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Archive for the 'Innovation' Category

Bringing dollars to viral video

Saturday, June 24th, 2006

Steven Starr of Revver gave a demo of their “super distribution” model for compensating creators of internet video. By taking advantage of Quicktime HTTP hooks, Revver dynamically serves a single-frame advertisement to the conclusion of a video each time it is played. Apparently, this has resulted in over 20,000$US for the makers of the Mentos/ Diet Coke performance.

Questions linger. How will they verify authorship? How scalable is a human-review model? Starr expressed interest in moving to a sampling, permissive license in the future and alluded to a downstream revenue sharing schema. How would this look and how could it be administered? Is this business model and software patented? Assuming Revver is successful, are we comfortable with a single organization managing the advertising money for all of the web’s viral video? If I transfer videos to my non-networked device, does payment end?

The strongest aspect of the Revver model is its openness. It works almost like piping in the unix commandline interface. Revver can compensate video makers in many different viewing environments. (Democracy, MySpace, Quicktime via email attachment, downloaded from a torrent swarm…)

For now, there is no Linux software. All of their software development has been open except for the QT hook – “that’s the business side” – why can’t the business side be open as well?

TheFacebook and a call for open social inter-networking

Friday, August 26th, 2005

Today, Here and Now tackles theFacebook, the latest social networking system to cause a cyberspace ripple. Admittedly, I questioned the relevance of this network for some time. In my eyes, it seemed just another derivation of Friendster, the dominant social networking tool of my undergraduate years. Recently, though, I have changed my opinion. A student at Northeastern estimated that more than 80% of her fellow undergraduate population is listed on the site. Founders say that there are 100,000+ users logged in at any given time. Last year, a Boston paper reported that even the president of BU was profiled on the site. Relevant? Yes.

According to current undergrads, theFacebook does not have the nerd stigma that has deterred their classmates from joining Friendster or Myspace. To this end, it is interesting to explore the comments by Adam Weinberg and John Palfrey concerning privacy and social networking. Is it safe to assume that students fearful of a geek outing are less sophisticated in dealing with the persistence of information transmitted online? A quick perusal of profiles on any of the dominant social networks will reveal a surprising number of photos depicting PG-13 behaviors. What will the future Senate confirmations hearings be like if pictures of the nominated Justices downing 40s are stored on Will this lead to a more tolerant culture open to a leadership of pluralism and light transgression or will we see a desperate litigious scramble by citizens in their late-20’s to sue away embarassing photos from their youth?

During my time as an undergrad, walking through the quad on a springtime afternoon at Assumption, one would see the frisbees, smell the suntan lotion, and hear the acoustic guitars and boomboxes characteristic of an American liberal arts institution. What might surprise an alum is the ubiquitous doorknock sound reverberating off of the brick dormitory walls. AOL Instant Messenger was a required piece of software for my classmates, more reliable than the telephone and less intimidating than a coversation in the dining hall. Parties were advertised via away message and to be blocked from a friend’s Buddy List was deeply disrespectful.

A caller to Here and Now worried that undergrads using social networking technologies are missing out on an education of discomfort once required for first year students. According to the 2002 American College Health Association national survey, 66% of college students indicated that they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the last year, and 46% reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function.1 Widespread adoption of tools that help these students to cope with the alienation and stress of today’s postsecondary experience will result in stronger graduates and a better educated citizenry. Any first date is going to be an awkward experience regardless of how many messages the couple swaps online. Students can now explore their curiosities and exercise control over many of their public expressions in a safe, cyberspace environment with tight realspace integration.

The question that lingers for this writer is definitely one for those unafraid to represent their nerdiness. When will we see an open standard for social inter-networking? It seems that a single XML schema could cover all of the basic data common to Friendster, MySpace, theFacebook, Orkut, Everyone’s Connected, BlackPlanet, MiGente, AsianAvenue, etc. etc. And wouldn’t a supernetwork like that really define relevance?

Readers looking for further discussion should check, a blog on social networking edited by college students.

1 Castronovo, Neil. “The Challenge of Parenting College Students.” Assumption Magazine, Summer 2005.

Leeroy.wmv – a glimpse of the future

Wednesday, August 24th, 2005

Leeroy.wmv is a digital video file encoded in Windows Media format. It depicts a group of characters in the multi-player online fantasy game World of Warcraft planning an assault on a crypt full of monsters. You can hear the players’ actual voices discussing the strategy they will use to pilot their avatars in the coming battle. The situation takes a humorous turn (surely the reason the file is being passed around the web) but I found it a profoundly candid glimpse into the world of online gaming.

