The Future of Digital Media Includes Participation

[I originally wrote this article on August 30, 2006, before Google purchased YouTube, but I think it is worth sharing here.]

There is a huge push to provide the next generation of digital content distribution to consumers that is more responsive to their desires. Today, content is typically created by large production companies, like Disney, then distributed by cable and satellite TV carriers. In the move to IP set-top boxes (IPSTB), there is a notion of giving consumers more "on-demand" choices. Largely being missed is just how much control over available digital content consumers will have. New developments in online social networks are showing us that many consumers are interested and capable of producing content—and there is an audience.

The split between traditional media and a new field of participation media comes when the audience is given mechanisms to respond and engage.[4] The traditional path is to provide the audience with more choice, be it through cable and satelitte distribution, "on-demand" programming, or the forthcoming IP set-top boxes. Participation media, instead, gets the audience involved, providing opportunities for everyone to be a content creator, to distribute the content, and to present content in new venues. YouTube has gotten things started by allowing small video clips to be shared and rated on web pages. RSS media aggregators, such as FireAnt or Democracy TV, go a bit further by enabling subscription to full-length videos in a more decentralized fashion. These services are just the start in the creation of a new digital media infrastructure where the audience can reach entirely new levels of content targeted at their interests.


YouTube has taken ownership of 43 percent of the online video market[1], is delivering 100 million videos everyday[2], and has an audience of up to about 20 million viewers, an increase of almost 400% in 6 months[3]. With this degree of success, YouTube is obviously providing something that viewers like. In similar fashion to many web site startups today, they're following a user-first formula for attracting viewers, giving the opportunity for the users to turn the site into something they want.

Anyone is welcome to upload a video on YouTube and then share the link with friends. Offensive or illegal videos may be removed from the site when complaints are received by the "flag as inappropriate" link below the video. Each publisher is allowed to keep each video shared privately amongst friends and family, or to make it public and seek to make it to the "most watched" video category. With relatively few restrictions, and so many content producers, the video library is vast and potentially difficult to navigate without some help.

To provide help navigating the content, YouTube collects many statistics on the videos uploaded and includes a one-to-five-star rating scheme. Using this rating information, the number of views of a particular video, comments made by viewers, and other information, YouTube is able to provide suggestions and categories of videos the viewer might find interesting. Tags are collections of words describing the topic of the video and it is quite easy to look for popular videos with similar tags that have been rated highly by other viewers. All of this data management makes it quick and easy to be entertained by the huge library of content.

I'd be a bit surprised if anyone couldn't find something on YouTube to keep entertained for weeks on end, but you might notice the current video quality level of YouTube is less than stellar. While some people are frustrated with the quality, it doesn't seem to be affecting the success of YouTube. While many viewers will pay for the quality of presentation provided by technology such as high-definition televisions, the large audience of YouTube shows that convenience, customization, and creativity, even at a minimal quality level, will bring viewers.

RSS Media Aggregators--Television for Participation Media

An RSS feed is the equivalent of a television broadcast tower for the Internet. RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, involves a web-link (URL) and specially formatted information describing the subject matter,author, when new content is available, and other information that might be used to determineinterest in the content. Most web browsers, such as Firefox, provide some support for RSS feeds, but do not natively handle all of the media types or provide significant automatic retrieval of content based upon the feeds.

An RSS media aggregator is a computer program that acts as the equivalent of a TV tuner and a TiVo, allowing a user to surf channels, find the content they desire, and automatically download the latest episodes without needing to manually explore web sites. Unlike traditional media, RSS feeds can be served from any computer on the Internet with a web server and there are many servers providing publishers these feeds for free. While today's RSS media aggregator programs and RSS feed servers can be somewhat easy to use and are centered around participation media, they solve a different set of problems than YouTube and don't yet provide all of the same features.

See the Josh Kinberg interview on XOLO TV.

