Networked Relationships

This is the text and videos that I presented at the Video Vortex conference in Ankara on October 11, 2008. A note about the videos embeded in this post: most have been edited so you may want to go back and watch the complete videos and read the discussion that accompanies each one. Also, although the videos are displayed rather small, they each have a fullscreen button that will enlarge them if you wish.

First let me say that this is not an anthropological study of videobloggers’ relationships. I do recommend watching Michael Wesch’s presentation to the Library of Congress entitled “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube” which describes a community’s evolution that is surprisingly similar to the group of videobloggers that formed in the summer of 2004. What I hope to do is to give you a very subjective and passionate view of how I’ve experienced relationships since beginning the practice of videoblogging nearly four years ago and how technology has begun to change not only what we do but who we are.

When I first started regularly posting videos on my blog back in the fall of 2004 my main goal was to become a better storyteller. So, because I like to give myself difficult assignments, I decided that I was going to make lots short films quickly – one a week. My idea was to focus on telling stories not production values. And I thought I’d post them on my blog because that was an easy way to show them to friends and family spread out across the country.

On the evening of the last day of the first week, when I still hadn’t even gotten started I realized that I was going to have to move to plan B which was to interview someone. So there with time running out my daughter Lauren, who was eight years old at the time, agreed to be interviewed. I set up the tripod in her bedroom and she straightened up the pile of stuffed animals on her bed and we began. We probably went on for about half an hour covering topics like movies, music and animals of all kind; real, stuffed and even robotic. Here’s an excerpt.

A few people gave me feedback on the interview either in the comments or via email but the most interesting feedback happened in our house. First, just watching Lauren light up while watching herself was fantastic. I think she also enjoyed the fact that her older sister, who wasn’t initially interested in being interviewed, was now begging to have her turn. We all watched it together over and over and over again with each grandparent. It quickly became the first of many new shared stories in our family.

About 5 weeks later during Christmas vacation, Dylan, my older daughter who was then eleven, was bored. I suggested she make her own video about herself instead of having me do it. She thought that was a good idea and took my camera into her room to shoot. About 45 minutes later she came out panicked that the end of tape warning had come on and insisted that she needed more. I told to just use those last two minutes to wrap it up so she wouldn’t have an impossible editing task ahead of her. When she was done I helped her load everything into iMovie. My advice was to try to cut out the boring parts. She put together a 5 minute video and we put it on the blog she had started about 10 months before.

I thought the video was great. She was surprisingly authentic and unfazed about talking about her braces and headgear. So being a proud father, I told my new videoblogging friends about Dylan’s video and Jay responded by writing a post about to share it with his friends. Six days later she was on ABC news representing bloggers as people of the year.

At least 30,000 people downloaded her video, which was pretty extraordinary at the time (almost a year before YouTube), and many more saw her on television. It was strange. It definitely made a great “what did you do over Christmas vacation” story. But it also brought up a couple of conversations in our house. First there was a lot of unexpected attention both good (TV, lots of praise) and bad (some incredibly nasty comments on her blog). My wife and I tried to help Dylan put it in perspective. The positive attention was certainly fun and exciting but in retrospect it was arbitrary and fleeting. The nasty comments seemed to be even less of an issue for Dylan as by that time she’d already seen that kind of behavior on the internet.

Ultimately I think both Dylan and Lauren began to see themselves differently or at least became a little more comfortable with themselves. Also, I think for them this was just another part of what life is like when you’ve always had email and the web and instant messaging and video conferencing. It really wasn’t all that far out of the ordinary.

In late December 2004, a videoblogger in Los Angeles announced that he’d be making a trip to New York the following month for work and suggested that maybe a few people could meet him for drinks one night. Up until this point most of us (except for the handful that lived in New York) had not met another videoblogger in person. Over the course of a couple of weeks a few people meeting for drinks turned into the first Vloggercon. About 80 people from across the US and Europe got together in Manhattan on a Saturday in January 2005. We had a makeshift 8 hour conference that was streamed live over the web to a few hundred people. I hardly remember what we talked about at the conference. What I mostly remember was a room full of people overwhelmed with excitement to meet each other in person. Over and over again people were happy to find that the people they’d come to know from their videos were actually just the same in person. Since then, that scene – people meeting in person for the first time – has happened hundreds or probably thousands of times over again. Here’s a clip of my friend Jay, who was one of the original organizers of the group, talking about it that night.

Briefly at the end of that video, the woman with the camera was Ryanne. Very quickly Jay, Ryanne and I became friends though video and email. Four years later they are two of my very best friends and we’ve worked on many projects together (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

Jay and Ryanne are also engaged and live in Virginia where they work on freelance video projects (like documenting dissent at the Bejing Olympics) and produce stories of people hacking everyday life for their site They’ve put much of their lives on their videoblogs. Here are two clips about the beginning of their relationship. Their honesty and willingness to share these with people are inspiring to me. I also think they’re a glimpse of the very near future when in some form or another many people have intimate relationships that happen in a public space.

Next is my father. Three years ago my he had heart bypass surgery. About 9 days later I was over at his apartment to visit and just check on him. We were standing in his kitchen and I asked him how he was feeling and he said, “What do you think about wishbones?” So I say wait a second and pull my tiny mpeg4 camera out of my pocket (it’s my habit to have a small camera with me everywhere) and I say, “What?”

The thing about that video is that it’s absolutely perfect. That is my father. Sure there is more to him than that but really this is what it’s like to hang out with him. This is my favorite video and it makes me happy that my daughters get to see a little of him the way I do.

This post has lots of comments – two from people don’t normally comment on blogs. My cousin Janet, “Your dad is my hero in many ways, always positive and inspiration more than he can imagine.” My dad’s old friend Mark Fishtein whom I’ve never met, “You [have] delivered to me the gift of a visit with your father.” For me this about as good as it gets. And again, it adds another piece to our family documentary which has changed how we remember each other and the conversation that we have about each other.

This last video has been a bit of an odd experience for me and my family. The video was shot one morning while I was playing around with my new camera. The girls were definitely not into being taped so there is only about 15 seconds more on the tape than I’ll show you in this video. About a month after it was shot I found it while going through the tape. It struck me as funny and I’m sure, a pretty typical exchange between a parent and children who are old enough to be annoyed.

I showed the video to my daughters and they thought it was hilarious. So I posted it and when on with life. After a few sympathetic comments, I began getting some pretty angry comments concerned that I had unwillingly put my daughters on the web.

That was an incredibly frustrating situation for everyone. That was certainly not the case and I think it should have been obvious given the context of my the videos that I and my daughters have posted over the years. But I guess that context is critical. Michael Wesch in his work talks about Context Collapse – where when making a video you can never really be sure of the context in which it will be viewed. You may have some small intended audience but often we have unseen audiences.

So how do you fix that? Do you just expect people to learn the context from the complete work – the entire archive of posts? Do you catch people up on each post – “previously on Michael’s videoblog…” Ultimately I think it will be a widespread intuitive understanding of this Context Collapse on both sides that will help. Over the next few years, as Lauren and Dylan’s generation become adults, we’ll become more comfortable with how much of our lives and communications are part of the collective, global mind and of course more comfortable with the idea that it’s collective and global. My experience and observations have been that this technology not merely changes what we can do but more importantly changes who we are becoming.