The communities developing around MMORPG / Virtual World gaming are rapidly becoming as sophisticated as the “real world” communities in which humans traditionally participate. Complete with friendship, commerce, art, and sport, these communities deliver much of what was promised by early text-mediated virtual worlds such as HoloMUCK at the start of the 1990’s. A decade of practice with metaphysical social interaction through email and IM has made today’s users much more comfortable traversing the boundaries to virtual worlds.

The questions raised by this technology are fascinating and endless. The most popular games are closed software owned by private companies. To make an offline comparison: in the World of Warcraft, gravity is a trade secret.

For a quick introduction, take a glimpse at the plight of Leeroy and Co., skim the Wikipedia MMORPG entry and read the curious 10 Ways MMORPGs Will Change the Future. You may also try a game for free such as the Java-based RuneScape or the open-source Daimonin.

I want my DTV

Tuesday, August 9th, 2005

The Participatory Culture Foundation goes live today with a DTV client for Mac OS X. Paired with the Broadcast Machine, these tools combine the power of low-cost video production and distribution to create space for bottom-up, peer-to-peer internet television.

From buzzword to NPR in just a few months, podcasting took advantage of the openness of RSS to make portable internet radio a reality. DTV and Broadcast Machine go one better by using BitTorrent to share the bandwidth burden of multimedia content. If these tools get the proper support from users and developers, we may finally see a democratization of video emerge online.

Mac OS X users, head over to the PCF download page to get the new client. Windows and GNU/Linux users, check out vids from Some Pig, producers of one of the craziest channels, at

Re-imagining technology

Tuesday, July 26th, 2005

Hip-hop once again discovers uses for a technology that its inventors would not have imagined. Wired puts the spotlight on UK MCs freestyling over ringtones. With mobile phone culture even more firmly in place in London areas than in the U.S., the little handheld devices have been a part of underground music for years. Organizers of illegal raves would leave a phone number on flyers instead of an address. Pirate radio DJs call out their numbers and read off SMS shouts between tracks.

According to the article, DJs now calculate listener appreciation for new tracks by counting up “missed calls.” If you like a song, you call up the station and disconnect after only one ring. The DJ’s mobile will read out one “missed call” on the screen thus communicating a message without cost to either party.

Kids at my high school have newer telephones with extra-loud speakers and flash memory for storing compressed audio (even mp3.) At lunch or after school, they will sit around chatting as one person plays top songs off of her phone at a perfectly audible volume with quality akin to AM radio. Taking this one step further into rhyming is a natural progression.

This article is one more example in support of the rising number of voices critizing the Grokster decision for its emphasis on “inducement.” Inventors and creators should not be responsible for identifying all possible future uses of their technologies. Could Nokia have imagined kids rapping over ringtones? What if this activity were infringing on the copyright monopoly of a third party? Should kids pay public performance rights? Should Nokia be liable?

For a related project, check out Blazin’ Blip Blop and Blar & Bee, a mixtape by 424 Sound Monster that pairs MIDI ringtone instrumentals with the real acapella vocal tracks. Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” is a standout in any format.

What will 2014 read like?

Tuesday, May 24th, 2005

Breaking my blog-fast for a moment to point you to a flash video from the future describing the media landscape of 2014. As the New York Times is reduced to a pamphlet for the “elite and elderly”, a Google/Blogger/Amazon/TiVo collaborative app called EPIC serves customized content to each user based on a complex blend of personal information. Special algorithms scrape single sentences from blog and news articles to create a limitless torrent described as “narrow”, “shallow”, and “trivial.” In other words, asserts the narrator, “it’s what we wanted.”

A colleague of mine recently described the Internet, and the knowledge of its attendant young generation, as a ocean two inches deep. Does the pursuit of semiotic democracy and participatory culture require deeper scrutiny? Does a diversity of voices lead to a lack of expertise and the devaluation of all information?

I maintain that as access barriers weaken, public education must strengthen in proportion. To responsibly wield the democratizing software tools being created, a population must have the intangible tools of critical thinking and media literacy firmly in place. Do our cultural values presently reflect this need?

