The Pioneer Age of Internet Video (2005-2009)

There is a touch-screen internet networked television mounted on a wall in a middle class living room. You turn it on with a touch and rows of applications organized as colorful little boxes are revealed. You are familiar with the choices because they are the same as what is displayed on your mobile phone. In this apparent cornucopia of choices are hundreds of apps to click to watch CBS dramas, New York Times video segments, CNET interview programs, Mashable tweetfeeds, and CNN live broadcasts. Or you can rent a movie from Apple’s iTV, Google TV, Amazon, or YouTube Rentals suggested to you based on your shopping preferences as gathered from your GPS ambulations. You want to show your friend a funny video that was recommended to you earlier in the day so you click on the YouTube Partners app and it appears on the screen.

You crave a different meme, something old school, circa around 2009. You could go to the YouTube Classics app, but strangely your favorite video never made it to 100 million views and so wasn’t promoted to YouTube Classics. Your television system is connected to the internet but the public internet browser app is buried in the systems folder on your networked TV. Besides, if you could find the browser app you can’t find a keyboard to type out search terms. You drop the idea of following a personal impulse and go with what you can see through the window of the professionally curated suite of applications.

This description of a limited and safe television viewing experience of the future is meant to evoke a feeling that the limitless content and freedom that we associate with internet video is quickly being truncated by the hardware and software engineers in cahoots with the content app designers to make a much more safe, convenient, and professional internet. This is quite easy to see in the world of internet video—once the land of the most subversive, graphic, and comic content possible—is now being overhauled by professionals producing, curating, optimizing, and streaming ‘quality’ videos to homes on proprietary hardware. Many of us interested in the democratization of media, the absence of conglomerate consolidation, the presence of “generative” digital tools, video activism, and indigenous media should be concerned by these trends. This era will be seen as the historical pioneering era of internet video idealism (2005-2009).

Earlier this month, in re-introducing Apple’s internet connected TV set top box, the iTV, Steve Jobs claimed that people want “Hollywood movies and TV shows…they don’t want amateur hour.” What Jobs is saying is that we are entering a new era of professionalism—gone is the wild Darwinian kingdom of video memes, the meritocracy of the rabble rousers, the open platforms equally prioritizing the talented poor as well as the rich. Jobs has never been one to parrot the ‘democratization of media’ ideal. Never one championing collective design or the wisdom of the crowd (if only to fanatically buy his hardware), Jobs firmly believes in the auteur, the singular virtuosity of the genius designer, engineer, and director to make a professionally superior object of art and function. The upcoming golden age of ‘quality’ professional content will be ruled by Jobs and his ilk at HBO, Pixar, Hulu, LG, and Vizio.

Jobs’ vision is but one example showing that the pioneer age of the free and open culture of internet video is ending. Current TV, from 2005-2008, aired 30% user-generated documentaries and produced a cable television network that modeled democracy. Today they are taking pitches only from top Hollywood TV producers. The YouTube Partner’s program, like the very talented Next New Networks—the talent agents for Obama Girl and Auto-Tune the News—culls the ripest and most viral video producers from YouTube and optimizes them for the attachment of profitable commercials. Once pruned and preened, these YouTube cybercelebrities are promoted on the hottest real estate on the internet, YouTube’s frontpage, making 6-figures for themselves while finally making YouTube profitable.

Subcultural activities going mainstream is nothing new, the radical 60s cable guerilla television crew, TVTV, went from making ironic investigations into the 1972 Republican and Democratic conventions to making regular puff pieces for broadcast. World of Wonder, the queerest television company in Hollywood, has been bringing the sexual and gender underground to mainstream cable television for decades. For examples, see my documentary on World of Wonder.

But it is the first example regarding IPTV—internet-based direct to consumer ‘television’ such as Apple’s iTV—that will bring only the best of internet video to the home that most concerns me. The professional domestication of internet video in the home, I fear, will forever wipe out the memory of the wicked and subversive video memes of the YouTube past. With it will go the very ethos of participatory video culture. My colleagues in the Open Video movement can collectively design the hell out of open video apps, editing systems, protocols, and videos standards but no one using these free and open source video systems will be seen if proprietary IPTV covers both software and hardware, internet and television, in both the home and the office.

The process I am describing can best be articulated as a historical process of professionalization. The wild world of amateur video—its production, promotion, and distribution procedures—is moving from the realm of prototyping, beta-testing, and experimentation to expert production, algorithmic optimization, and alpha release five years after its debut on YouTube and Current TV. This professionalization is a historical result of 5 years of industrial development, individual trial and error, and profit-focused talent agencies and creative thinktanks. It is also a product of the historical convergence of the internet and television hardware, as well as the corporate consolidation of content and software around the idea of the app—a professionally designed hardware/software/content peephole into a small fraction of the internet. More anthropological however is the historical transformation of the subculture into the culture. This has been happening forever and is the engine of popular culture and we shouldn’t be so hip and retro as to bemoan it. But we should be concerned with the loss of that realm of artistic and political potential encoded in the free and open internet. The “golden age” to follow this pioneering phase will be as innovative as the golden age of television as we welcome the equivalent of I Love Lucy, Friends, and Lost and along with it the return to spectatorism, canned laughter, and the proliferation of middle class values.

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

7 thoughts on “The Pioneer Age of Internet Video (2005-2009)

  1. You know this reminds me of all of the talk in the early 90’s about portals. The idea was that a site like yahoo for example would serve as the hub through which various people accessed the internet and point people to what they wanted to get. The idea of the portal differed from a search engine in that the portal was supposed to be a sort of gate keeper that filtered content for the user. The portal would main site through which you did your internet surfing.

