I recognize Ryanne Hodson as soon as I enter the Lower East Side café—even though I’ve never met her before. After watching her video blogs, I feel as though I already know the pretty, engaging, 26-year-old artist, who is now at the forefront of a small but rapidly growing movement of video bloggers. “Vlogging” essentially consists of making short videos and, after compressing them to specific settings (to ensure, as vlogger Jan McLaughlin says, that they are “reliably seen without stuttering, buffering streams getting in the way”), posting them online. Websites like www.ourmedia.org, www.blogger.com, and http://blip.tv offer free media hosting, and regular vloggers can sign up for an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed, which allows them to download vlogs to one easily accessible place as well as highlight their work on sites like www.mefeedia.com, a directory of free vlogs. All this ensures an immediacy of distribution, exhibition, and gratification previously unknown to the often frustratingly snail-paced, red-taped world of film and video production.
For Hodson, who dealt with the typical frustrations of getting her video work seen after she graduated from a Boston art college in 2002, vlogging’s lack of barriers is, “what I’ve always been looking for.” When fellow Beantown-er Steve Garfield, who the Boston Phoenix called “the father of vlogging,” introduced her to the form, it was love at first post. Hodson’s vlog, in which she usually “stars,” consists of highly personal, slice-of-life works that vary formally. Some are long takes, while others are intricately edited montage.
When I ask how many hours a day she spends online, she looks a bit sheepish, admitting, “at least nine hours, but I guess it’s my job.” It is. Not only does she publish a regularly updated “per-vlog”—one of the most popular in the country—she also created and maintains the instructional FreeVlog site (www.freevlog.org), teaches free workshops, hosts monthly presentations at Soho’s Apple Store, and is working on a full-length how-to book on vlogging, essentially a more detailed print-version of her Freevlog site.
Across the country at Los Angeles’ Apple Store, Zadi Diaz (vlogger identity: Karmagrrrl) leads similar vlogging presentations. The 31-year-old has worked as a magazine photo editor, marketing director, community activist, and playwright. While working at the Indy Media Center, she learned to shoot video and alter it for internet uploading. Born in Harlem and raised in three of New York’s boroughs, Diaz is a true bagel babe transplanted into a wheatgrass world. When she relocated to L.A. with her fiancée, she discovered that vlogging was a creative way to keep in touch with loved ones.
Her vlog (http://smashface.com/vlog/) has since evolved into a more topical one, fusing personal intimacy with political commentary, often altering focus with each post. “In one post I can be political, in another personal and diaristic, in another more creative and experimental. Or I can combine them all and make something new,” she says. “It’s a way to document myself—not necessarily what I’m doing—but my thought process. And it lets me invite others into that.” One entry called “All Hallow’s Eve” is a beautifully haunting experimental video in which ghostly figures pulsate to a distorted version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” the eponymous Green Day song, plays over a visual commentary on Hurricane Katrina, using evocative footage to create empathy for its victims and newscast footage to criticize the government’s response.
Like Hodson, vlogging is more than a passing fancy for Diaz who, along with teaching Apple workshops, serves as the L.A. correspondent for Rocketboom, the irreverent daily “news-style” vlogcast that is likely to be the first of its kind to penetrate mainstream pop culture (it’s already been made available for subscription by TiVo). Inspired by her vlogging experience, Diaz began a supplementary career in documentary filmmaking (the reverse trajectory of most other vloggers).
Recently highlighted in the New York Times piece on vlogging, Charlene Rule is an innovative, much-lauded presence on the scene who just showcased her work at the East Village’s Pioneer Theatre. At http://scratchvideo.tv/, Rule produces what she terms “diaristic, experimental” vlogs. A recent post called Caviar2 is only 20 seconds: a foreign female voice singing over close-up shots of her fingernails. In the accompanying post, she notes that it is a reaction to being robbed. The combination is starkly beautiful and fully emotional. Like many vloggers, Rule “pays the rent by following established rules and breaking them on their own time,” working as a successful cinema verité editor.
