Me TV: Welcome to the Vlogosphere

From digital cameras to peer-to-peer distribution software, new technologies make it easy to find, swap, and make video on the Web. Is this a good thing?

IMAGES: VLOGGER, TOP ROW: ITSJERRYTIME.COM; JOSHLEO.COM (2); MIDDLE ROW: SCHLOMO RABINOWITZ (2); JARED KLETT/BLIP.TV; BOTTOM ROW: IEEE SPECTRUM; CLARK OV SATURN/ZIPZAPZOP.COM; BRE PETTIS/IMAKETHINGS.COM

When I was a teenager, my friend Mike became a video star for entirely the wrong reason. It happened one day after we shot a home-brewed tape. We shot a lot of tape back then. It was a great time killer. Give us a camera and a tank of gas and the day was ours. We filmed a toothless guy making clocks out of shellacked woodcuts at the flea market. We videoed tourists and shrimp boats. When my friend totaled his car, we woke up early the next morning and went to the junkyard to shoot that too.

On this particular day, we didn't need to leave the house to find inspiration. Mike put on a goofy wool hat and our friend Fred hung a spinning globe from the ceiling above him. As the camera rolled, Mike made his voice sound deep and important and talked about the power of wishing. If you wish for something, you get it, he intoned.

By way of example, he said he wished he had a fish. On cue, from off-screen, Fred tossed him a wooden fish. Then Mike wished for a cat. Fred handed one over. But the cat clawed Mike's lip and, after hanging there for a split second, fell into his lap. Mike clutched his mouth as blood spurted through his fingers. Naturally, we thought this was hilarious, particularly when viewed back in slow motion, which we did a few thousand times. The "Wish I Had a Cat" video, as we soon dubbed it, became legendary in our circle. And then, like most of the videos we shot, it got lost forever—probably, some would think, as it should.

Today, of course, that idea seems completely antiquated. Our video wouldn't be gone. It would be alive in perpetuity, online in the burgeoning collective consciousness known as the vlogosphere. Vlogs are video blogs: home-brewed, home-shot, home-uploaded short flicks made by and for Generation Net. New technologies are making it free and easy to find, swap, and create video on the Web. As a result, they're putting the "me" in media like never before, and radically transforming the way we perceive the world around us.

The cat we once wished for is out of the bag. But will we want to put it back?

Video, particularly television video, despite its ubiquity, has long been a transient medium. We watch a show, and it vanishes. All the engineering brainpower in the universe has yet to deliver a videocassette recorder that can be easily programmed. TiVo and digital video recorders, now an option through many cable providers, make home taping easier but still don't scratch the itch for a video fix. Just as the boom in digital music (and piracy) proves, innovations in network technologies have given rise to a rabid need for instant gratification. We want our video, and we want it now. And, one way or another, people get it.

The first milestone in the path to transforming the Web into a platform for worldwide video comes, once again, from the underground. It started back in the late 1990s when Napster opened the floodgates for digital music distribution. Then Gnutella, an open-source file-sharing network, staked the flag for video. Suddenly, peer-to-peer technology was proving robust enough to deliver MPEGs as well as MP3s. But the files had to be relatively small.

Enter BitTorrent, today's overlooked gorilla in the vlogosphere revolution. By breaking up large files of data into easily transferable bits, BitTorrent transforms a computer into the greatest jukebox ever. With a few clicks, it's possible to suck in an entire season of "Desperate Housewives." Downloads can take all night. But queuing up a list of torrents before bedtime has become as rote as running the dishwasher; it works while you sleep and they're ready in the morning.

This, of course, makes the multibillion-dollar industries that still sell data on plastic discs very, very nervous. The Motion Picture Association of America, once sidelined by the furor over music piracy, is now taking a page from the recording industry's controversial playbook and litigating against BitTorrent traders. "There is no minimum threshold," warns Dean Garfield, the MPAA's director of legal affairs; "anyone who engages in piracy may be sued."

The creator of BitTorrent, Bram Cohen, is a lifelong puzzle master. His story is important to consider because it personifies the do-it-yourself ethos that has brought the online video revolution to life. The people behind this are self-taught, self-motivated, and filling a need that the corporate world can only vie to catch up with. Cohen began coding by seeing how fast he could crash the Timex Sinclair computer that his dad, a bioinformatics professor, brought home in the early 1980s. He programmed his own Connect Four game and competed in geek contests called Code Wars. But he lasted only two years as a computer science student at State University of New York in Buffalo before dropping out. "You don't need a certificate to be a programmer," he says, "you just go and do it."

A new generation is growing up with video at its fingertips. And the old generation is getting in tune.

Following the siren call of San Francisco's emerging cypherpunk scene, a subculture of privacy-conscious cryptography coders, Cohen headed west. By the time file-sharing programs like Napster and Gnutella hit the Net, Cohen had enough Skinny Puppy CDs that he didn't feel the need to pirate online. Plus, he didn't think the programs were very well written. Surfers could trade files with each other only one at a time. As if it were a new Rubik's puzzle, he committed himself to solving this faster. The solution was to break up the files so that numerous surfers could essentially upload and download them simultaneously. In geek-speak, this is called swarming . And it didn't take long for people to swarm BitTorrent.

