How an era was born: Ourmedia, YouTube & grassroots media
It’s hard to fathom now, but six years ago YouTube, free video hosting and democratic video sharing didn’t exist. Then, six years ago today, Ourmedia.org burst onto the scene and helped launch a video revolution.
The “media” part of social media has become so engrained in our culture in such a short time that it’s worth looking back at how quickly things have changed — and why it matters. (Given that the early history of the Internet is withering away, I’ll try to be as detailed as possible.)
At the Supernova conference in June 2004, Marc Canter, one of the pioneers of Internet media and a true character in the startup world, and I had a long talk about the need for a free online service to host video and rich media, which we saw as the next stage of the Internet’s evolution. I was spending time among creatives like digital storytellers and video producers who had created amazing stories that were locked away in people’s computers with no way to share them. Marc had already carved out a reputation as the go-to geek for creating online communities with open standards.
And so we envisioned a site that would host thousands, and eventually millions, of amateur works: grassroots videos, podcasts (just invented), independent films, photo and art galleries, Flash animations, video diaries, documentary journalism, home-brew political ads, music videos, children’s tales, student films, multimedia presentations and more. The site would have to be free. And the works would be stored online — forever.
It was, of course, a preposterous idea. Other video hosting sites had sprung up, but none offered free hosting and free bandwidth — something that was still awfully expensive.
Birth of a genius idea: Free video hosting & bandwidth
We went to work to make it happen. This would be a public commons of shared creativity, not a closed system operated for profit. So instead of trekking to Sandhill Road for VC funding, we sat down with Brewster Kahle, the quixotic genius behind the nonprofit Internet Archive, who took the millions he made selling Alexa Internet to Amazon.com and poured it into an effort to archive the entirety of the World Wide Web on servers in San Francisco, the Netherlands and Alexandria, Egypt. (Think your website from the mid-‘90s is gone? Check out the Archive’s Wayback Machine.)
The Archive was then a prim, buttoned-down place for storing vetted digital collections – sort of an online version of the Library of Congress. It was, in short, a place for historians, scholars, librarians and researchers – not a place for the unwashed democratic masses.
We persuaded Brewster to open up the Archive for a six-month experiment. We would create a new site, Ourmedia.org, with a team of programmers from India and Canada. All the posts, comments and the front-end UI would take place on Ourmedia, while all the media files would live on the Archive’s servers. Ross Mayfield, meanwhile, donated a free wiki from Socialtext for about 200 volunteers from a dozen countries around the world to collaborate on the site’s front end. It was all built on Drupal, the open source publishing platform.
Yes, we came before YouTube was born
It proved to be unwieldy, chaotic, maddening – and a thing of beauty. The world’s first free media hosting site, open to anyone in any country. (While it was free to small Web publishers, we placed restrictions on large commercial operations. They already had places to serve their media; this project was intended for our media.)
As I wrote at the time:
“Marc and I believe that real change in the mediasphere will only come about when millions of us pick up the tools of digital creativity. The tools are now at hand. Let’s go.”
A simple Slashdot post of two sentences on the day of our launch generated 327 comments – and knocked out our servers for half a day.
By launch, we had assembled a world-class Advisory Board: Lawrence Lessig, Doc Searls, Dan Gillmor, Howard Rheingold, the Harvard Berkman Center’s Charles Nesson, author David Bollier and Steve Rosenbaum, Leslie Rule and other luminaries.
Journalism.co.uk covered our launch, noting that we got 20,000 visitors in our first 24 hours. “The site is free to use and is likely to have particular appeal for video bloggers and podcasters: popular files usually mean costly data bills but Ourmedia will host files for free,” they reported. “The founders hope that the site will become a rich repository of shareable digital media including documentaries, student films, grassroots political adverts and artwork.”
Andy Carvin at Digital Divide Network (and now NPR’s social media wiz) spotted its significance right away:
Today is the official launch of Ourmedia.org, which I checked out over the weekend prior to the official launch. I can’t remember the last time a new website launch has had me so excited. The idea behind Ourmedia is really simple: it’s a community where anyone who creates online media – video blogs, podcasts, photos, you name it – can have a place where they can publish it and share it with others.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it really is an important step forward in the world of online citizen journalism. Now, you don’t need your own Web host to store that killer 50 meg video file you’ve just produced. Just become a member of Ourmedia, use their upload tool, and presto …
A week later — in the olden days of March 27, 2005 — I blogged this:
“More than 6,000 people signed up to become members of Ourmedia in our first week — about 10 times more than we expected. We’ve tapped into a large thirst in the land for authentic voices, first-person narrative and grassroots creativity.”
