It’s World Smile Day in Worcester. On a sunny October afternoon, a chorus of singing children surrounded by yellow balloons are gathered in front of City Hall to celebrate Harvey Ball’s creation of the smiley face here in 1963.
A few blocks away, in a spare third-floor studio, another invention is in the works. This one’s a little more high-tech than that iconic grinning disc, but it too stands to proliferate and make its mark on the cultural landscape. At the very least, it promises to put smiles on the faces of believers in a free and open Internet.
First, blogging revolutionized print media. Now podcasting is reshaping the way we listen online. In the near future, it’s a safe bet you’ll be treating your computer more and more like a TV. Cheaper bandwidth, more and more people with broadband connections, peer-to-peer technologies, and proliferating tools for Internet video publishing mean there’s already a lot of video content on the Web. Some bloggers are trading their keyboards for video cameras, screening news clips and offering snarky commentary in between, like ersatz Jon Stewarts. (The "vlogger" is born.) And, with more and more companies racing to offer more copyrighted works online — music videos, TV shows, even movies — there’s much more to come.
But as corporations lick their chops at the prospect of digital-video windfalls, Worcester’s Participatory Culture Foundation (PCF), a small cadre of young activists and programmers, is heading in the opposite direction. The group has developed an open-source, nonprofit Internet TV platform that looks to draw the average viewer into this brave new world. Called DTV in its current Mac-only beta version (but due to be renamed when it launches for both Mac and Windows in the next few weeks), it’s an intuitive, user-friendly way to find free online video, subscribe to daily video feeds, organize your video library, and, importantly, publish your own video content. It’s a significant development in online television, and the first major step in the PCF’s grand mission to "create an independent, creative, engaging, and meritocratic TV system for millions of people around the world."
The core members of the PCF — Nicholas Reville, 26, Tiffiniy Cheng, 25, Holmes Wilson, 25, and Nick Nassar, 24 — are also the founders of anti-music-industry activist group Downhill Battle (see "Fight Songs," News and Features, October 22, 2004). The two groups have different missions, but share an ethos. "We’re trying to create an independent culture that’s not dominated by corporations," says Reville. Big dreams, to be sure. But the DTV project suggests they have the wherewithal to leverage their political passion and tech savvy to make real strides toward realizing them. While Downhill Battle was an activist group that used Web applications to further their cause, PCF is essentially a software company with a social conscience.
That’s why big-ticket benefactors Andy and Deborah Rappaport, huge donors to progressive causes, decided to fund the DTV project "on the spot" when PCF members flew to San Francisco to make their case last January. And why tech bigwig Mitch Kapor, co-founder of Cambridge’s Lotus Development Corporation and the cyber civil-liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, also kicked in funding (around $50,000).
"They’re attempting to build the infrastructure and applications over the Internet that will eventually supplant broadcast and cable television," Kapor says. "That’s a pretty big project. Pretty important, culturally." And while he allows that it "won’t happen overnight," he’s excited about the PCF’s attempt to democratize this new medium. "They really get the vision. DTV is this end-to-end system that makes it easy to publish, and easy to consume and subscribe to videos. It’s so much the right thing. And they’re doing it in an open-source, nonprofit kind of way, which I think is the right way to do it."
"Video on the Internet is going to happen," says Reville. "The question is, is that gonna be open, in the way that a lot of the Internet is now, where anyone is allowed to put a Web site up? Or is it gonna be something that gets contained, in a continuation of the way that corporations are controlling media currently?
"A lot of companies are trying to set up their own proprietary video systems, where they’re the only ones that can control what people see and all video content has to go through them. While it’s still a young medium, there’s a small window of opportunity to claim it for the public good. We want to make software that’s based on open standards, which is a boring idea that has huge implications."
With help from a handful of programmers here and abroad, the PCF is using an innovative and inclusive technological approach to make it happen. "The folks with Participatory Culture are real pioneers," says Mitch Kapor. "They’re really out front in terms of mixing ideas and pieces of technology from the Internet."
Sitting in a Worcester coffee shop, Reville opens his laptop and explains how. "A lot of what we’re doing is stitching together different technologies into a usable form," he says. "Taking technologies like BitTorrent, RSS, and video playback, and putting them together in a single package."
In other words, PCF’s programmers bundle BitTorrent technology, where multiple P2P users each shoulder a portion of bandwidth, into the DTV software. Doing so speeds download times and resolves the problem of prohibitive file sizes. Still, fast downloads mean nothing if the content is crap.
DTV software comes with a "channel guide" that connects you to more than 150 video sources. There’s Al Gore’s Current TV venture, which broadcasts, among other things, citizen-produced journalism. There’s Rocketboom, Andrew Baron’s cult vlog, in which actress Amanda Congdon sits in front of a world map and riffs for three minutes on the day’s weird news. There’s Pancake Mountain, the hipster kiddie show where bemused toddlers groove to performances by the Fiery Furnaces and Ted Leo. Of course, there’s also a lot of no-name, independent fare of widely varying quality.
DTV’s content is largely delivered via RSS (Really Simple Syndication) technology — the same that allows more and more people to get simplified newspaper content delivered fresh to their desktops every morning. But instead of text, the software constantly scans the channels you subscribe to, refreshing your video content just as it would your news stories. "You can either look down the list of videos, pick the ones you want and download those," says Reville. "Or you can set it to download everything that comes in."
In this way, DTV is a lot like TiVo for Web video. Log on with your coffee each morning and watch Rocketboom downloaded fresh to your hard drive. "After you watch something, the video will expire," says Reville. "You can keep anything you like, but you don’t have to deal with deleting stuff all the time."
If you yourself are a vlogger, or the star of your own reality show, or a political group that wants to host video on your home page, the DTV makes it easy to do so. Their separately downloadable Broadcast Machine software (they hope soon to integrate its functionality into DTV itself) makes posting regular video content — becoming, in effect, another channel on DTV — as easy as posting to a blog.
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Issue Date: October 28 - November 3, 2005
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