The two-way media Web

Hollywood's old producers-and-consumers model is stifling the potential of digital media

For a blog entry this week, I wanted to quote an interesting remark by Iona CTO Eric Newcomer on how traditional distributed computing differs from XML-based Web services. If he’d made that remark on his blog, I’d simply have quoted the text. Instead, however, he made it on a Webcast published by SYS-CON.TV. Creating the video equivalent of a pull quote is much harder than just selecting, copying, and pasting text, but it’s doable. As I worked out the solution, I reflected on the unholy alliance that Silicon Valley is forming with Hollywood.

All I wanted to do was link to the video, using URL parameters to define the 45-second segment to which I was referring. Alternatively, I’d have liked to source the segment directly into my page and link back to the origin site. Either solution would be a fair use of the content and a win for all concerned: the author (me), my publisher (InfoWorld), the show panelists, and their publisher (Sys-Con). But despite my year-long campaign to encourage publishers of Web audio and video to enable linking and quotation, media content seldom offers the necessary affordances -- and this case was no exception.

My first fallback strategy was to download the video and snip out the brief segment I wanted. But because the FLV (Flash video) file was delivered using Macromedia’s proprietary RTMP (Real Time Messaging Protocol) instead of HTTP -- the other delivery option for FLV files -- I couldn’t download it. So I resorted to video screen capture. That’s possible today using programs such as Ambrosia Software's  SnapZ Pro X, for the Mac and TechSmith's  Camtasia Studio for Windows. Either will record anything on your screen, including motion video.

Digital rights management opponents, who like to point out that the R in DRM means restrictions, not rights, suggest that technologies such as Microsoft’s Protected Video Path will soon prevent this kind of copying. It’s tempting to spin out doomsday scenarios but I’m a bit more optimistic. I choose to believe, perhaps naively, that when push comes to shove the Supreme Court will defend fair use. No matter how that struggle turns out, though, we’ll pay a terrible price if we let Hollywood and the tech industry define our rich-media technologies.

A much-cited March 2005 New York Times article asked: “Is a cinema studies degree the new MBA?” The premise was that digital audio and video tools, formerly wielded mainly by media pros, are now used increasingly for ordinary business (and personal) communication. As I documented in my series of Prime-time Hypermedia columns, we’ve hardly begun to understand the kinds of tools and techniques that will enable ordinary folks to compose and remix rich media in the same ways that -- almost without thinking about it -- we compose and remix text.

The challenges are formidable. Today’s digital media landscape is a welter of incompatible formats, containers, and players. Because the ruling metaphor is entertainment, not collaboration, the flow of data is one-way: from producers to consumers. The textual Web has, finally, embraced the two-way model that Tim Berners-Lee envisioned right from the start. That collaborative style is, more than anything else, what the Web 2.0 meme describes. But so long as the tech industry aligns itself with Hollywood’s agenda of control, the two-way media Web will remain an elusive dream.