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Editor's Note: You Who?
Time and the technology behind user-generated content

When I first heard that Time magazine’s person of the year for 2006 was "You"—as in us, the users who have created and shared all those videos, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, wikis, and other user-generated content—I have to admit I was annoyed.

Not because I felt there were other, more worthy potential honorees (though I did). Not because so much of that content is trivial and banal at best, downright offensive at worst. Not even because it would have seemed more substantive if Time had been able to honor You, er, I mean Us for something like, I don’t know, voting in numbers greater than the 40-odd-percent who turned out this past election.

No, I was annoyed because the Time cover story spent so little time talking about the technology and business-model advances that converged to make the 2006 explosion in user-generated content possible. After all, user-generated content is nothing new. Even if we focus only on user-generated video, which comprised the bulk of the content about which Time raved, we realize that it’s not a new phenomenon; we only need to recall George Holliday’s footage of the Rodney King beating or Abraham Zapruder’s film of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to realize that amateur movies have had an impact on our world for more than 40 years.

What’s different is the tools that allow this content to be shared so quickly, the hardware and software that people in the streaming media industry have developed during the past decade. Without things like cheap MiniDV cameras (or expensive video cell phones), reliable batch encoders, and WYSIWYG web page creation, most of that video would never go beyond a few family members or friends—the occasional handoff to CNN notwithstanding. And the Time article mentioned none of them.

Of course, then it hit me. This is exactly the moment streaming diehards have been waiting for since the turn of the century. It is a time when users don’t think about the technology that makes video communications possible, where nothing stands between them and the thrill that accompanies the first time they post a video to the web, or create a training video and deliver it to their sales force via email. So even though industry insiders and technology geeks are still driven to make better content-creation software or more efficient transcoding hardware—as well they should be, even if that technology is becoming less visible every day—the people that Time magazine hailed, by and large, just care that it work, the same way they care that their television and telephone work even if they’ve not the slightest idea how.

And as the product announcements that came out of the Consumer Electronics Show and Macworld in early January proved, the lines between the computer, television, and telephone are only going to get blurrier. Yes, those of you who have been hearing promises of so-called convergence for the last five years might be skeptical, and justifiably so. But in a time when Apple decides to drop the word "Computer" from its name and introduces the video-ready iPhone, Sony introduces a television that includes an internet link and then offers content from AOL, Yahoo!, and other Sony group companies, and SlingMedia announces a device that finally makes it easy for the average consumer to get video from the computer to the television—and when all of these announcements and more happen in the space of three days—well, it’s time to put skepticism aside.

If there’s any single thematic thread going through the "Industry Update" section of the 2007 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook, it’s that online video is just another tool, whether the job is sharing user-generated content, delivering transportable versions of network television shows, or creating and distributing corporate communications. Indeed, while most of the advances in internet video between 2001 and 2005 happened on the enterprise side—creating the foundation for the explosion of user-generated consumer content—we’re now seeing that those consumer sites are affecting the mindset at all levels of the enterprise. If I can upload a video from my computer at home and make it available in very good quality to potentially millions of viewers, all in a matter of minutes, why can’t I do the same at work? While the very thought of unbridled video communications created everywhere from the mailroom to the corner office is enough to make both IT and corpcomm shudder, that’s what people in the workplace are demanding. And, increasingly, they’re getting it.

In other words, the "democratization" of information that many of streaming’s early pioneers promised is also in the process of being realized, from the enterprise to the classroom to that nebulous thing that so many people call "the street." Which is why Time was right to not dwell on the technology itself, and also why I was as excited as I was surprised to see Moisés Naím’s editorial in the January/February 2007 issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Even before the grisly clip of Saddam Hussein’s execution went from a cell phone to desktops around the world, Naím praised the "YouTube effect," which allows both amateur and professionally produced video to achieve global reach unfettered by corporate or political filters. The future, finally, is here.