The (“inaugural”) Open Video Conference was an unusual affair, with participants spanning the full range of political theorists, artsy filmmakers, and numerical algorithms gurus. As such, it’s difficult to pin down a single purpose or thesis for the event. The closest I can come is to note that a single word, “democratizing”, was used ad nauseam.
The idea of democratizing video is simple enough. For the past 30 years, moving pictures have been the dominant force in our social discourse. The accessibility, immediacy, and veracity of a video make it the ideal medium for the discussions a society has about itself. Our great social debates happen in movie theaters and on television screens, far more than in books or newspapers, because viewership is so much higher than readership, and compelling news footage beats prose any day of the week.
We have had a mature industry of moving pictures for about 100 years now, and for all that time, video production has been essentially “industrial” in nature. Until the 1980s, producing video footage of any quality required equipment so expensive that only large corporations could afford to build a television studio or film a movie. Even in the 1990s as camcorders approached reasonable prices, worldwide distribution remained an oligopoly of the major networks and studios. An independent filmmaker who produced a documentary could not hope to have more than a few people see it unless she convinced a major movie distributor or television channel to show it.
In the last few years, the barriers to distribution have been crumbling. With the advent of YouTube, it is possible for anyone to make a video, using equipment that costs less than $200, and upload it onto the web for all to see. For the first time ever, it is now possible for anyone to make a video, publish it, and have millions of people watch it, without any negotiations with distributors, networks, or studios.
The social implications of this are dramatic. The most powerful tool we have for emotional argument and revealing truth is available to any ordinary citizen. If you have something to say, and people want to hear it, you can, and they will. This represents an unprecedented decentralization of the means of persuasion. The media’s old guard, the gatekeepers of television (and even radio), are losing their stranglehold on public opinion. We are about to find out what the people really think, whether we like it or not.
Talks at the conference covered many aspects of this change. Some talks discussed its history and current status, in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. Some discussed the future, and its implications for our society. One oft-mentioned example was the video of protests coming out of Iran, recorded by average Iranians on their mobile phones, and uploaded to YouTube for global distribution. Obviously, this video would never have made it out of Iran ten years ago, when the only mechanism of distribution was a state-controlled television broadcaster. Even US television stations haven’t run most of the footage, for fear of offending their viewers sensibilities (and perhaps the Iranian government, which is essentially holding their reporters hostage).
Most sessions, though, seemed to focus on the imperfections in the system, and what we can do to prevent the formation of a new gantlet of gatekeepers. One obvious example is YouTube. Most people who want to achieve wide distribution of their video post it on YouTube; they may not even retain a copy of it themselves. This makes YouTube a dangerous single point of failure. In fact, in order to avoid lawsuits, YouTube allows major media conglomerates to remove videos from YouTube instantly, without any human intervention, even if those videos are entirely legal according to US copyright law. As it currently stands, then, YouTube is far from manifesting the full promise of Open Video: that no one can censor you.
Another major limitation is the licensing of the technology used to distribute videos. Most video distributed today is in MPEG formats, which are heavily patented. As a result, anyone who wants play back video, such as the digital signals now broadcast by all US television stations, must buy a patent license for the technology. This prevents developers of Free Software, like the Firefox web browser, from including support for these video formats in their products. To solve this problem, a group of engineers called Xiph has been developing a video encoding system called Theora that does not infringe on any patents, and so can be used royalty-free. The next version of Firefox, due to be released in a few days, will include support for Theora video, already available on sites like dailymotion.com.
Other presenters discussed the cost of internet bandwidth and how to decrease it, the next generation of free tools for movie editing, and many ways to make use of the Open Video phenomenon. In fact, I only know what was said in about a quarter of the sessions, because there were many parallel tracks.
It was a remarkable conference. I learned quite a bit about the social scene, and I hope many people learned a lot about the technologies. I can’t predict where this phenomenon is headed, but it is definitely worth watching.