By Any Means Necessary
Not long before its demise, entertainment site Pseudo.com appeared to hit a high point with live webcasts from the Democratic and Republican national conventions this past summer. Pseudo's presence at the conventions was sufficiently noteworthy as an example of young media hipsters sporting goatees, carrying wireless gizmos, and invading the stuffy world of politics; enough to warrant citation in Newsweek magazine. But the experiment was not enough to save the company from financial collapse and closure on September 18. Ultimately, the content provider simply could not attract the big numbers.
Seven days after all the Pseudo employees left the company's downtown New York headquarters for the last time, 25-year-old webmaster, Manse Jacobi spent 48 sleepless hours in his office in Boulder, Colorado, manually rebooting an overloaded Postgress SQL server. Jacobi's site,
www.indymedia.org, received around 800,000 hits that week in late September; many users drawn to watch live streaming video of clashes between police and demonstrators at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank conference in Prague.
Pseudo pursued an editorial agenda already well-served by traditional media, and failed to capture a viable audience; whereas Indymedia harnessed streaming video to show its users something they could not see elsewhere, and hit the big numbers. The lesson, familiar from the history of communications technology, is that new content delivery systems tend to be adopted by large numbers of people only when they offer something unprecedented. In the 1960s, the killer application of lightweight 16mm cameras and portable sound equipment was cinema verite, the "fly-on-the-wall" documentary style pioneered by directors such as, D.A. Pennebaker and Fred Wiseman. Increased portability enabled these directors to film inside mental hospitals, army barracks and presidential election campaigns - subjects that had never been seen on celluloid in such detail before.
Some analysts suggested that Pseudo's content -- shows about rap music, video games and urban culture -- was too marginal; an ill-conceived pursuit of the elusive, Gen-Y demographic. But a more likely explanation is that these subjects were not marginal enough. Teenagers and twentysomethings need a very good reason indeed, to abandon their PlayStations and TVs to watch bad-quality video on the Internet. Television produces material that the demographic eats up -- from South Park to Tom Green - while the Internet could only hope to have such a devoted following.
But in politics, it's a different story. Political journalism on television has not kept pace with a world in which power has shifted from Washington D.C. to Wall Street and the IMF, and the focus of political activism has migrated from major party national conventions, to the streets. Nor did Pseudo keep pace. The media organization that responded to this shift wasn't a Manhattan studio with hundreds of employees, but a loose network of passionate journalists with a couple of laptops and an overloaded server.
To some extent, the comparison is unfair, in that it's hard to imagine how commercial Pseudo, could have emulated non-profit Indymedia in terms of spontaneity and organic growth. Indymedia was never conceived as a destination site, but as a content distribution network for radical journalists and editors covering the anti-World Trade Organization protests on November 30, 1999. That day, over 200 reporters took to the streets of Seattle, armed with digital video cameras, DAT recorders and laptops, streaming live feeds to Indymedia, documenting the demonstrators. Links to the coverage appeared on AOL and Yahoo, and the material was distributed via satellite to public access TV stations. Other independent media centers soon blossomed in the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Belgium, France and Italy.
But even if the energy of a non-profit site is hard to emulate commercially, a key to success for any content site is editorial innovation. Since its infancy, the Web has attracted even the most fringe elements of society, from anarchist bomb-making to sado-masochism; which made it a truly novel medium. That principle applies more than ever now. Just as cinema verite extended the reach of film in the ‘60s, the true power of streaming media is its ability to widen our window on the world.