Jimbo Wales on Wikipedia and the Digital Divide

Wednesday, April 27th, 2005

Inspired by John Palfrey‘s disclaimer and subtle encouragement, I skipped the 2nd half of class last night to hear Jimbo Wales chat about “the digital divide.” An incoming Berkman fellow, Wales is best known as the founder of the mighty Wikipedia.

I snuck into the lecture hall about ten minutes late to find that Wales already had Q&A in full swing. Projected onto a screen behind the podium were two windows full of periodically scrolling text. We learned later that the left-hand window referred to activity on the German language Wikipedia while the (much more active) right-hand window represented activity on the English-language edition. Ambience was produced from four speakers playing bird calls triggered by the continuous creation, revision, reversion, and discussion of Wikipedia articles online. This multimedia display provided a fitting backdrop for the discussion underway on the development of non-English editions of Wikipedia.

Wales spoke first to the barriers slowing participation in several different cultures. One of the most interesting speedbumps is found in the design of PC interface devices. Hindi speakers, for example, rarely type in their spoken language. Their PC’s are typically equipped with a keyboard designed for English. This makes typing in Hindi a laborious process frustrating enough to seriously inhibit their participation.

Another barrier is attracting early adopters, the people who will write “seeding” articles to get the ball rolling. These articles represent the pre-natal stage of a new wiki. Often, the seeding process involves dumping in large quantities of rough data to be shaped later when the pool of volunteers has grown. There is an on-going effort by participants in the wiki about wikipedia about developing a list of articles all languages should include..

The dominance of English on the Web prejudices English-language speakers who can cut-and-paste wholesale from an enormous number of resources. For new languages, creating this stem-cell content can be difficult, especially if authors have to turn to traditional offline sources. There have been several approaches to dealing with this problem, some involving hiring or compensating a corps of seeding authors.

The Bambara Wikipedia provides an excellent example. Organizers pay authors approximately $0.20(US) per article with a maximum of 200 articles. With $4.00(US) being roughly equivalent to 10% of a respectable monthly salary, authors are eager to participate. Wales indicated some reservations about this startup method, however, citing confidence in the volunteerism and enthusiasm present in the community of “committed amateurs” who have made Wikipedia such a success in French, German, and Japanese (not to mention English!) While Wales was quick to dismiss the idea of using software interpreters to mass-translate any documents he suggested that organizers of a new bilingual Wiki start by simply translating articles directly from an
existing Wikipedia.

At this point, one audience member questioned the relevance many of the English-language articles might have for the residents of developing nations. Another audience member observed that Wikipedia works on shared interests. Wikis grow, he stated, because of connections made between contributors who write about their personal interests and visitors who find the information they need in these articles. Hopefully, as a new Wiki gains local users, the amount of content relevant to readers of a particular language will proliferate naturally.

Discussion turned here to serving the needs of the non-literate. Wales cited a peculiar penetration of mobile phones in some developing nations. There is a possibility that Wikipedia content could be made available over the telephone via text-to-speech synthesis. Audience members speculated on the possibility for non-literate users to edit content over the phone, either through sophisticated voice-recognition or a transcription service, a la Livejournal’s Post by Phone service.

Taking the discussion to the off-line, tangible realm, Wales expressed encouragement for any entrepreneurs wishing to provide printed editions of Wikipedia content. He imagined the cost savings for a school opting for printed Wikipedia over a shelf of Britannica. Wikipedia is committed to enabling the sale and distribution of Wikipedia content offline as CD-ROMs or print material. Wales cited Brewster Kahle’s bookmobile as inspiration.

While Wikipedia passed up tremendous sums by foregoing advertising, the financial future looks bright. As Wikipedia leaves its adolescence and receives 501.3c non-profit status, donations are more reliable than ever. Wales told of a three-week, $75000(US) fundraising drive cut short after $95000(US) was collected in only two! Yahoo recently donated a data center to create homebase for Asian wiki initiatives. The next step for Wikipedia is NGO-status which, according to Wales, requires a more traditionally bureaucratic infrastructure in order that it may “interface” better with other large-scale international organizations.

“Perversely, pathologically optimistic,” (and still afraid of kicking out the Klingons) Jimbo Wales is demonstrating the enabling, democratic promises of the Web with every ambitious new project.