    Google’s search model effectively killed the idea of portals. Search engines gave you what you want, not what others wanted. Yes, there was some sort of ranking mechanism but it was based on algorithms, not on the judgment of certain individuals and more importantly, search engines allowed you to find stuff related to your personal, obscure interests, not what others wanted you to see.

    Frankly, I don’t necessarily see the gatekeeper model thriving on the internet. We forget all of the various internet fads of the past like the idea of the portal or how myspace at one time was more important than facebook. It seems odd to presume that somehow, someone will be able to position themselves as a gatekeeper in the current configuration of the internet. Many have tried and failed.

    First, I should note however, that all of this is predicated on the idea of net neutrality. If net neutrality went away then I could see the proliferation of gatekeepers.

    Second, this is predicated on the continued importance of computers. I see internet television or web based television as representing a replacement for cable or satellite television, not as a replacement for computers (which this piece seems to imply). E-mail, social networking and yes even watching videos online are still in many ways symbolically separated from watching television. We don’t suddenly say that DVR or watch on demand is part of the internet. Netflix streaming through XBOX is more akin to renting a movie than streaming as its thought of in terms of the internet. I think that even with the advent of internet televisions, this separation will remain.

    (Apologies for grammar errors)

  2. For some weird reason, I didn’t use my normal moniker in the post above. Anthro Grad Student= Grad Student Guy

  3. Grad Student Guy– Great ideas but if you don’t believe me or trust my examples look into Zittrain’s distinctions between generative and tethered devices– generative good, tethered bad. Generative tools you can tinker with, make stuff with, and cannot be controlled remotely. Tethered one doesn’t do any of that. The iPhone is his main example, it isn’t a make-stuff thing, it is a listen and view tool. Apps are little frames through which we see the world on this tethered iPhone. People are overwhelmed, they want to lean-back and they want pro curation, and quality soporific content. The app is gatekeeping on the software level, like the network is on the content level. In the semantic web, your peers will gate keep for you. Check that.

    Your second point is just what I am saying will happen, the visual internet will be something to view content produced by pros on–the internet will not be something to make things on. This is the domination of the cable interface model and is tethered. Zittrain has another example of set top boxes being tethered and controlled and erased via IP. So TV and internet are converging–to such a degree I think that with further study I’ll find that either category, TV or internet, will become faulty–and we will get the worst of TV replacing the internet I fear.

  4. I think it is wise to deeply consider the differences between generative tools and tethered devices. To be fair one can argue that the new iPhones are generative because they have video cameras and editing software built in. But lets look at that for a couple of minutes.

    I know from over ten years of teaching people how to make video that people need to be able to do and reflect in short periods of time in order to retain new learnings. The best way I’ve found to teach video language is to challenge people to edit in camera. (yes. video is a language.) Old tape cameras were great for this because all you had to do was rewind to the beginning of a sequence and press play. Students could immediately grasp if their sequences worked or not.

    But now solid state, flash drive cameras force students to interact with non linear editing systems before they can see the sequences they shot – and most importantly felt in their bodies.
    By the time they have gone through all the extra steps demanded by the NLE, their conscious body memory of making the shots has waned. A simple solution to this problem would be to add a seamless play all function to flash drive digital camcorders. But the companies will resist this because they want more people to buy NLE hardware and software to compliment their camcorders. This begs questions about the balance between healthy human development and commercial technical supply chains.

    By the way, I do not believe it is possible to tether determined human beings for very long. Somebody always figures out a way to break the yoke of tyranny. That said, we must always be vigilant for those who seek to compartmentalize, systematize and control human behavior – especially those who seem to mean well.

  5. Isn’t this, in a way, the usual transformation and corralling of the natural human tendency to share and practice folklore? After reading the Cultural Policy article linked in the recent roundup, I couldn’t help get that feeling about copyright and content creation and, things like venues having to pay royalties for people performing covers songs. And then I had that feeling reading this, too.

    It seems like capitalism has decided that all human creativity and ingenuity must be monetized and accounted for, and anything that isn’t is too messy or pointless to deal with.

    Interesting though, that in this case it seems to be what all those involved in creating the tools just assume should be the case.

  6. Yes! It is a problem when electronic hardware manufacturers and software developers make assumptions like these. I contend that they curtail human development when they do. We don’t need robots to do EVERYTHING for us.

  7. “It seems like capitalism has decided that all human creativity and ingenuity must be monetized and accounted for, and anything that isn’t is too messy or pointless to deal with.”

    “Capitalism” here is being imagined in an anthropomorphized and non-contextualized way. Capitalism isn’t a thing existing outside of human interaction and power. I can agree with the overall critique, and not like the current system, but I have no alternative. How has creativity and ingenuity made people a living historically in ways completely outside of the realm of exchange activity? Are there any examples? If there was exchange involved, then a value was set, even in barter. I imagine that in a subsistence economy individual creativity would lead to greater efficiencies and progress, which would diffuse to others freely, but we don’t live in subsistence economies, and this type of free transference is still free.

    I don’t think that at the present there is a viable alternative that would work on any feasible scale. People have to eat and pay their bills, and creativity alone isn’t going to do that. The vast majority of our current material culture is far beyond the ability of any single person. Whether it’s engineers figuring out how to make microchips smaller, or artists of all types needing to be compensated for their work, the current system provides. Changing it to make it better isn’t replacing it with any other divergent system. I think regulating what’s in place is the only realistic alternative available at the moment. That is, pragmatic blends of purer ideologies.

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