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I'm Andrew. I write about the past and future of tech, music, media, culture, art, and activism. This is my blog.

The Forgotten History of DIY Media

Posted: February 7, 2021

When researching the history of Video in DIY Media (or as Wikipedia is so fond of calling it, Citizen Media or Participatory Media), most popular accounts start with the release of the BMC-110 betamax movie camcorder by Sony in 1983. This is the first consumer Camcorder, it seems like a logical place to start. It isn’t a logical place to start and most popular accounts are wrong. This isn’t surprising, we’re bad at this kind of thing, and pretty much always have been. So, today, I want to spend a few bits talking about the first consumer video camera and tape recorder, the Sony Portapak released in 1967, and the DIY Media Revolution that the US has largely forgotten.

First, I have to give credit to Gravis \ Cathode Ray Dude for opening my eyes with this truly Excellent video on the history of consumer video formats from 67 - 83.

I live in this space, the tech and culture of the late 60s and early 70s are My Thing™️, and somehow in all the time I’ve spent in this space, I completely missed the early DIY TV movement. This, in some ways, blows my mind. In other ways, it highlights how Content Discovery is and will continue to be the defining problem of our generation (but that’s its own post, for another day.)

If you get the chance, go watch the documentary linked above. It’s great. If you just want to see the bits that inspired this post, they pick up around the 25 minute mark.

Why do people pretend home video started in 1967?

This is, really, the easiest part of this story to understand. We, as a culture, have an exceptionally short memory, and an unnatual obsession with Firsts. The Sony Betamax Move Camera was (arguably) the first Camcorder. To modern readers who’ve grown up in the era after the introduction and subsequent ubiquity of the camcorder, that word is basically interchangable with “Video Camera”, but they aren’t the same word at all.

A Camcorder is a video camera and a video recorder in the same package. For us to even need a word to describe that, seperate from Video Camera, implies the existence of video cameras and video recorders as distinct devices, and that is surely the case.

What existed prior to Betamax?

Video tape has existed since the 50s in the commercial space. Until the advent of the u-matic professional video tape format, “Video Tape” was largely the same as “Audio Tape” in that it was a spool of magnetic ribbon that would get threaded by hand through the recording and playback mechanisms of a tape recorder.

Early professional video tape was usually in the Quadroplex format, it was about 2” thick, and used a playback mechanism the size of a standard pickup truck bed. It was a decidedly professional format.

But Open Reel Video Tape didn’t stay a professional format. Starting in 1965, Sony introduced the CV-2000 an open reel video tape format for home use. It had limitations: It was black and white only, it was about half the resolution of a standard TV, and it was fairly large and heavy, which meant it was primarily used for Time Shifting (much like Betamax and VHS in their early days.)

But, and it’s a big But, The CV-2000 was 1/10th the cost and 1/10th the size of a Quadroplex system. Half the resolution at 1/10th the cost and size? It’s hard to argue with that. Of course, it would only get smaller (and occasionally cheaper) from there.

Then, as I mentioned in the introduction, Sony introduced the Portapak in 1967. This was a shoulder slung, battery powered tape recorder and video camera, compatible with the CV-2000 and it marked the start of a Revolution in Media (even if most folks didn’t notice until 2005.)

Why does this matter?

The Portapak, and later the EIAJ-1 and EIAJ-2 standards enabled consumers to create video media themselves for the first time. Prior to the portapak, consumer home movies were limited to 8mm and 16mm film. Film is great! It was in color, most of the time. It was Gorgeous, most of the time. But it was also usually short, usually silent, and very complex.

Film is Cumbersome and Expensive, and frankly every problem these early video tape players had is completely overshadowed by the facts that tape:

  • was much cheaper,
  • enabled recording for longer lengths of time (half an hour or more, as opposed to 3 - 5 minutes for film), and
  • was easier to edit and re-use (it’s magnetic tape, it can be erased and over-written.)

As early as 1969, the potential of Home Video was making waves. Activists, artists, and various countercultures embraced the potential of creating their own television. They knew what they were doing.

One such group is the NY based artist collective known as The Videofreex or The Media Bus. Some of their footage survives on youtube, but most of it is now locked behind Expensive paywalls.

