement worked out between media companies and participating audiences. In the way that Amazon affiliates collect pennies each time they send a buyer to purchase books featured on the affiliates' blogs, media corporations should deliver micropayments each time an editor selects an online piece of user-generated media for their evening broadcast (or Web gallery, or news magazine).

This could be through some functionality attached to the media documents themselves, or through an iTunes-style central database where news-conscious vloggers and digital photographers can deliver their work through feeds.

October 13, 2005

Ready for Mantime: Soon We Will All Be Our Own Media

Each week I meet with friends for what we call "Mantime." I'm not sure why we call it that. I guess it's because the founding members of the group are men, though women (spouses, friends, colleagues) are welcome and often present. We do a mix of things together: console games, belching contests, rude jokes. Also we talk about relationships, bake cookies, and look at pictures of kittens.

Though it's called Mantime, the activities don't fit stereotyped categories. Just like the media we watch.

Dave P. has a large TV screen so we meet at his apartment. He's connected it to his computer, and we use the computer to take control of what we watch, when we want to watch it. There's no top-down dictation from one or two huge multinational entertainment conglomerates calling all the shots. Here's what we watched last night...

Eric was visiting from out of state. It was great to see him, and part of what we did was share with him the video we've enjoyed in Mantime over the last year or so. We sat there for over an hour asking things like, "Have you seen the Numa-Numa guy?" A keyword search at an amusing video Web site called that up on the screen. "How about the King Kong trailer?" It looked so cool we applauded. "How about the slide show of the Amazing-Smile girl? Or the pantomime of the Natalie Imbruglia song?" We watched that one twice.

For an hour we were our own media station, in complete control of programming.

Over the evening we watched movie trailers, home made music videos, hilarious TV commercials, videoblogs, news photos with user-photoshopped captions, pictures of cats from pet owners across the world, re-mixed movie trailers, clips of stand-up routines, a very grim Canadian public service announcement about domestic violence, and stuff I don't even know how to categorize. We could watch them as many times as we wanted (and we did). We could skip ahead to the best parts. We could pause the whole show to take a break for cake.

We watched it all on our terms, as a group of friends rather than individual consumers, with no intrusive advertising, without caring what any network wanted us to see, and it was a fantastically great time.

This was a glimpse of things to come. People ask me what I hope to see happen with all my blathering about vlogging and shake-ups in media creation and distribution. Last night's party is the start of what I'm excited about in these changing times.

But it's only a start, because I've left out of this story how hard it was to set up and navigate this new media landscape.

Connecting the computer to the TV was way harder than it should be. Lots of switches and cords for audio and video. Some video formats play through to the TV and some have to be watched on the computer monitor. Mirroring the monitor to the TV isn't seamless, and sometimes the person at the computer can't see the TV in order to click the play buttons. The resolution could be better on many of the videos.

Finding what we wanted was chaotic. We rarely remembered which site aggregated which videos. Google was helpful at times, but it took Don's super-ninja search skills 10 minutes to call up one of the clips. I suggested checking delicious, but no one had tagged the clips we were looking for yet. There is much, much work to do in streamlining the process of putting people in charge of making, distributing, and watching their own media.

But here's one reason to be hopeful: the evening we spent being our own media programmers was on the day of Apple's release of the video-enabled iPod, and iTunes 6. This is why an iPod that stores video (and plays it, and outputs it to a TV!) is cool: because we wonder about the potential of all these new gizmos to effect some kind of positive cultural change.

Anything that puts more control into the hands of people who want to decide for themselves how to engage our changing culture is something to celebrate.

October 12, 2005

Al Gore Throws Down the Gauntlet; Will Vloggers Pick it Up?

Love him or hate him, vote for him or against him, the man who never said he invented the Internet is hoping it can serve in re-inventing the media. On October 5 Al Gore addressed the 2005 We Media conference, a gathering meant to generate conversation about distributing news and information through the Net.

Gore's keynote address was a cogent assessment of what has gone wrong with what he refers to as the "public discourse" necessary for democracy to work. Despite some omissions and overstatements (such as his idealization of America's hyper-literate past and his reluctance to explore the public's complicity in the pandering nature of TV news) Gore's critique is one of the best summaries I've heard from a politician of what's gone wrong with how people make political decisions and receive information about our society.

