Building open-source, decentralizing tools for online media, putting people back at the center of culture, not corporation.
Since its invention, television content – the most powerful medium in global culture – has been controlled by a small number of corporations (or the government). Nicholas Reville started the Participatory Culture Foundation (PCF) to change that. PCF, the only organization focusing specifically on democratizing video, created Miro, an open market video sharing software that does not host or control content. Through the use of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, Miro creates a homebase that automatically downloads video content without the user having to visit individual hosting services or Web sites. This equals the playing field for video producers, allows publishers to choose the best hosting service for their needs, and creates a standardized viewing experience for the audience. PCF is also replicating and improving upon local television by creating a low-cost, easily replicated, community-driven substitute where people can share local news, experiences and conversations through the creation of community video hubs. Launched in five Massachusetts cities in 2008, Miro Local TV is expanding this year to twelve additional communities. Rather than simply advocating for a more democratic television system, Nicholas has actually built a better video distribution system and provided it, for free, to millions of people around the world.
Through PCF, Nicholas is cultivating a community of hundreds of volunteer coders, testers, supporters, and translators to build this open-source platform – and further, to promote the adoption of open video by content creators, viewers, and technology suppliers. PCF attempts to achieve this goal at multiple levels. His flagship product, Miro is an open video distribution and viewing platform currently being used by millions of people and thousands of organizations around the world. For the first time in history, the PCF has built an open media environment, without censorship, without gatekeepers, and without advantage for the wealthiest media corporations.
Miro is activism in the form of software; by creating world-class software that attracts a large global user base, the PCF introduces millions to an open approach of online video, reshaping the market in a positive direction. His technology redefines the publisher and user experience by separating video hosting from viewing. A video creator maintains presentation and cost flexibility to choose any video hosting service while still reaching a significantly large viewing audience. Miro users have the freedom to create “channels” of online media content from any video creator or video hosting service in the world.
The PCF is leading the collaborative open video movement by involving as many participants as possible. Through the creation of the Open Video Alliance, the PCF is building a powerful coalition of organizations, individuals, and companies to push open standards at every level—from the most technical internals of video codecs to editing, publishing, and distribution systems to outreach and awareness. Nicholas realizes the necessity of bringing people together, in any field, in an effort to push the field forward. The Participatory Culture Foundation recently created a website with Mozilla and Lawrence Lessig’s Change Congress organization urging the Obama transition team to embrace open use of video. This summer, a new open-source video publishing service by the PCF called Miro Community will give community access and public television stations a way to build low-cost, local video websites.
Using this technology, Nicholas is leading a video revolution in which a video succeeds or fails based on its quality, merit, and relevance to various communities and constituencies. Video creation and viewership will feel fluid, open, and effortless—unconstrained by commercial incumbents.
Opportunities to air programs that serve the public interest are limited and minority opinions are often excluded. As a result, citizens become passive consumers of information rather than engaged participants.
The growth of internet television would seem to have created an opportunity to redefine how our society engages in the construction and dissemination of online video. Email, blogs, and other staples of the “open web” rely on ubiquitous and interoperable technologies that have low barriers to entry; they are massively decentralized and resistant to censorship or regulation. Online video in its current state, however, is rooted in centralized distribution and proprietary technologies that, ironically, look a lot like those of the traditional broadcast TV industry. Online video is seeing dramatic consolidation, with just a handful of major corporate sites controlling 80% of the market on sites like Google’s YouTube and NBC Universal and Fox News Corp’s Hulu. The result of this type of consolidated video environment is that thoughtful, high quality content from new and independent creators is being crowded out or, at best, pushed to the margins. Viewers are left with either traditional TV shows on a broadcast-owned website (Hulu) or random video clips (YouTube).
There are three structural dangers in relying on an oligopolist, centralized video hosting service such as YouTube. One, larger media organizations have a tendency to “play it safe” and remove any questionable content - regardless of actual legality - including controversial opinions and wrongly accused copyright infringements. Two, a monopolist web hosting organizations can require that videos be created in certain file types, which may lead to controlling access or may require users to pay to share their own files. For example, YouTube does not use the BitTorrent file protocol which enables a user to quickly download large files, such as videos and television programs, while using minimum Internet bandwidth. The use of BitTorrent dramatically reduces the bandwidth cost to the content provider and therefore allows equal distribution opportunity for people with low-bandwidth connections or mobile-only connections. (For example, Norwegian Public Broadcasting Corporation saves an estimated 95% of bandwidth costs by using Miro BitTorrent feeds to distribute many of their shows in very large high definition files.) Three, monopolies endanger net neutrality which operates under the premise that Internet service companies should not block, speed up or slow down Web content based on its source, ownership or destination.
