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Video Sharing, Amateur Art, and the Fight for a Populist Internet

Jacob McCarthy

Could YouTube herald the beginning of a country full of d.i.y. auteurs. or just another site to see people getting struck in the genitals?

Media experts have been talking for years about convergence� the point at which technology bridges the gaps between television, computers, and telephones. By combining the Internet technology, telecommunications, media, and consumer electronics industries, convergence has the potential to completely change the way we share information. An early prediction of the power of convergence was that it would bring the democracy of the Internet to bear on the existing information industries, possibly undercutting the strangle-hold broadcasting corporations and media conglomerates have held for years on the variety of information available to the public. It was predicted that when people didn't need a studio to make programming or a broadcasting or cable network to convey it, the influence of the existing media power structure would be in serious jeopardy.

We've taken a giant step toward convergence in the last 12 months, and the result has not been the demise of corporate television � it has been people choosing 30,000 times to watch a four-second video of a guy setting his own fart on fire. That clip is available on video-sharing giant, YouTube. Last year, YouTube took the hassle and expense out of posting videos online and that, combined with the growing availability of video-friendly high-speed connections, has people talking about 2006 as the year that saw the first waves of convergence breaking on the beach.

But almost as quickly as it appeared that on-line video might offer a meaningful alternative to traditional media outlets, we're already seeing signs that the world doesn't want to watch video that speaks any more boldly than the television programming we've become accustomed to. And there's ample reason to think video-sharing Web sites have taken that cue and are already shedding their populist identities in order to rub elbows with the traditional media cabal that has controlled what we see, hear and read for decades.

Online video use has exploded in the past 18 months. In January, Saul Hansel of The New York Times reported that the percentage of visitors to who played a video clip had jumped from 20% to 70% in 12 months jumped. That's in large part due to the explosion in availability of high-speed Internet access and the development of technology allowing people to share videos on-line without downloading complicated software. Seemingly overnight, it became easy to post videos and even easier to watch them. The effect of that barrier-free access is stunning in the case of YouTube, where a maze of user-uploaded home movies, bootleg television clips and video logs earns the website 50 million video views per day

Numbers that large are bound to make broadcasters stand up and take note. Are those 50 million lost chances to get someone to watch a sitcom? At first glance it seemed like video sharing had the power to change not only how we watch video, but also the quality of what we watched. If directors didn't have to target wide appeal, wouldn't they feel more freedom to be creative and thoughtful? And if all those amateurs were out there creating top-notch material on the internet, wouldn't the broadcasters be compelled to rethink their own self-guided decent into banality?

It seemed reasonable at the time, but instead of empowering independent directors to distribute innovative content while broadcasters and cable companies are simultaneously driven to develop bold and meaningful new programming to compete, video-sharing websites are showing the same symptoms their old line counterparts have suffered for decades. YouTube's popularity surged in December 2005 on the widespread appeal of the clip "Lazy Sunday," a skit lifted from Saturday Night Live which was pulled from YouTube after NBC called copyright shenanigans.

Ironically, YouTube is now making a bedfellow of NBC, putting aside any pride in its egalitarian functionality to cook up a plan that gives it access to select copyrighted NBC products the broadcasting company is looking to promote. The two companies launched a joint project at the end of June that has users posting on YouTube their own 20-second promotional clips for the NBC program The Office. Hoping to take advantage of the appeal bootleg material has among YouTube users, NBC isn't even putting its logo on some of the clips it tosses to the site, hoping the carefully styled rough edges will lend them street credibility (Barnes, Brooks and Rebecca Buckman.

It's some grim foreshadowing of the toll the media industry can take on street-level outlets over time, but seeing traditional broadcasters hook up with companies like YouTube and MySpace (which was purchased last year by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation) shouldn't come as a surprise. The communications industry has been excited for years about the possibilities such arrangements present and as more people turn to the internet for video the likelihood seemingly underground on-line services will begin to resemble their traditional broadcasting counterparts increases.

YouTube's monthly bandwidth costs have been estimated at $1 million, reported in April reported, pointing out that the real money is being made by the telecommunication companies that convey video, not the sharing sites that provide access to it. According to its founders, YouTube plans to increase advertising on the Web site and continue building partnerships with existing media outlets. Meanwhile, Google Video is already wrapped up with CBS and Sony BMG Entertainment in an effort to use the sharing site to charge viewers to watch select music videos, sports events and old television shows

For the moment, though, video sharing sites remain a playground for anybody with a camera. They offer an outlet for amateur artists to share material that sits outside the tolerances of the traditional media outlets, and also offer opportunities for unique distribution and promotion techniques that illustrate the possibility convergence could break the monopoly the media industry has enjoyed.

Take, for instance, Blood of the Wolf, a nine-minute horror film made with LEGO pieces and stop-motion animation Blood of the Wolf. Written and produced by Australian Nate "Blunty" Burr, the film is brilliant in the way its clichéd Hollywood horror plot is knowingly undercut by the silliness of toy actors and jerky animation. The filming technique is common enough to have an active online community and while Burr says he isn't the best brick-filmmaker out there, the feature-ready plot, articulate camera work and detailed sound effects in Blood of the Wolf make it stand out.

Burr has uploaded more than three-dozen brick films to YouTube, many of which were formerly only available on a self-distributed DVD. His brick films have been viewed approximately 10,000 times, but despite that popularity and the technical dexterity of creations like Blood of the Wolf, his motivation seems simply to be sharing films with people. In one commentary, he sits in a modest living room with an aquarium behind him and cautions people not to misconstrue his intentions. "I'm not a serious filmmaker... this is just fun, pure filming," he says, illustrating the peculiarity of the internet as a media outlet in which anyone can share their passion with the world.

