As the film and television industries struggle to understand the economics of the current social media landscape from the top down, the grassroots continue to grow and innovate in the field. Last week’s Open Video Conference at New York University Law’s Vanderbilt Hall was an impressive showing of independent producers, academics, programmers, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, activists and others, interested in being part of the “growing movement for transparency, interoperability, and further decentralization in online video.”
My interest in video is as a powerful storytelling medium, allowing people to convey emotions and ideas in a powerful and direct way that words often cannot. Certainly more misunderstandings come from miscommunicated words than from poorly developed films. George Orwell has a wonderful essay on the subject, written shortly before his death.
I suppose it is only from commercial necessity that the film has been used chiefly for silly imitations of stage plays, instead of concentrating as it ought on things that are beyond the stage. Properly used, the film is the one possible medium for conveying mental processes. A dream, for instance, as I said above, is totally indescribable in words, but it can quite well be represented on the screen.
His idea was to create a more precise language that could not be manipulated into newspeak and to convey the message through film. I found it so compelling as to start a media company named after it: New Words.
I was excited to attend Open Video to explore how people are currently using the medium to convey new and radical thoughts. Rather than just looking at the content of the films, the conversations would include their ownership and licensing, the technological framework, and the implications therein. To keep video as creative and boundless a medium as the rest of what is on the internet, it needs to be decentralized, resistant to censorship and mashable. It’s something I’ve witnessed first hand around the world as videos can often have the greatest impact for civic engagement, but also have the highest barrier to entry. Moreover, something brought up several times at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference, and as I wrote about, it is considered by privacy advocates abroad to be ruled by another kind of censorship – copyright.
Yochai Benkler launched the event giving an overview of the medium as central to democracy itself. He explains that it now features more autonomy, transparency, and is diverse, critical, self-reflective and participatory. However, he points out that if we are to truly rely on the fifth estate to ensure the freedoms enjoyed in a democracy, we bear the responsibility of ensuring that the tools of that estate bear the same ethics that we cherish. Despite that there was no coffee at the conference, this call to arms did not go unnoticed.
Chris Blizzard and Mark Surman of Mozilla, makers of Firefox (the browser you’re probably using right now), came on to then dazzle the audience with the new video features in the upcoming HTML 5 release. Basically they gave a visual explanation of Yochai’s talk. I was very excited by the fact that there will be native video playing abilities, meaning that some of the plugins and add-ons that users have come to know, will be falling to the wayside. What I especially like about that is that given the variety of codecs and standards, this has led to a culture of what I’ll call “the ok click”, where users unknowingly accept any warning that pops up. In the security contexts in which I work, this is often an extremely dangerous habit to develop, and one that I’m hoping goes away as the web gets smarter. The presentation culminated in a basic video emphasizing the opportunities for innovation, not just efficiency and security. Chris and Mark screened a basic video of the two of them goofing off in the auditorium the day before. The wow moment came as word bubbles popped up over their heads, featuring their current tweets. Given new recognition abilities in open web standards, video itself becomes a much more interactive space.
Having Nicole Wong of Google recently explain that 16 hours of video are uploaded every minute to their YouTube platform, I was particularly interested to hear the Independent Video Platforms discussion and try to understand why these platforms feel the need to exist. What’s the value add? citizenShift, Engage Media, The Hub, Open Media Project, Pad.ma, Show in a Box, visionOntv. Several good points emerged from the conversation. Denver Open Media brought up that their reason for existing was to bring civic media into the mainstream. Their competitive advantage is that they’re hyper local. At the same time the problem is archaic media structures that continue to push them to the margins. Specifically that they can’t compete with public access and PBS because restrictions on new broadcast licenses since the 80s. Pad.ma gave a more local perspective from abroad, discussing the problem with YouTube. In one of my favorite quotes from the conference how, being from india, they never saw a youtube video without buffering. Their answer was to build a site for raw footage to be searchable and with a one click upload. Sameer Padania of Witness extended the conversation to the international human rights context, a hot button issue given the protests in Iran. His point was a sort of “if you can’t beat them, have them join you,” where he spoke of the necessity to access people where they already are. The issues that are important to everyone in the very tightly packed room, need to extend to people on commercial platforms. Projects like the new Global Network Initiative aim to do just that. But in his case with human rights video, it’s important that regardless of whether people post to YouTube or the Hub, when the footage is putting peoples lives at risk or helping to save them, it’s important to have standards, practices, and a way to influence as many people on the subject as possible. Otherwise, there will be more #youtubefail moments where they take down protest videos that are the voice of a people struggling to be heard.
Later in the day, there was a specific Open Video & Human Rights discussion. Lia Shaver, human rights and intellectual properties lawyer at Yale, kicked it off saying that while closed video good for intellectual property, it’s bad for human rights. But because open video is so flexible, accessible, etc it should be exactly the kind of thing that democratic government gets behind. Sam Gregory of Witness gave a fantastic talk (the only I saw that was actually set to video) on the need to incorporate declaration of human rights into the terms of service of video sites. Especially as we move from asynchronous video to direct streams, users need to know how to be concerned. Hopefully it’s something that can be considered before we really get to that point. Fae Ginsburg in the Anthropology Department at NYU spoke of another reason to understand the connection between rights and video – indigenous cultures. Different peoples have different cultural protocols about circulation itself, which need to be understood. One example is in Australia where the virtual realm of Second Life did not follow the same indigenous laws as in the real world, causing outrage and uproar. With another great quote of the day, she explained that this issue is becoming more severe as her students become less aware of the realities of the world outside of the US. She calls it the “Disneyfication of consciousness” ie it’s a small world after all. Young students project their experiences on others, believing for one that everyone everywhere has same internet access.
Ronaldo Lemos of Centro de Tecnologia e Sociedade in Brazil spoke in another session about his specific context. In Brazil, they were prohibited from using digital tools (youtube, mobile, etc) for political campaigns altogether. Nevertheless, currently in Brazil nearly 80% of people have access to cellphones. Especially those in the favelas. Meanwhile the internet is usually accessed in LAN-houses, a type of internet cafe, and so is relatively public. Yet with the high adoption of social networking tools, Orkut is the most famous social network there with more than 80 million users, he feels that the laws will invariably change. Though at the same time there is fracturing, where the upper classes are now moving to Facebook instead.
Day 1 was a fascinating exploration of the issues. Day 2 goes on to include issues of open government, and new production and distribution models. Stay tuned!