Laying the ground rules for the revolution
Back in early 2005, the notion of a free media hosting site was still an audacious, slightly kooky idea. (Free hosting? Free bandwidth? Free archiving? Crazy!) We had to figure out everything from scratch, because there was no roadmap or model.
What did we call the people who uploaded stuff? User? Artist? Creator? Producer?
What information did people want to reveal publicly about themselves in the Ourmedia community? Their true names or an alias? Their city or location? Their age? We had no clue.
[Update: Melanie McBride adds: “I remember the hard work involved in manually tagging video content.” Indeed. Flickr had just come along but there was no easy way yet to implement a system of tagging — and indeed, most people didn’t know what tagging was. 3/21/11]
What metadata to collect? On one side were the archivists, who wanted producers to share as much text about a video as possible (something that’s still sorely lacking today on YouTube, I might add). On the other side were those of us who placed a premium on ease of use: nudging but not forcing people to share information about the contents of a video.
How could videos be shared? We gave everyone an option from day one to license their video under any Creative Commons license so that users would know what could be shared and where. And, again, it’s disappointing that YouTube has still not rolled out an option for Creative Commons when we did so in March 2005.
How did we police the site to prevent it from being overrun with copyrighted works, porn and spam? After all, almost every other site up until then had gatekeepers: Submit your work and if it passes our criteria, we may approve it.
We dismantled that model — this was the truly revolutionary aspect of Ourmedia. You uploaded a work — and it appeared instantly. No curators, no gatekeepers. Instead, a premium on works created by us, and a certain amount of built-in trust. To guard against mischief, we put in place a volunteer team of 20 moderators from around the world — the United States, UK, Australia, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands — covering all time zones. Using RSS readers, they could quickly see all the new works being uploaded and spot any infractions.
But where to draw the line? We consulted teams of attorneys. Fenwick-West, the prestigious intellectual property law firm in San Francisco, wrote a set of fair use guidelines for the digital age, pro bono.
We weren’t lawyers, but we had to act like lawyers in running the site (unlike YouTube, which exploded in popularity largely because of pirated content on the site). We had to figure out stuff like: What constituted a transformational work? We were surprised at the torrent of mashups – a new form of digital creativity – streaming through our doors. Mashups of Japanese anime reedited and underlaid with a Madonna track. CNN footage of US fighters carpet-bombing targets in Iraq done to a furious, pulsating Nine Inch Nails audio clip. Astonishing — and arguably a copyright violation. In the gray zone between copyright and fair use, which I had just written about in my new book “Darknet,” we erred on the side of the users. We were vigilant and extraordinarily cognizant of rights holders. In start contrast to YouTube, which was swimming in pirated material, during the three years I was at Ourmedia, we received only two take-down notices (one for a vintage “American Bandstand” clip).
We addressed the issue of piracy foursquare in our FAQ. As I wrote:
Could I sneak material onto the site that isn’t mine or doesn’t belong here?
No doubt. We’ll admit that up front: we’ve reduced the barriers to entry to almost zero. So what would be the point? It would be like knocking over the neighborhood kids’ lemonade stand.
Breaking ground on a grassroots media learning center
We broke ground on a number of important initiatives, including a Learning Center for grassroots media makers. We created an Open Media Directory, a directory of scores of repositories around the world where media creators could freely use music, sounds, video footage and images in their videos and multimedia presentations.
Within 17 months, we had grown to 110,000 registered members, as Wikipedia chronicled. But as it turned out, YouTube did a number of things well that we couldn’t replicate. With millions in VC funding compared to the credit cards that Marc and I (mostly Marc) used to bankroll Ourmedia, YouTube was able to build out some killer features, most importantly the embed code that made the videos truly social and no longer confined to the host site. It was brilliant and, combined with the trove of pirated material in the site’s early days, proved decisive. Google acquired YouTube in October 2007 for $1.65 billion.
Ourmedia — that is, its debt and domain name — was acquired in 2007 for a song by Outhink Media, which still aspires to turn it into an advocacy site to for environmental issues.
While the site itself is no longer significant, the idea behind it — a place to freely share user-created videos and media — remains historic, monumental and, dare I say, epoch-shifting.JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.