The Open Video Conference

Having worked in TV and then for a decade in “new” media I’ve felt acutely aware of inhabiting distinct cultures in my professional life. It’s perhaps been most apparent when I’ve been involved in cross-platform projects. Linear and non-linear production structures and processes don’t easily mesh, and I’ve been in situations with good creative people from different sides of the fence regarding each other as if they’re aliens. This can be about a lack of understanding of each others’ processes, but it’s also about underlying values.

Openness, in particular, is written into the infrastructure of the web and it’s a core principle for many who work on that platform. For producers in the one-to-many world of broadcasting, editorial control is a raison d’etre (in the BBC’s case it’s interesting to note that corporation control is a requirement of the Charter) and there’s still a widespread assumption that closed processes are key to quality. People interested in widening participation have therefore tended to work from the margins of broadcasting – in independent film, community video and access TV. So it was a real treat for me to attend the Open Video Conference in New York last weekend, a forum in which progressive currents in the two cultures come together.

‘Open video’ is about defending and extending the democratic potential of video on the web. It’s not just a technical issue, it encompasses rights, tools, platforms, methods and literacy, as Conference Director Ben Moskowitz explained in the programme;

“…we’re going to need to ensure that creativity is compensated; that the tools for making and watching video are accessible and widely distributed; that the network for delivering video is open to all producers, big and small; and that public policy supports the ability of mass numbers of people to participate in the video conversation. We are saturated with video—basic literacy now demands that it’s just as easy to make and share video as it is to consume it.”

The short film above, based on interviews with attendees at the first Open Video Conference in 2009 is a great introduction to the territory.

The conference, organised by the Open Video Alliance and sponsored by organisations including Mozilla (open source software foundation) and Kaltura (open source video platforms), ran for two days followed by a hackday on Sunday. There were over sixty sessions and hundreds of attendees – panels, showcases, practical discussions around new technologies – with three streams running much of the time. You can see the full programme here. Inevitably there was lots that I missed, but I saw and heard lots that was important and thought-provoking, and there was some inspiring content on show. Here are the CollabDocs highlights.

Vincent Moon, an artist new to me, talked to us from (a dimly lit room in) Paris via Skype. He described his approach – handheld, often single-take field recordings of musicians – as a deliberate reinvention of video for the web, with the camera a catalyst to bring people together. “My point is not to make movies but to make relationships – basically, to meet people, and I found a good pretext to do that.” His videos, which you can see on his own site, on Vimeo and You Tube, really deliver – by taking advantage of the haptic, go-anywhere qualities of the camcorder he creates a fluid, intimate form that feels live.  Moon is a nice example of a documentarist who is unafraid of sharing his work under a Creative Commons license – you can read his thinking on that here. (If you want to know more about what Creative Commons means in practice you can hear from a range of producers in this video produced by Intelligent Television, a US organisation to promote cultural and educational video who were among the conference sponsors.)

A month after winning  an Interactive Emmy for Star Wars: Uncut – their crowd-sourced fan remake of Star Wars: A New Hope – producers Casey Pugh and Jamie Wilkinson still seem pretty bemused at that turn of events. The project’s creator Pugh had been working at Vimeo, puzzling over how to get filmmakers to collaborate and had noticed Aaron Koblin’s projects in crowd sourcing – The Sheep Market, Bicycle Built for Two Thousand, and Ten Thousand Cents.  Jamie Wilkinson was running Know Your Meme, a site which studies internet phenomena. Together they looked for a subject where fan enthusiasm would motivate participation. Star Wars was an obvious topic  – a ‘gimme’ as Pugh put it. He was a fan, and in terms of online traffic Star Wars gets more hits than Jesus! (Similar thinking – that sci-fi fans were an online community with critical mass and with the passion  and expertise to get involved – was behind My Science Fiction Life – the collective biography of British science fiction that we made at the BBC a few years back. It paid off – they are an exceptionally connected community.)