While Rule describes an oppositional relationship between the traditional film world and vlogging, McLaughlin has found that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As a successful motion picture sound-mixer (she worked on James Mangold’s Heavy and Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers), McLaughlin has recently found a resourceful way to use vlogging on the set of The Skeptic, a quirky indie thriller directed by Tennyson Bardwell, for which she produces daily behind-the-scenes vlogs that are posted online and will be given to the crew as wrap gifts. A bit older than most of vlogging’s main practitioners—who tend to be in their mid- to late-20s—the self-proclaimed baby boomer cites Hodson as one of two artists whose work attracted her to the vlogosphere. Thoughtful and articulate, McLaughlin began adult life as “an idealist student of philosophy.” She began making “short poetry films” in 1985 and later discovered a passion and talent for sound-mixing while taking an New York University filmmaking course. Nowadays vlogging takes up much of her time. Along with maintaining her “main” vlog (http://fauxpress.blogspot.com/), McLaughlin also hosts one dedicated to her poetry and literature (http://the-hold.blogspot.com/), is a member of a group vlog (http://meetthevloggers.blogspot.com/), maintains the vlogosphere’s “online press kit” at http://vlogpresskit.blogspot.com, produces audio books and sound vlogs at http://blog.urbanartadventures.com/, and, finally, runs Instant Documentaries (www.instantdocumentary.com/), a business that provides vlogging for special events, from bar mitzvahs to wrap parties.
While terms like RSS Feed, bandwidth, and compression may seem intimidating to the casual computer user, all of the vloggers with whom I spoke insist that the technology is easy, pointing to sites like FreeVlog, which Hodson set up with fellow vlogger Michael Verdi, that guide newbies through the process of setting up a vlog. The lack of difficulty is an accurate claim. I was introduced to the form when I was hired to teach it at an after-school program at a Bronx high school. Like McLaughlin, I had spent many a day attempting to find the perfect settings for uploading or buffering video streams of my work. Using Freevlog, I became a confident vlogger after a couple days.
In fact, most of the hard stuff has already been mastered—the pioneers (“techievideogeeks” as Hodson describes herself) slaved obsessively to find exactly the right “balance between quality and file-size. Easy-to-use blog software, distribution technology, and compression settings have all been figured out, and every day the process gets easier for a non-technical type to learn,” says McLaughlin.
To even the most tech-savvy initiates, though, the sheer amount of cool sites through which to surf can be intimidating. Just a year ago, there were 20 vlogs in Mefeedia’s directory; today there are over 4,000. One fun way to navigate through the world of vlogging is http://vlogmap.org, which combines Google Earth mapping with a directory of vlogs, allowing surfers to see all of the vlog activity throughout the globe.
Becoming Your Own Network
Each of these women describes her connection with vlogging as an instantaneous spark, a moment of “clicking” during which they suddenly “got” vlogging’s potential. Diaz, who lacks a traditional filmmaking background, compares this to the early days of Hollywood. “That’s the beauty of videoblogging—you don’t need [a filmmaking background]. All you need is an interest and desire to tell your story.” Unlike the mainstream media, which Hodson says, “doesn’t allow people to have voices,” there are no producers or curators involved. And vloggers are so enthused about the form that they actively try to recruit others; they are, says McLaughlin, “passionate about making this knowledge freely available.”
“Interactive” seems to be vlogging’s keyword. Rule says, “this is the most satisfying part of videoblogging for me. I am not preaching to just people with the same background. That is limiting and useless to me.” The form combines the greatest aspect of the internet—its potential for worldwide, near-instant communication—with creative production. Linking to and integrating snippets of others’ work creates a community in which it is hard to tell where one vlog ends and another begins. For example, Rule says by connecting her individual vlogs, “each of my pieces feed into a larger work. The cumulative nature of this creates a body of work that transcends into a more powerful language. There are infinite ways of streaming each piece to one another.”
All this talk of linking and sharing sounds a little like the core values taught in kindergarten. And at times, each woman sounds like a slightly naïve college hippie with an idealistic vision of the world. Yet it is hard to blame them after seeing the positive impact of the widespread and supportive community they have helped build through vlogging.
Many vloggers feel the form provides a greater tolerance for experimentation. Rule finds the intimate connection she has with viewers makes taking risks more accepted. “People don’t seem to feel intimidated looking at this more experimental art because being able to have them comment makes it more of a shared experience. Although the work is somewhat enigmatic, I’m allowed to put an idea out there that may be completely absurd, but at the same time the audience is comfortable enough with me to share it without feeling like they need to know too much about the art world.” Unlike much avant-garde experimentation, it involves rather than alienates, even with its strangeness.