"Our founders knew all about the Roman Forum and the Agora in ancient Athens. They also understood quite well that in America, our public forum would be an ongoing conversation about democracy in which individual citizens would participate not only by speaking directly in the presence of others -- but more commonly by communicating with their fellow citizens over great distances by means of the printed word. Thus they not only protected Freedom of Assembly as a basic right, they made a special point - in the First Amendment - of protecting the freedom of the printing press."

He goes on to lament an intellectually lethal combination: 1. a shift from print to TV as the dominant forum in which our ideas are exchanged, and 2. the takeover of media heirarchy by corporate and political interests, thus shutting out a truly democratic plurality of voices.

"Consider the rules by which our present "public forum" now operates, and how different they are from the forum our Founders knew. Instead of the easy and free access individuals had to participate in the national conversation by means of the printed word, the world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation today.

Inexpensive metal printing presses were almost everywhere in America. They were easily accessible and operated by printers eager to typeset essays, pamphlets, books or flyers.

Television stations and networks, by contrast, are almost completely inaccessible to individual citizens and almost always uninterested in ideas contributed by individual citizens.

Ironically, television programming is actually more accessible to more people than any source of information has ever been in all of history. But here is the crucial distinction: it is accessible in only one direction; there is no true interactivity, and certainly no conversation."

Jay Rosen, speaking at the same conference, thinks the speech had something to say to anyone concerned with the collision between old-form heirarchical media and bloggy-form democratic media. Rosen heard the speech as a challenge to those of us creating media alternatives. He says it's our job to figure out how to use our new ideas, new access, and new models to rehabilitate the rule of reason in public conversation.

Accepting this challenge is a good reason to be involved in videoblogging. Not only is videoblogging (or as Apple is calling it now, "video podcasting") a good way to work through the technical twists and turns of distributing grassroots media. It's also a chance to experiment with creating new sorts of content that we hope to distribute.

What will an aternative to the 30-second political commercial look like? If we're not going to be looking at a one-way image-driven PR blitz, if we're not watching pointlessly polarized entertainment professionals scream at each other under the guise of "balanced debate," if we aren't going to watch political operatives endlessly repeating meaningless talking points, then what precisely will we be watching? Here are just a few examples. Certainly not a fully realized dream. But it's a start.

This past summer a group of video bloggers began an on-again off-again discussion of content that I hope will continue. Now that the iPod plays video, more people may be watching.

October 11, 2005

Waiting for the iPod video

Why are so many videobloggers mad with impatience waiting for an Apple iPod video? Tomorrow Apple will hold yet another Very Special Press Event, revealing one more one-more-thing. It's likely to be the rabidly anticipated Apple-branded portable video device. Well, actually, it will not be the video enabled iPod. But wait! Yes it will be! Or maybe not.

Frenzied speculation is common around Apple product launches and updates. Apple works hard at cultivating a brilliant marketing atmophere of blended hype and hope, making the tech press, and those of us who obsessively follow it, positively jittery with anticipation. Shownotes for The Mac Cast podcast lists a round-up of the range of rumors, whispered back and forth across the blogosphere like kids passing urban legends back and forth on the school bus.

Do we need an iPod video? Not everyone thinks so. The concept has its detractors. Sadly for true believers, Steve Jobs seems to be one of the biggest.

I think some would consider Apple to already be too big for its britches in its dominance of the personal audio market, prefering for personal video a less corporate, more open source, pet platform from somewhere else (though where else this would be is a mystery to me, unless we're talking about the cool video-enabling Linux iPod hack promoted by do-it-yourselfers like the good folks at Make).

Or maybe we should be satisfied with the devices already taking up space in our lives, calling instead for a clever integration of our computers and our television sets. This is also already available to some extent, yet The Revolution remains sluggish.

What's not yet transforming the world of personal video distribution is our current setup, and this is likely why the hankerin' is so great for a piece of hardware that will do for videoblogging what the iPod did for podcasting. There's much work to do in streamlining the process of distributing new media to the average citizen commuting to work or working out at the gym.