Pugh & Wilkinson cut “Star Wars: A New Hope” up into 15 second segments, made a website that allowed users to choose which scene to work on, gave participants the structure of a deadline, and promoted the project – quite modestly – to their own networks. Within months fans had recreated the whole film, using all sorts of witty, inventive styles and approaches. LucasFilm were (wisely) cool with it, and keen that The Empire Strikes Back be given the same treatment, though apparently not interested in paying for it to be done. So Pugh has an Emmy but no job, meanwhile he and Wilkinson are wondering what other movies to treat the same way. Ideas to team@starwarsuncut.com

It was good to hear from Scott Draves, an early innovator in open-source digital art, who gave a lightning introduction to his beautiful distributed screen saver project Electric Sheep project, which is now ten years old.  A “cyborg mind composed of 400,000 computers and people worldwide”, is how he described it, a collective work, “where all the computers running the software are working together to render animation and share the results.” A voting system introduces a Darwinian dimension with the ‘fittest’ designs growing stronger. There’s loads about Draves and his projects online, including this gem, a terrific extended interview with veteran Manhattan cable talk-show host Harold Channer .

HTML5 represents a turning point for video online, and there were a number of sessions devoted to it –  showcasing HTML5 players, streaming solutions and cross-platform delivery. HTML5 makes video “of the web not on it” as rip! A Remix Manifesto producer Brett Gaylor put it, showing Mozilla’s experiment in semantic web – the popcorn.js demo – that I wrote about recently. To show the potential of popcorn Gaylor had created a new demo that updated Kuleshov‘s famous Soviet era demonstration of the effect of film montage – cute.

The conference wasn’t all good news though. Former Obama innovation adviser and legal scholar Susan Crawford used her keynote to warn against complacency in taking the current openness of the web for granted. She sees this Autumn as a potential tipping point for the open internet with the increasing consolidation of ISPs and two significant pieces of legislation in the pipeline in the US – one that could result in the preventative blocking of domain names suspected of actual or intended(!) copyright infringement (COICA), the other that could require new websites to comply with design guidelines so that the FBI can potentially access them which could mean needing a license in order to launch (CALEA). “Your voices are not heard in Washington”, she warned the gathering, urging the building of more powerful alliances between web advocacy bodies like the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation).

Media literacy was a major theme of the two days, and the cultural anthropologist and videographer Michael Wesch made this the subject of his talk, “Towards Open Video Culture; What’s at stake?” Though he cited a number of diverse projects as evidence of the maturing and achievements of online collaboration and creativity – the breakthrough crisis information crowdsourcing of Ushahidi, the musical virtuosity of Eric Whiteacre’s Virtual Choir and the political effectiveness of Greenpeace’s video riposte to Dove’s “Onslaught” online advert – Wesch’s talk was less up-beat about digital culture than in his often cited, must-see 2008 Library of Congress speech.

Wesch challenged the widespread assumption that the younger, ‘digital native’ generation are generally confident in navigating and making sense of the contemporary media landscape. He characterised his students as “meaning seekers”, who feel passive in the face of all the content that’s out there, and made an urgent case for the role of teachers in higher education in developing what he calls “participatory literacy” – the critical thinking and making that students need to become “meaning makers”.

He gave the example of Shawn Ahmed who, inspired by Jeffrey Sacks‘ (“The End of Poverty”,”Common Wealth”), dropped out of college at Notre Dame to start his Uncultured Project – “haphazardly trying to make the world a better place”. For Wesch, the role of the contemporary teacher is to collaborate with students in learning through engaging with just such real-life problems as those that Ahmed felt he could only pursue by leaving college.

There was lots of discussion at the Open Video Conference but it wasn’t just a talking shop. There were practical sessions, showcases of new technology, and panels that were well cast to create fruitful dialogue.  A thread that exemplified the engaged and grounded quality of the proceedings was on Human Rights video. It began with “Cameras Everywhere: Human Rights and Web Video”, a panel introduced by Sam Gregory from Witness which set out the thorny and, in this context, potentially life and death issues around ’informed consent’, intentionality (how to maintain the original context in a video’s ongoing life online), and the tensions (due to the dangers of re-victimisation and retaliation) between privacy and freedom of expression. It was a lesson in just how entangled (new) media, message, and ethics are. But it didn’t end with the theory. The panel was followed by a workshop to define practical and technical responses to some of the challenges – approaches to anonymisation for instance, compression solutions to make video available in regions with low bandwidth etc. Then, at the hackday on Sunday, developers got stuck in, in dialogue with producers and advocates, to prototype technical solutions. A really worthwhile use of the assembled knowledge and talents.

All that, and I didn’t even get to see The Daily Show‘s video guru Adam Chodikoff, a mega session on the theory and practice of remix, or The Yes Men (but hey, this is the open web, I can still post the trailer from their new movie…) Happily the conference was recorded and I look forward to the videos being available so that I can catch up with some of what I missed. I’ll post a link then.

Finally, a big thanks to the Open Video Conference for travel support.

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