When geeks deluged BitTorrent to swap new Linux software in early 2003, it went prime time. As one fan blogged, "Woohoo! BitTorrent rocks!" While Cohen was busy with his code, he never considered how it would be used. Gary Lerhaupt, a computer science master's student at Stanford, has embraced it as a new business model. His start-up, Prodigem, helps artists convert their music and films into BitTorrent files and, using fingerprinting technology, get paid for downloads. "This is a free culture movement that's empowering people," he says, "You can make money by giving people open access to your media. I don't think Hollywood realizes that yet."

But Hollywood is trying. The watershed moment for Me TV came on 12 October 2005, when Apple announced that the fifth-generation iPod, the company's ubiquitous digital music player, would support video too. Though the screen was small (2.5 inches diagonally) and the resolution shoddy (480 by 480, with a maximum pixel count of 230 400), the sheer giddy mobility of the platform was the stuff of a revolution. Video could be everywhere.

And it was. Along with news of the video iPod, Apple delivered the second punch, a revamped version of its popular iTunes digital download service. In addition to sucking down songs and audiobooks, consumers would now be able to choose from over 2000 music videos and short films. The biggest wave came from Disney, which reported that episodes of ABC television shows, including the hits "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," would be available for download at the cost of US $1.99 per episode. "For the first time ever, hit prime-time shows can be purchased online the day after they air on TV," said Robert Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Company. Now instead of BitTorrenting your favorite TV show, you could pay for it!

But the dawn of the video iPod sent waves, of course, back through the underground too. And concurrent with the rise of the mobile video platform came another movement: the dawn of the home brewers. Homebrew video makers have taken to the Net in droves, uploading their own content for free download. Lowcost digital cameras and newfangled distribution outlets have spurred the phenomenon. Vidblogs (http://www.vidblogs.com/), and Vlog Map (http://www.vlogmap.org/) are two of the sites dedicated to the scene. Soldiers chronicle the war from Iraq. Nerds vlog from the Tokyo Game Show.

While video blogs, vlogs, or whatever you want to call them, are all the rage, they're not new. In 2000, "vog" pioneer Adrian Miles posted what's become a manifesto: "A vog respects bandwidth," he declares, "A vog is not streaming video (this is not the reinvention of television). A vog uses performative video and/or audio. A vog is personal. A vog uses available technology. A vog experiments with writerly video and audio. A vog lies between writing and the televisual. A vog explores the proximate distance of words and moving media. A vog is Jean-Luc Godard with a Mac and a modem. A vog is a video blog where video in a blog must be more than video in a blog."

Vloggers have taken the manifesto to heart. Consider "It's Jerrytime!" (http://www.itsjerrytime.com/), a cult hit vlog that epitomizes what people's video is all about. The homemade series chronicles the hapless life of Jerry, an ordinary schlub contending with the trials of everyday life. Jerry, the star, writes the stories and does the music. His brother, Orrin, animates the entries with just a digital camera, Adobe After Effects, and clip art.

The effect is something like Harvey Pekar meets Hunter S. Thompson, a hallucinogenic take on the Sisyphean trials of everyday life. Each episode is rendered in a kind of skewed photorealism, where real pictures of Jerry are cut up and rearranged in something of a knock-off "South Park" style. In one, Jerry endures the wrath of his mush-mouthed landlord, who breaks into his apartment but refuses to fix a broken fridge or leaky pipe. In another, Jerry takes a job driving a billboard truck, only to crash it through a drive-through teller. Who needs Pixar when you have a dude like this?

And such tricks aren't only for Adobe masters. A copy of the old computer game Quake can also do the trick for wannabe animators. Since the ultraviolent first-person shooter was released 10 years ago, a subculture has flourished around so-called Machinima: computer-generated films made with game programs like id Software's Quake and Epic's Unreal. Much as they would make a computer game modification, Machinima directors put all their action into the game world, adding characters, graphics, sound, and dialogue. The result is kind of like having your computer game taken over by an NYU film student, from the Groove Tube riffs of Blahbalicious to the rough-and-tumble Gang Wars . It's all there for the taking at the main hub, Machinima.com.

Barebones vlogging is even easier to tackle. All you need is a digital camera and a program such as Movie Maker, which comes with Windows, or iMovie for Macs. The site Our Media (http://www.ourmedia.org/), a service provided by the Internet Archive, hosts anyone's media, from videos to photos, at no cost. Another free alternative is Blip TV (http://www.blip.tv/). Not surprisingly, pay-to-play services are moving in for the kill. Typepad (http://www.typepad.com/), Vimeo (http://www.vimeo.com/), and Blogware (http://www.blogware.com/) offer hosting for a fee.

What's next for Me TV? Cold, hard e-cash. Now that BitTorrent and vlogging have brought video power to the people, the next phase of online video is monetization. Google and Yahoo have entered the game, allowing people to search, download, and share videos. And a start-up called Blinkx.tv (http://www.blinkx.tv/) is refining its own video search tool, which trolls thousands of hours of video, from TV to vloggers.

A new generation is growing up with video at its fingertips. And the old generation is getting in tune. My friend Mike now has his own videos on the Web. They're short films of his 4-year-old son dressed up like a pirate and enacting homemade plays. The "Wish I Had a Cat" video, alas, is still missing in action. But stay tuned. If it ever surfaces, you'll find it online.

About the Author

David Kushner is a journalist and writer. His latest book, Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House), is about underdog gamers who hit Las Vegas. His previous book, Masters of Doom (Random House), about the co-creators of the video games Doom and Quake, is being developed into a movie for Showtime. He has also written for Rolling Stone , The New York Times , Wired , Salon , Spin , and other publications.

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