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Last fall, approximately 2.5 million Americans watched Jon Stewart call Tucker Carlson a "dick"; not because CNN's Crossfire had such a large viewing audience (only a half million tuned into the show itself), but because they could access Stewart's uproarious appearance on a slew of videoblogs, or "vlogs."
In the world's other high-profile democratization, the global democratization of media, vlogs appear to be the next stage. Whether by adding amateur video to blogs or by making video the focus, vloggers open windows into worlds, establishing direct lines of communication with content at once compelling and completely unfiltered by mainstream media.
Vlogs enable viewers to glimpse a checkpoint in Israel's West Bank, view services at black churches of the Mississippi Delta in 1968, or watch Jesse Jackson and busloads of Ohioans rally on Capital Hill against the results of the 2004 presidential election.
Then there's the lighter fare: a vlogger's aesthetically pleasing walking tour of a city set to music, or highlights from the U.S. Army's 230th birthday celebration in Cambridge, MA. Vlogs can be raw or edited, synched to soundtracks or featuring a narrator, but by nature, they create far more stimulating narratives than standard forms of print media. And, for the first time, this footage is becoming widely accessible for audiences throughout the world, fostering participatory journalism.
Jay Dedman, a prominent vlogger who co-founded the Yahoo Video Blogging Group, called the addition of video to blogs an obvious move. "Videoblogging is getting popular because people want to communicate with each other through video," Dedman said, adding, "Many people don't want to write about their lives, they want to show their lives." The only question that remains is whether vlogs will become as powerful a tool as their blog counterparts, both for politicians seeking grass roots support and citizen journalists alike.
Aside from the aforementioned Jon Stewart/Tucker Carlson exchange, another episode from last December's Tsunami disaster shows what can happen when the right footage is loosed upon the blogosphere. According to Rich Karlgaard of Forbes.com, vlogs like Australia's Waveofdestruction.org received one million hits per week during the disaster from people who wanted to see firsthand accounts of the chaos wrought by tidal waves. In fact, mainstream television networks, unable to get their crews to the disaster sites, relied primarily upon the amateur videos -- shot by tourists and posted on vlogs -- for their own broadcasts.
Politicians have already begun to appreciate the broad reach and the minor league price tag of vlogs -- though Dedman believes they'll be more effective in local political races. "A local candidate who is not financially backed or recognized by the major parties can now get [the] word out through video," Dedman explained. "He or she can have a conversation with people through the videoblog. No longer will candidates need to rely on TV time."
Two local politicians who have recently started vlogging are Boston city councilor John Tobin and New York resident Andrew Rasiej, who is running for Public Advocate in New York City. Even if you have no idea who either candidate is, their vlogs will provide voters with a fast, effective way to engage in the political process. Watching Rasiej head down to New York's city hall on the subway to speak out at a city council hearing for the city to receive a wireless internet connection is far more compelling than simply reading a summary of the hearing's minutes. Not surprisingly, both politicians are proponents of free public wifi, which would greatly enhance a city's capability to access and download vlogs, not to mention enable more people to create vlogs of their own.
The most interesting development in the political vlogosphere, however, has happened at the national level. On June 2, Senator John Edwards went live with his own vlog, through his political action committee, the One America Committee. When asked how he became a vlogger, Sen. Edwards told me, "My wife, Elizabeth, is always looking out for the latest ways to utilize the web to communicate with people and she thought this would be a good thing to explore." The idea behind Sen. Edwards' vlog is to engage in candid one-on-one discussions with the public. To that end, he requests vloggers to record themselves asking a specific question, and he will respond in kind.
"[Vlogs] are a great way to communicate directly with people without any sort of filter from the media," Sen. Edwards said. "It is a great way to interact with people. I travel a great deal and get to meet so many interesting people. The only downside is that sometimes we aren't able to have an in-depth conversation. Vlogs allow you to do that even if you're hundreds of miles away." Sen. Edwards is well aware of the impact that vlogs could have on the future of politics and journalism, commenting: "I think [vlogging] will be hugely important because it's a way to directly talk to people without someone else editing what you say or taking it out of context. You can say what's on your mind and know that people will be able to hear exactly what you said." After being filtered by the mainstream media in one form or another throughout his political career, Sen. Edwards has adopted this visual medium as a way for citizens to view his political agenda before the press can pick it apart.
Amanda Congdon, host of the savvy vlog newscast Rocketboom, is deeply impressed with Sen. Edwards' use of this new technology. "I think it's fantastic that he is willing to converse with citizens around the world on such an intimate level," said Congdon, an actress who got into hosting Rocketboom through a Craigslist ad. "I applaud him for doing this because I believe it will change politics forever ... It's always risky to put yourself out there, but it is especially risky with vlogs since they are so raw and aren't filtered by mainstream media." Congdon encourages other politicians to start vlogs and have their voices heard, and firmly believes that vlogs will play a crucial role in the 2008 elections.
Vlogs like Rocketboom are by no means a journalistic tool in the traditional (and perhaps antiquated) media mold. Congdon and others feel that vlogs more closely resemble citizen journalism in that they enable anyone with a camera and a high-speed internet connection to tell their tales. "And by stories, I don't mean personal stories as in 'today I did this and went here and did that,'" Congdon explained, "although those kinds of videos are out there and of course are valid. By stories I mean, pieces that show their lives, showing what kind of food they eat, their culture, their values. They will report on events and lectures, talk about politics and religion, praise or complain about certain corporations, public figures and social conventions."
According to Jeff Jarvis, a TV critic who blogs (and vlogs) at BuzzMachine, "Vlogging lets us online go up against our true competitors -- not news organizations and reporters but commentators, especially on TV (on Sunday morning, on Fox, on 60 Minutes). Bloggers compete with columnists; vloggers compete with pundits." By offering intimate, uncensored glimpses of peoples' personal lives that are both culturally and socially relevant, vlogs have the potential to be about so much more than punditry. Dedman concedes that blogs and vlogs cannot replace mainstream media. Instead, vlogs will become an integral part of the "back-channel conversation" that blogs have started.
This past March, Michael Verdi and Ryanne Hodson created Freevlog.org, a simple tutorial, which, according to Dedman, will be a major factor in the spread of videoblogging. With widespread access and user-friendly instructional guides for creating your own vlogs (what could be simpler than a vlog showing you how to start a vlog?), this medium has all of the ingredients to become the new voice of the people. As for distribution, Dedman also helped create FireANT, a site which downloads new vlogs and allows viewers to watch them like TV, only with the added benefit of being able to comment or e-mail the vlogger with the click of a button.
Dedman began his Yahoo vlogging group in part as a way to connect with the handful of other like-minded vloggers out there; the group now has over 800 members, with people from all over the world posting their vlogs uncensored. These vloggers, along with Congdon, Rasiej, Tobin, and now Sen. Edwards, are pushing this most democratic of media. That's how you spread democracy.
Zack Pelta-Heller is a freelance writer living in Astoria, NY. Currently, he's an assistant editor for Dell Magazines.