A potentially more conventional film, and one with some savvy production and marketing, comes from what might seem an unlikely source. Project Indi Project Indi, a group of high school students from Highland Park, Illinois have shared a handful of segments detailing production of their independent film Walk with the YouTube, Google Video and MySpace communities. Leading up to the film's premiere, promotional elements including a thoughtful behind-the-scenes commentary and crisp trailer were posted on-line. It's all amateurish, but they're good amateurs. By using video sharing to distribute pre-release materials they increase exposure for the film and demonstrate an awareness of the tricky relationship between creativity and marketing. Says assistant director Gabe DeAngelo in one clip "so far the shooting is going well but it's hard to get the business aspect all twined up with the art."

That's a conflict San Francisco Cartoonist Lev Yilmaz is likely familiar with. His quirky videos gained some mainstream entertainment approval when they were included in the Comedy Central series, Jump Cuts, but they remain just as comfortable underground. The technique by which his cartoons seem to spontaneously generate as he simultaneously narrates them is fascinating and so unique that he doesn't share the specifics. Meanwhile, the painfully dry and ironic worldview his narration espouses is focused on social-ineptitude, procrastination and, in one case, being horny. His website says it's, "the stuff we think but don't talk about," and features several video clips along with traditional cartoons. It's also an outlet for his books and DVD sets of material not available online and which he self-publishes even as his work is shown on cable television.

And then there are webisodes, episodic series similar to television programs, but which are only available online. "Soup of the Day," with it's home base Soup of the Day, and strategic presence on video sharing sites shows an affinity for the convergence of technologies the media industry has heralded for years. The series details the challenges its main character faces in juggling three girlfriends and is billed as "a relationship-entertainment experience." The episodes themselves are not particularly innovative, but the ways the series' creators integrate them with other online media such as iTunes, YouTube and MySpace (where each character has a fictional page and viewer comments are said to have an affect on the outcome of the series) were.

A quick look at the view counts for each of these projects' YouTube clips indicates that skill, passion and vision are not as popular as we might like to think. While it's nice that YouTube has given Blood of the Wolf, the chance to be viewed more than 600 times since it was uploaded in April, the fact that a video of a girl's unskillful booty-shaking has been hit more than 200,000 times since May 15th can be disheartening. Further evidence can be found in comparing the 180 views the Project Indi trailer has enjoyed to the more than 500,000 scored by a clip of two boys fighting.

It's true that YouTube is not the only outlet for some of these projects and that the majority of Tales of Mere Existence fans may be getting their fix elsewhere, but the drastic difference between that series' Procrastination at around 250 and a car audio subwoofer being deliberately driven to failure at more than 230,000 should remove doubt that, at least in the world of video sharing web sites, quality work doesn't always get the attention it deserves.

That's been a fact since the earliest days of television. Broadcasters and, later, cable channels, have always looked for programming that will appeal to the widest audience for the least amount of money, giving advertisers a bigger target without driving up production costs. That need for wide appeal naturally yields programming that is afraid to make a statement for fear of alienating viewers. If people aren't watching programs that make bold statements about art or politics or current social issues, they also are not watching commercials. Advertisers then don't sell enough product to pay broadcasters even the reduced rates warranted by a smaller audience, and broadcasters stop making money. The ultimate result is dial-wide television programming that is decidedly redundant. Performance competitions America's Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance and Rockstar: Supernova are on three major networks at the same time while a host of knockoffs run on cable channels. A free-market economy naturally doesn't encourage thoughtful or unique television programming as enthusiastically as it does low production values and content that doesn't risk offense.

When video sharing exploded six months ago it held the potential for viewers to speak out in favor of unique and meaningful programming in the most grassroots way possible � making their own. With a new egalitarian distribution network and video technology that made anyone with a camera and computer a producer, it seemed we might see underground art given a mainstream voice that would stretch beyond the confines of Internet and push existing media outlets to make a new commitment to innovation and quality.

It hasn't happened, though, because in reality Internet users have wasted no time turning video sharing into just another channel on which to watch garbage. Most of us are uploading clips that emulate the very worst of what we see on television, and people have been watching those videos with the incognizance of lemmings jumping to their death. We've been consuming whatever the broadcasters throw to us for so long, and the system that drives down the quality of those scraps is so firmly established, that in just six months it seems clear any hope that video sharing might have had a significant effect on television has faded to static.

Just as quickly as technology was developed that made it possible for creative minds to get their unique material out to the masses, the forces that turned broadcast television into a cavalcade of common-denominator appeal are poised to poison the video-sharing well from which public idiocy drinks with a lethal dose of marketing strategy. At this point, there really isn't much hope for YouTube or its competitors. Over the next few months, we'll see more advertisements, more industry tie-ins, and more of the same banal videos uploaded ad nauseam. If there's a shred of hope, its that even as the business realities of running a video sharing site as enormously popular as YouTube drive it to take advantage of the success it's earned, someone else is out there working on the next grassroots media movement.

In 1999, independent director Daniel Myrick scored big with his cult-film favorite The Blair Witch Project. With the exception of a writing credit on the maligned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, he laid low until this spring, when his newest directorial project, The Strand, debuted online as a webisode. Subsequent installments of the series cost 99 cents. As the series was preparing to go live in March, Myrick, a true independent filmmaking success story, told the Associated Press, "You can do something that doesn't include big stars and big names. You can do something that, if you've got a good story and smart way of marketing it, you can have (both critical and commercial success)."

It might be worth a buck an episode just to make that statement be true.

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