webcasting - the art of frozen media nuggets

sept 19, 1999
by maffew .a.t. purplebark .d.o.t. net
a volunteer from community activist technology www.cat.org.au

I had a lot of fun being part of a live webcast a couple months ago, and I thought I'd write some thoughts about what worked and why. We had a pretty good team going I reckon, so a lot of good ideas were flying around and this is my stab at crystallising some of them.

When people talk about webcasts, I think they sometimes get confused with live TV or radio broadcasts. There's a lot in common, I've been involved in both, and they need planning, serious scamming, and abilty to have fun and work in a team. There's also a big sense of occaision.

The trick I think is to not treat the web as a substitute telly. In terms of creativity, TV is terribly undemocratic, there's probably just one producer for every million consumers. But one democratic thing about telly is that pretty much everyone in a city can pick up the same six channels with pretty decent sound and vision quality. And the signal is always live and simultaneous to everyone. We all get the same stuff, whether's it good stuff, or more often attrociously stuff bad.

So what's the web about then? It kind of flips the tube on its head. Its consumption access is undemocratic, 'cos at the moment, generally rich people have better access, and also can get into fancier stuff -- because the glitzier side of the web, like glossy pictures, and sound and moving video, they all need more expensive equipment and faster net connections. But at the same time, the web is designed to almost force people writing web pages to make the fanciest pages remain accessible to people who have just the most basic connection -- black and white text and a modem.

But the creative access is huge compared to the idiot box. Instead of just six TV transmission towers in a city, you have hundreds of thousands of computers on the net, all of which can be potentially creative -- they can contribute to the flow of info through web and email. And being creative starts with the very basic things that people do: writing email and choosing which web pages to look at.

What should a webcast be trying to achieve then? Presumably you are covering or creating an event that happens at a particular place and time. You want to grow the sense of occaision by reaching out to more people than can be at a physical event, or even to encourage people to come along after its started, or participate in the online community around it. You want to tell inspiring stories. Whatever's going down, you and your audience will be witnesses.

So I reckon a webcast is about letting people out there choose to be involved in an event without being there (because they can't or don't want to). Because being in a particular place at a particular time is not always easy to do.

So we use the web to shift both place and time.

This is why I'm not real keen on live webcasts that focus on a live video feed. You're not helping the event to shift places, because only the rich or geeky will have the techno tools to bridge the gap from their end. Plus you're not helping the event to shift times, because if something really exciting happens, only the people actually tuned in and watching at the time will know.

Webcams are more accessible than live video feeds, as long as the picture is small (and thus easily digestible by slow techno) and doesn't force an update too often. But you still need to have your eyes glued to catch all the highlights.

I've checked out a few mainstream webcasts, the Mardi Gras, the solar eclipse, and they're generally only good if you have a new computer with the latest video software hoojahs and a decent net link. If you turn up without all that gear, or even just turn up late, there's often nothing, except a page bereft of info or pictures breathlessly annoucing that the webcast will be starting and finishing yesterday.

So the best place to start with webcasts I think is with the basics. Plain text. Make sure there's heaps of that flowing, and you've done your best to ensure that the most people have access to the stories. Depending on your audeince, you might even want to translate into a few different languages, although this can be very hard work.

After hot text in the priority list come still pictures, then animated images, then sounds, then video.

Emphasising text and stills doesn't mean it has to be any less live and exciting. Far from it! The deal is to have a constant flow of multimedia info through the webcast, and snap freeze the highlights straight into the web page. That means if people are hanging out at the site, they get a constant stream of hot info, but also people who come in late or after it's all over, can easily get a feel for what's been hapenning. Top that off with some lively widgets. Such as a freeze grab from whatever video's being edited going to a front page JPEG every minute. Or your old fashioned webcam - just don't rely on the webcam as your main source of live info flow.

Does it work? Does it ever! During our J18 webcast (www.j18.cat.org.au - J18 was a global carnival against corporate tyranny on June 18, 1999), CAT got stacks of visitors during the day itself, plus heaps more people checked out the site for a couple of weeks afterwards. And in terms of access, for every time someone watched one of our movies, probably a hundred people were reading text and gawking at pictures.

What would have happened if we just streamed live video? I reckon we would have had an audience one hundred times smaller, and also much less diverse.

What could we have done even better? I reckon having some way for people to chat on the website would have been great. First priority is comments from the audience that go online immediately but stay forever. Then live chat if you've got enough critical mass -- but you need to be real careful your live chat doesn't depend on the latest JavaDoodad, because again you're fencing a lot of interesting people out.

And it would have been nice if our fancy automated publishing system didn't cark it during the night while we were sleeping off our exhaustion from webcasting all day, but I guess we were just victims off rushed programming and our own popularity.

You see we had quite a fancy set of software and hardware going to make sure there was as little as possible standing between a hot story, in whatever analog or digital form, and the website. We nailed down the style a fair bit to do this, but it meant that on the day people could pretty concentrate on the stories we were telling. And in another key idea, we made it so that you could put up different format angles on the same story and they would go live on the web site as soon as they were enterted, and then later group related things together to condense the presentation.

(And this software is free if you want to use it or help develop it further, and runs on Linux servers, see www.active.org.au/sydney/about/)

Don't get me wrong about the video, by the way. I think it's a really good and flexible part of the picture. Images from a video camera can go straight to the site, video cameras often have pretty good zoom and sound, so you get more flexibility than digital still cameras. And of course you get to make edited audios and videos out of the footage, which can tell the story so well. Just because not everyone has complete access to a technology, doesn't mean we shouldn't make the most of it in a strategic way. And there are ways and means of sharing that access around, and each of those people who *do* pickup the moving pictures could receive so much more inspiration and info than from the text and stills alone. It's definitely part of the complete package, and makes a webcast so much better if you can pour it in I reckon.

The squeeze for bandwidth, the grungy quality, and the surfy nature of a web audience, means it's especially important to create concentrated sound and video bites. I reckon people are more likely to peer bleary eyed at the stutter-vision and strain their ears to hear the words, if the story behind all that static comes in extra juicy pieces. With a little freeze frame and a text rave egging them on while they wait for the player to fire up. This was one of the drawbacks with the London J18 webcast, they had a great live video feed all day, but you had to sit through an awful lot of jerky vision to get a feel for what was going on, because it was live and unedited. Live and unedited is very cool, of course, too -- maybe the ultimate in letting the viewer be the editor -- but I think it's something to offer after you get the spicy bits down pat.

Plus there seems to be a real art to the new online video and sound formats. I think we have heaps to learn about how to make video look half decent on the web. As for sound, we made sure the sound bites were available in lightweight form for grungy listening, and a heavier version for radio stations who want a bit of a quality edge.

So that's my rant on webcasts. Heaps of fun, learning, and serious messages in there somewhere. Why not start planning your next webcast today?