Both FireAnt and Democracy TV are RSS media aggregators capable of utilizing BitTorrent to provide fast downloads of popular content, without the need to have powerful web servers involved as with YouTube. If RSS is like the television broadcast tower, BitTorrent is like the power generator for that tower. Utilizing BitTorrent, every computer used to download media content becomes a server for that same content. For every viewer who downloads a video, the download for every new viewer will be faster. The additional download capacity and decentralization provided by BitTorrent allows for higher quality videos to be served. Wikipedia refers to this technology as "broadcatching"[7] and the term connotes the many distributors to one consumer relationship[8] of these BitTorrent-enabled RSS media aggregators.

In addition to solving the bandwidth problem for publishers, broadcatching also enables revenue streams not available when using YouTube due to restrictions on posting advertisements.[9] Rocketboom, a popular video blog providing new content everyday Monday through Friday, chose to interact directly with advertisers and claims to reject product placement.[10] Instead, the blog creates ads directly for their advertisers, such as Earthlink.[11] This degree of control over content, quality, and availability, that can't be delivered on YouTube, will motivate publishers to look elsewhere when doing more than giving away random clips.Democracy TV has a separate publishing component called Broadcast Machine.[18] This software integrates with a web server running on a computer to create a web site for publishing media content. Since the publisher controls the web site, there are fewer restrictions on what content can be published, and what video quality level can be achieved, than with YouTube. Despite the existence of Broadcast Machine, publishing content using broadcatching is still more complex than the file upload feature of YouTube.

In addition to the added complexity of publishing, the ease of finding content suffers from a more diverse body of publishing practices. The tags on content are much less likely to be stored in a consistent manner or to be the same as related content. Statistics and ratings on content won't necessarily be stored in a single place and there are more reasons not to trust the data that is available. Attribution to the original author is also a serious issue for both YouTube and any broadcatching environment, but without a central resource to resolve disputes, broadcatching is even more susceptible to false claims of ownership.

Even with the publishing issues, the need to download new software to collect broadcatching feeds could be the biggest barrier to wide acceptance. Microsoft's next version of Internet Explorer will provide some native RSS support[12], but the functionality will likely only be similar to Firefox and performance will be limited compared to the open-source broadcatching aggregators already available. Concerns over copyright infringement will keep companies like Microsoft moving slowly towards broadcatching. Research Microsoft has published recently on a technology they call Avalanche[13], a competitor to BitTorrent, indicates they will eventually catch the open source community.

What is Next?

Fixing the software download issue for broadcatching is something that will certainly be solved. Lightweight Java, ActiveX controls, or browser plug-ins could simplify the software installation necessary to provide the desired experience. More adventurous solutions could seek to utilize the JavaScript capabilities in the latest browsers to build the functionality directly, without additional installations. Creation of such easy-to-use tools could evolve slowly in the open source community or could be accelerated by businesses or partnerships who can identify the potential gain on investment. Eventually, native support in the operating system or web browser will support the required protocols and interfaces.

An alternative to solving the software download problem on PCs is by including all of the necessary software in an embedded system. Embedded systems ship with software installed and could provide all of the necessary components for publishing and subscribing to content. There is already at least one home network router on the market today, the Asus WL-700gE, with BitTorrent included along with a hard disk drive for storing the downloaded content.[15] The current feature set is short of "YouTube-in-a-Box", but similar and additional functionality could be included in more complete embedded systems, including IP set-top boxes.

With all of this potential for involving everyone in participation media, it might be simple to lose an alternative lesson from the varied degrees of success of YouTube and the RSS+BitTorrent solutions: branding still matters. The video blog Rocketboom has begun to receive numerous mentions in the main stream media and provides some legitimacy to video blogs as a viable media.[16] YouTube has further delivered legitimacy to other forms of participation media and organized it in a way that is convenient and entertaining. Alternatively, FireAnt and Democracy TV have been around about as long as YouTube, but without the success. A quick search on PRNewswire shows 17 mentions of "YouTube" in August 2006[17], but searches for "FireAnt" or "Democracy+TV" didn't yield any useful results. Without some promise of creative quality associated with a recognized brand, it is unlikely any new media distribution venture could ultimately succeed.


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