screenshot of Ryanne Hodson's vlog
Screenshot of the home page of Ryanne Hodson's vlog. Like many early vloggers, Hodson has a professional background in video production.
By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 3/21/2005 7:37:28 PM ET 2005-03-22T00:37:28

Editor’s Note: We’re delighted to welcome back Michael Rogers to His Practical Futurist column will run monthly.

Can’t stand to hear another word about the wonders of blogging? Well, brace yourself, because here comes Version 2.0: vlogging.

Yes, that’s vlogging as in Vladivostok, thus creating a neologism even more awkward than blog. On its surface the vlog is simple: adding video to personal Weblog publishing. For now, vlogging remains an embryonic phenomenon with probably less than a few thousand regular practitioners worldwide. But it already raises a raft of interesting issues ranging from intellectual property protection to the future of text on the Web.  

The current range of vlog content on the Web varies as widely — perhaps even more widely — than its text counterpart. The oeuvre ranges from some very slickly-produced material (the daily starring an actress who previously appeared on NBC’s The Restaurant) to a wide range of personal idiosyncrasies: a vlogger eats a grapefruit; video of a 1999 Silicon Valley pool party; a vlogger goes jogging; some guys in L.A. meet for coffee.

And there are already lots of kids: kids learning to ski, learning to mow the lawn, even learning how to vlog. (Indeed, an 11-year-old vlogger named Dylan Verdi ended up on the ABC nightly news in January as the youngest vlogger in the world; subsequently, her 7-year-old sister absconded with the title.)

There's also some journalism happening: Last fall, vlogger Steve Garfield reported on whether political workers were getting too close to polling places in the Boston primary; more recently, Ryanne Hodson (then an editor at WGBH) filed in-house commentary on PBS pulling bunny Buster’s visit to a lesbian household. There’s even already vlog backlash: a vlog trashing vlogs, as well as a cautionary vlog about what will happen when vloggers sell out. 

The most prolific vloggers at present for the most part have video backgrounds: day jobs as video editors somewhere in the cogs or at the edges of Big Media. That’s not surprising. Shooting and editing a nifty vlog entry, not to mention adding niceties like music or titles, involves a bunch more skill sets than simply typing. (On the other hand, once the technology gets simple enough, vlogging will open up blogging to those who can’t manage to string sentences together via keyboard. Oh boy.)  

screenshot of Vlog It! demonstration
This screenshot shows the Vlog It! software in action: A teleprompter script lets you read as your Webcam records.

New software, such as Vlog It!, available in May, will make building vlog entries much simpler.  Vlog It! is built around a teleprompter script that runs onscreen as your Webcam records your delivery. Commands that you put into the script automatically cut away to other video inserts, such as footage you’ve already shot and edited. The video inserts can start over your shoulder, just like professional TV, and then zoom to full screen.

A simple “green screen” button lets you put yourself in front of any background you’d like, from the White House to the Pyramids. Throw in the ability to easily add titles and music and you can produce something that is startlingly professional even by commercial television standards. (Of course, vloggers are already arguing among themselves about whether they want to look like the Ten O’Clock News in the first place.) 

If you aggregate it, will they come?
Once you’ve produced a tasty video morsel, serving it to the masses is not necessarily simple.  Vlogging most famously came to public notice when amateur video of last December’s tsunami began showing up on the Web. But that was also when some early vlog sites learned that having a hit video could be costly — either your hosting company would shut you down for exceeding your bandwidth limits, or you’d end up owing thousands of dollars in streaming costs. Vloggers quickly learned to move highly popular video onto free hosting sites like San Francisco’s Internet Archive or else use a distributed streaming method like BitTorrent. 

The question of who hosts vlog video is still a stumbling block. There is at least one way to actually operate a vlog for free: You begin with a free blogging tool like Blogger and then, through some tricky steps, put the actual video on the Internet Archive, which currently offers vloggers free hosting.  But it’s not a particularly simple or flexible solution and if vlogging really takes off, it’s anyone’s guess as to how long the nonprofit Internet Archive can afford to be the world’s indiscriminant video server. 

Thus there are a handful of startups on both coasts looking to be the Blogger or Typepad of vlogging, with various business models ranging from paid hosting to advertising support to we’ll-think-of-something-later. The publishers of Vlog It! plan to offer free hosting to purchasers of their $99 software. Another hosting concept, vimeo, is currently being tested by one of the brains behind the blissfully brainless (and lucrative)

On the audience side, the experience of watching vlogs is still clumsy and not nearly as convenient as clicking around text blogs. Sometimes a video begins quickly, but more often there are long and mysterious delays — and occasionally you may have to download an entire 10 megabyte file before there’s anything to watch. So vloggers are already working to streamline the vlog experience.

One approach is to create a videocentric version of the RSS tool that lets readers “subscribe” to multiple text blogs and view them in one place. A video version would essentially let viewers create playlists of vlogs, ideally all in the same digital media player with easy transitions between each. One of the most advanced efforts thus far is called Ant, available now for the Mac and with a Windows version soon to arrive. Mefeedia, another effort at aggregation, now offers over two hundred vlog feeds.

The ethics of "quoting"
A bigger problem than technical hurdles lies in wait for vloggers: What are the rules about using clips from professional video? The pioneer vloggers are much more interested in creating their own material, but sooner or later we may see a style of vlogging that integrates clips from existing media. Text blogs can easily link to professional sources of content like newspapers and magazines because so much text is available and free on the Web. But vloggers may find the material they want to “quote” doesn’t exist online except when they capture it themselves as a clip.

“What will really be a breakthrough,” says Scott Rafer, CEO of RSS (and video) aggregator Feedster, “is when someone comes up with a tool that lets you drag and drop TiVo clips into your vlog.”

That, of course, will bring intellectual property issues to the fore.  Already sites like onegoodmove post long clips from commercial programming like Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show," and thus far most content owners haven’t complained.

But they have certainly noticed: One of the most-quoted facts at television industry conferences these days is that while about 900,000 people saw the Jon Stewart /Tucker Carlson “Crossfire” dust-up on CNN, well over two million saw it on the Web over the next two days. For now, that’s good promotion. But every television executive today is thinking about how to slice-and-dice their content to make extra money on alternative delivery devices.  Clips from "The Daily Show," for example, might make great for-pay content on cell phones. Already some networks put invisible digital watermarking into their video so that if necessary, they can send software robots out to scour the Web and see exactly how and where their video is being used. 

Most broadly, the rise of vlogs is going to provide an interesting study about the differences between text and video. Text offers organized, abstract idea compression, a fundamentally different communication mode than video. A text blog can be scanned quickly for items of interest, for example, while a video needs to be watched. Some vloggers claim vlogs can be scanned using the forward button in the Quicktime player, but that’s not exactly the same thing. Video needs to be watched — and you thought you were wasting time on blogs now.

My own dream is that the Web will mature into a seamless metamedium, in which one can use video, text, graphics, audio or animation at any moment, depending on what you’re trying to say. And even though we’ve struggled for years with how to do that on professional news Web sites, we’re still far from a truly fluid and intuitive solution. Perhaps it will be the vloggers who will help figure out exactly how our metamedium in the making will ultimately play out.

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