Participatory Culture takes on TV

Thursday, April 14th, 2005

If I had to explain my involvement with these affairs in a word it would be this: participation. In the last few years, open forms of digital media have caused access barriers to crumble with startling efficiency. There are bloggers in the white house, NPR is podcasting, a sci-fi author finds success in giving away his books, and a bedroom record called the Grey Album is the most popular download of the day. Now, Downhill Battle comes at us with perhaps the loftiest challenge: TV.

With a new moniker deployed expressly for this project, DHB is redubbed the Participatory Culture Foundation and Wednesday announced, “Anyone can broadcast full-screen video to thousands of people at virtually no cost.” They are presently seeking volunteers to get the DTV client and Broadcast Machine publishing tool up and running by mid-June!

GPL, RSS, XML, HTTP, BitTorrent, cross-platform, community-driven and developed, free as in free beer – TV is Dead, long live DTV.

Anybody can do that

Sunday, April 10th, 2005

Punctuated equilibrium is a term from evolutionary theory which I borrow here to describe the development of my own thinking. Last Friday marked such punctuation, a burst of change, and a flurry of new thoughts. I spent the day at the Museum of Fine Arts with high school art students and the evening with folks from the Signal/Noise conference.

During both segments of my Friday, I heard the phrase “anyone can do it” in both positively excited and negatively dismissive tone. Students shook their heads at the Minimalism of Sol LeWitt’s massive geometry, One-Two-One with Two Half-Off and Sir Anthony Caro’s painted steel Kasser. “This isn’t art,” they told me, “anyone can do this.”

A few hours later, I sat beneath the carved dragons of Ames Courtroom watching Michael Bell-Smith manipulate a piercing guitar sample into a believable drum pattern. Total production time including making comment was just around the length of the average pop song. It was a startling demonstration of the transformative power of available digital media tools. Anyone can do it.

The students visiting the museum sought sublimity. They were attracted to work demanding the dedication and mastery of a craft. Of the last century, I saw them react most strongly to Carol Cohen‘s three-dimensional glass paintings. With rare exception, conceptual and abstract objects did not capture their attention. They value the production over the product. Marvel at the labor and eclipse the result.

There is a deep desire in many human beings to witness attempts to defy the accepted limits of the species. We cheer on the athletic accomplishments of Olympians and the brilliant innovations of automotive engineers. However, it seems that appreciating works requiring expert craftsmanship rather than those that “anyone can do” is little more than celebration of the freaks; in painting, they are those statistical outliers with the ability to convincingly represent three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane with a limited set of pigments. Given enough time and proper instruction, anyone with intact control of the hands and wrists could mimic the seemingly superhuman production of a Caravaggio. (Many already have. Art historians occasionally confuse works of the Masters with works by their students and assistants.)

To warp this analogy to the 21st century, present technology can have many effects on an audience’s commitment to craftsmanship. Creative use of technology is about the quality of the product, rarely the production. I can program a computer to perform Mozart. However, I will likely never receive the accolades of a concert pianist. There are dozens of similarly high quality recordings of Mozart. Audiences support the classical pianist for her production, not her product.

Frequently, folks are disappointed to discover that their favorite pop singer is lip synching. There are numerous pitch-correcting tools that digitally adjust a live vocal recording to ensure it matches a predetermined melody. Country singers opposing this practice now put stickers on their records proudly proclaiming that they are singing “naturally.” Debate raged deep into the night when Kid Kameleon was called out for digitally arranging his Shocking mixtape diptych rather than mixing live on turntables. When the traditional value of production over product is applied to creative uses of digital media, it creates strange dissonances.

In the comments that followed Michael’s presentation, one attendee raised an important question: if we can mutate any gurgle or fart into a tightly wound snare drum, why sample a recording protected by copyright? This led another member of the audience to speculate on the mysterious “swing” and “feel” of a 70’s breakbeat. A later comment pointed to the recently scarce “warmth” of analog recordings. Is this purely nostalgic mythology or can better code provide swing, feel, funkiness, warmth, and soul?

I don’t mind hyperbole: anyone can do anything. If I practiced hard enough, I could sink 100 consecutive free throws. However, I can’t be Lebron James. Perhaps in the world of digital media production, we value the producer over the product.