If television’s “reality” is plastic pop stars primped in Hollywood manses, vlogging’s version of reality is normal women like Rule stuffing her bra to fit into a bridesmaid dress. “Vlogging replaces stories of unattainable looks and lives with those within everyone’s grasp and understanding,” says McLaughlin. “I get the sense that people have tired of the unconscious stress of perfection’s unrealistic demands.”
Folk History for the Podcasting Age
According to McLaughlin, “Videoblogging sprang from a deep cultural need to once again participate in the creation of entertainment and is in effect a return to the campfire around which people cook, eat, dance, sing, and tell stories.” In addition to its directly political purposes, vlogs open communication, create empathy, and revive the “personal is political” spirit. Diaz concurs that, “borders become irrelevant so on both a political and personal level we are able to communicate in a more successful and intellectual level. We are learning from one another.”
One possible hurdle is copyright. While Vloggers have been able to get around this by either crediting others’ work or using Creative Commons licenses, which offers a variety of publishing licenses for sharing (see www.creativecommons.org), others have simply crossed their fingers and hoped they won’t get sued. Rule doesn’t feel restricted by these issues since she has no intention of making a profit. “Whenever I do use music, I link to a place you can buy the song. Mashups [in which a song or image is taken from another artist’s vlog and remixed] are so much fun, it would be a shame if copyright limited creativity.” Sadly, McLaughlin feels that, as money enters the mix, this is likely to happen. “The day will come when the movie and music industries will keep closer eyes on what vloggers do with regard to copyright. There will be a few who will be very publicly sued. In the meantime, it feels like what we’re doing is in a private little corner of the internet and nobody really cares until such time as vlogging begins to generate money.”
There are other weaknesses in the form. “The one frustration for me is the digital divide,” says Diaz. “I can sit here and type how easy it is to get your videoblog up, but I’m talking about a small percentage of this world. If we can somehow work with people within these [underserved] communities and get their stories out, more people would be aware, and hopefully help. It’s a real concern going into the future.” Hodson thinks it’s important to teach other media makers about vlogs in order to give them a means of expression that is not filtered through “five major companies.”
And all admit that the gender imbalance inherent to traditional filmmaking has crossed over to vlogging. “On a cultural level, women are not perceived as wanting to be technicians and are socialized and educated accordingly,” notes McLaughlin. “For the same reasons, there are fewer women videobloggers than men. Hodson, who recently attended a conference for female bloggers in California (www.blogher.org/), doesn’t see much of a difference between male and female works and thinks that perhaps the intimacy inherent to the form has simply been gendered as female. Still, as vlogging grows in notoriety, more estrogen is being added into its DNA. “The difference between a career in the film industry and that of a videoblogger is that a vlogger becomes a vlogger the moment they decide to become one,” says McLaughlin. “There are no gatekeepers at the door to the vlogosphere.” No application or resume also means there is no glass ceiling. But there is work to be done to create the initial impulse. “We need to spur each other on and support one another,” says Diaz, adding that she can’t comprehend the gender disparity. “I’m not sure why that is. Video blogging is accessible to all people. Some of the content female vloggers put out is the most interesting right now.”
As for the future, McLaughlin believes that, artistically, “out of it will come the most honest, hard-hitting filmmaking the world has yet seen—because large sums of money create an obligation to make projects as accessible to as many people as possible, and we’re catering to a low common denominator.” She also points to the larger impact vlogging may have on fostering essential media literacy. To learn to vlog is to understand the way that images are constructed and manipulated to make meaning. “Media enters our deepest consciousness with potentially deleterious unconscious effects. When you make a vlog, you become intensely conscious of media on a higher level, and that alone will change the world.” And all concur that the capability for international dialogue is limitless. Teaching vlogging in the Bronx, I have witnessed firsthand the gratification that urban youth get from seeing their stories accessible to the world. This is the power that comes from vlogging’s immediate and de-centralized nature—the direct equation between producing something and having people see it. We have yet to see how the trend will evolve or interact and/or interfere with mainstream media, but as Diaz says, “There’s enough room on the table—all old media needs to do is pull up an extra chair.”