As online television popularity has grown, it has become apparent that we need a truly fundamental change in the way that information is distributed and viewed. Nicholas has identified a limited window of opportunity to build a media environment that meets the social need for a free and open cultural space.
In this way, PCF has the potential to solve market failures that limit the efficient flow of quality information. On Miro, any creator of content can make their work available to any subscriber; the part-time environmental documentarian in Alaska has access to the same pipeline as National Geographic – not to mention Fox, ABC, and Viacom. Nicholas has created the closest thing possible to a truly free media marketplace, where new entrants aren’t limited by capital constraints, regulation, technical capacity, or bandwidth.
PCF’s new venture into local video news illustrates in concrete ways the social value of this approach. Miro Community is expected to be a low-cost, easily replicated, community-driven alternative to traditional local television. Traditional forms of journalism, including the local television news, are under increasing financial pressure and have adapted poorly to online media. Local commercial television coverage is generally of poor and declining quality while community access stations are facing severe funding pressure and are seeing their best content creators move online. At the same time, commercial internet video providers have done little or nothing to build connections within communities.
The PCF provides support infrastructure to help Miro lead the open video movement. The Miro Guide is a searchable online catalogue of thousands of video RSS feeds. The Guide lists all feeds with a wide variety of content, ranging from mainstream (HBO, ABC, NBC), to professionally produced web content (Revision3, Next New Networks, Rocketboom), to public broadcasting (PBS, NPR, LinkTV), to completely independent video feeds. Viewers have the ability to choose video feeds from the Miro Guide and create their own “channels” of content. The purpose is to create content centered channels rather than watching channels from the same video producer. Within the guide, the PCF has made a commitment to promote social media to the casual browser. Approximately 70% of front page video feeds suggestions relate to “social media.” The PCF also seeks to broaden the video producing landscape as a whole. Make Internet TV is a website that reads like an interactive book for learning the basics of shooting, editing, and publishing internet video. By building the infrastructure, the PCF is attempting to make the conversion to open video as easy as possible.
The Participatory Culture Foundation believes that independent voices and global audiences should have a common platform for discourse on a local scale. Miro Community (with funding provided by the Knight Foundation) is an online space where people can share news, experiences, and conversations about their towns and communities through community video hubs via the Miro platform. These hubs will provide traditional community “front page news,” adding the inclusiveness of a town hall meeting and the ability to participate in structured discussion. PCF plans to roll out Miro Community to 6 cities and towns this summer and another 12 over the next year – partnering in each target community with existing community access stations and local videobloggers to provide a strong foundation of content that is updated daily. Additionally, content will be syndicated from popular video sites that match local tags submitted by Miro staff moderators.
Although dedicated to his work with sweatshops, Nicholas was extremely interested in ways to impact an even larger group for positive social change. The transition from work on labor issues to media reform was informed in large part by the work of Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford who has written and spoken extensively on the importance of copyright reform and a cultural commons. Upon graduating from Brown, Nicholas and several friends from Brown co-founded Downhill Battle, a music activism organization that opposes the current oligopoly of recording labels. Downhill Battle sought to create a new music environment that benefits more artists and listeners. Through software creation and advocacy, Downhill Battle called for a “participatory culture” in which everyone is a part of creating and sharing music. Although short lived, Downhill Battle identified a particular marketplace that could benefit from a more participatory system.
Only a few years later, Nicholas has identified another window of opportunity for media reform. Although some may question the transition from worker right to music to online video, Nicholas believes the ideas are much more similar than they seem on the surface. Both worker rights and media reform are about finding ways—at a global level– to make marketplaces more humane. Nicholas’ work at Brown was built around the power of a small group of students to change a powerful institution, which then influenced other powerful institutions and helped create a piece of the garment market that works a little better than the rest and serves as a model for the market as a whole.
In addition to his work at Participatory Culture Foundation, Nicholas is a co-founder and Board member of the Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF), which creates Open Congress (opencongress.org), a government transparency project focusing on the US Congress, the leading site of its kind. Nicholas and several USAS friends started Open Congress at almost the same time as Miro. While the two projects may appear completely different from the outside, to Nicholas they are the same—both are focused on ways to increase people’s engagement and ownership of their world, whether it be the cultural commons or the political commons. Both projects will succeed by creating more transparency, more opportunities to participate, and more dialog within communities and among citizens around the globe.