Beyond YouTube

David and Goliath
By MIKE MILIARD  |  February 21, 2007

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A year and a half ago, when I went to Worcester to profile the Participatory Culture Foundation (PCF), online video was still in its nascence. But the PCF knew it was coming, and knew it was gonna be big. Their Democracy Internet TV platform, then in beta mode, was meant, PCF founder Nicholas Reville told me then, to stake a claim in the online video sphere “for the public good,” before the corporations took too big a bite.

Fast forward to 2007. Democracy — which allows users to aggregate Flash and BitTorrent videos from all over the Web, subscribe to “channels” of stuff they like (or simply search and watch), and share clips with social bookmarking sites like deli.cio.us and Digg — has been downloaded about 950,000 times in the past 12 months.

YouTube, on the other hand, which was barely a blip on the public’s radar screen when Democracy began, now accounts for 60 percent of all videos watched online: 100 million clips every day, with more than 65,000 new ones uploaded daily. Its founders sold out to Google for $1.65 billion. Clearly a lot has changed for online video. Is there still a place for an application like Democracy?

Yes. More than ever, in fact. While YouTube has “changed the landscape immensely, it hasn’t changed what we’re doing,” says Reville. “We definitely want to be compatible with YouTube. I think we can enhance people’s YouTube experience in a lot of ways.”

At the same time, though, “YouTube represents one of the motivations for starting the project in the first place,” Reville says. While it’s a massive repository that controls which clips are shown and which aren’t, “our approach takes the user experience away from just a single hosting provider and lets people bring together videos that are hosted on YouTube, or Revver, or Blip.tv, or any of these sites. It’s important that there be an open model that’s not tied down to a specific company. That’s the way the Internet has worked in general; we don’t want video to turn into a dial-up AOL, where you’re just in this world controlled by one company.”

But how to make more people aware of that mission? Reville says more and more people are catching on to Democracy’s easy design and the myriad features it offers that YouTube doesn’t. Having just released an updated, more streamlined edition of the software, PCF is looking to launch the complete version 1.0 in about six weeks. Still, there’s a long way to go.

“We’re never going to have the marketing budget that Apple has,” Reville concedes. But they don’t necessarily need it. Just look at the success of Firefox, a quality piece of open-source software that spread through word of mouth and is now the second-most widely used Web browser.

“We’re getting in a closer and closer relationship with them,” Reville says of Firefox. “Their chief operating officer is on [PCF’s] board, and we’re hosting a party with them down at South by Southwest. They’ve done amazing marketing. But it’s been mostly viral, and it’s because they have a community that really cares about their product.”

The Participatory Culture Foundation’s work to keep online video open and democratized continues apace. But with all that toil, from debugging to marketing, can there be much time left over to sit around watch video clips? No, Reville laughs: “I don’t get to watch as many as I’d like.”

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Participatory Culture Foundation: http://participatoryculture.org/

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