There is a lot of video moving around the Net with the desktop computer as the most common access point. But whenever we're nearby a desktop monitor, we're usually doing something else, whether it's checking e-mail, surfing the web, or, most commonly, doing our jobs at work and simply hoping a friend will forward a link to footage of a meteor dusting up some weirdo's truck.

As a result, online video becomes little more than a (very) brief distraction from other tasks, and seems limited to narrowly humorous, cute, outrageous, or weird content. I'm among the crowds who hope for a break from what I've called the Tyranny of the Access Point. Will an iPod liberate us? I'm not sure.

For myself, my iPod has brought audio to 2 primary spaces of my life: commuting on the highway and running on the trail. Neither driving nor jogging are activities into which video is likely to ever penetrate, and so I'm stumped for now about just precisely where and when I would be watching my iPod video.

True, many commute on a train rather than in a car, and many workout on treadmills rather than in the street. I can imagine that these folks could at least in theory watch a handheld video device to pass the time. I'm not convinced there are enough of those people to make handlheld bideo successful, but of course it's hard to predict. Theoretically, any place someone could take and give attention to a paperback book could be a place someone could take and watch an iPod video. Whether we want or need any more reasons to leave the books at home is a seperate discussion.

It seems to me that the most sense would simply be to bring videoblogs to places where people are already watching: their living room sofas and recliners. You don't need a handheld device for that, unless the dock connector plugs easily into the back of the TV set, or the TiVO, or the DVD player. The iPod photo can technically plug into the TV, but I never once met anyone who did this regularly. Will an iPod video have a better chance?

October 08, 2005

"Everyone Look at My Narcissism!"

In the MPR interview with ├╝bervloggers Ryanne Hodson and Jay Dedman the interviewer ponied out this old saw:"Isn't this just a narcissistic exercise?" In Saturday's video blogger flash meeting, Josh Kinberg said that Jay handled this question in the best possible way: concede the point without equivocation, and then laugh it off.

We don't hear the medium of television run-down because the people making the shows are "narcissistic." What could be more narcissistic than making a living as a Hollywood actor or network anchor? We don't hear about it because it's understood that people who spend their time in front of a camera kind of, um, like to be in front of the camera.

I think video bloggers are derided as self absorbed and in love with themselves because our detractors are often afraid to admit the truth: they don't care.

It's likely that critics don't want to say, "I'm comfortable being pandered to by Big Media! These little videoes are not endlessly amusing me with a stream of passively received corporate crap! I don't care about real people!" So they invent this weird vice: "narcissism." If it's applied to video blogs, then that's the reason they don't have to be interested. They never have to admit to a lack of patience or an unwillingness to listen to an idea outside of mainstream packaging.

I think it would be more fair if new viewers would consider evaluating vlogs in the same way that mainstream media is evaluated: according to content.

Why do I like Deadwood and loathe Fear Factor? Both are irrelevantly populated with narcissitic (and many other irrelevant adjectives) people. The point is when I watch Deadwood, I'm emotionally engaged. I hear important truths in the stories about society, culture, human interaction, and religious faith. All of this speaks to content.

I _don't_ watch because of the distribution technology or the personality traits of the actors (narcissistic or not). I watch because of what I consider to be powerful story, character, and cinemagraphic content. Similarly, it's easy to personally judge Fear Factor as unwatchable also by virtue of the content: buff men in speedos eating maggots afloat in a vat of horse testicles (or whatever).

I didn't get truly excited about videoblogging until I felt that chill up my spine that comes from good content. It wasn't a huge chill. I didn't feel my world tilt on its axis like I do after some episodes of Deadwood, but there is content there to respond to and admire. And it is becoming more intriguing every week.

Often videobloggers drinking their coffee bore the crap out of me, because I'm not interested in whatever ideas are there. So I just move on to something else, I don't feel the need to cast 4-syllable judgments derived from the flaws of Greek mythological figures (yes, him).

But then I see someone else with his coffee and at the core of the story is a very compelling (and I think profound) idea.

It's _all_ of it narcissistic, but the _content_ of some is worth my time.