March 21, 2011

Six years ago today, a video revolution was born

ourmedia-screenshot
An early screenshot from Ourmedia.org.
 

How an era was born: Ourmedia, YouTube & grassroots media

JD LasicaIt’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

brewster-and-friends

Dave Toole, JD Lasica, Brewster Kahle, Doug Kaye and Morty Wiggins at lunch in the Presidio.

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.)

Let the record show: We launched on March 21, 2005 – a month before a newcomer called YouTube opened its beta doors and two months before Blip.tv was born.

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 …

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