These folks covered the gamut: News, activism, entertainment.

Here, for example, is a video of The Videofreex interviewing Fred Hampton in 1969, a few months before he would be murdered by the Chicago Police Department, while Bobby Seale was on trial in a kangaroo court for conspiracy, and crossing state lines with intent to incite a riot.

They also filmed concerts, and produced local news, and other “entertainment”!

The Videofreex produced this concert film in 1970:

Here is a link to the local news show they broadcast on the pirate TV station they ran using a television transmitter given to them by Abbie Hoffman.

This is a comedy sketch they produced about a UFO landing, which was also broadcast on Lanesvile TV.

(There is a doucmentary about The Videofreex available on iTunes called Here Come the Videofreex. It, and most of the rest of their footage frankly deserves to be liberated.)

On the other coast, TVTV was creating independent media. Here’s an example of work from TVTV, including one of Bill Murray’s first performances.

Much like The Videofreex, little of the work TVTV produced is in general circulation and what does remain is often locked behind multi-hundred dollar paywalls. As a result, we rarely hear about it, rarely see it, and often don’t know it exists. It’s almost like the organizations that were intrusted to preserve this media for future have failed to do so in the most ironic way possible.

At the same time that TVTV and The Videofreex were active, The Raindance Foundation was publishing the magazine Radical Software, the first issue of which contains these blistering lines:

Global information is the natural enemy of local government, for it reveals the true context in which that government is operating. Global television is directly responsible for the political turmoil that is increasing around the world today. The political establishments sense this and are beginning to react. But it’s too late. Television makes it impossible for governments to maintain the illusion of sovereignty and separatism which are essential for their existence . Television is one of the most revolutionary tools in the entire spectrum of technoanarchy

Television, like the computer, is a sleeping giant. But those who are beginning to use it in revolutionary new ways are very much awake. The first generation of television babies has reached maturity having watched 15,000 hours of television while completing only 10,000 hours of formal education through high school. Yet television itself still has not left the breast of commercial sponsorship. Just as cinema had imitated theater for seventy years, television has imitated cinema imitating theater for twenty years. But the new generation with its transnational interplanetary video consciousness will not tolerate the miniaturized vaudeville that is television as presently employed. We will liberate the media.

In many ways, it smacks of the kind of self-aggrandizing common to many would-be thought leaders in San Francisco circa 1969. The same kind of techno-utopian thinking that produced Computer-Lib/Dream Machines and gave birth to the idea technology was an unmitigated force for good. (Spoiler alert: It ain’t. Technology is a tool, a force multiplier. If it makes things better, or if it makes things worse, that is as a result of the intentions and shortcomings of the people who wield it.)

However, while I probably would not have phrased things the way they are phrased above, I can’t argue with the base sentiment (hell, I’ve spent the last decade of my life arguing along side it!) We can, and must, and in many cases Have liberated the media.

What does this mean for the future?

The video activists of the 70s were, mostly, right. That’s what it means for the future. They were 30 years too early to see these concepts reach their full impact, but they saw the potential.

Let me give you some examples:

david-cort-videofreex-mayday-realtime-1971_crop.jpg

David Cort at a Vietnam protest about to be clubbed. (The more things change…) Courtesy Videofreex.

2020 saw massive, nationwide protests against police brutality culminating in what many have described as Police Riots. These Police Riots have been documented by citizen journalists, and collected and sorted and verified by regular people. This thread on Twitter, for example, contains still images and video footage of more than 900 instances of police violence, directly in response to peacful protests against police violence.

This is footage that would not be in circulation without ubiquitous video cameras, and multiple avenues for the creation and distribution of television. We are the media, for better and for worse.

Late 2020 and Early 2021 have demonstrated the potential destructive power of DIY Media when used to sew hatred and spread baseless conspiracy theories. Youtube is radicalizing teens in to far right ideologies (which is a perfect example of the problems of Content Discovery I mentioned to above, but that is still a topic for another post.)

Participatory media is as powerful as the activitsts of the 60s and 70s thought it would be. It has been weaponized by far right racist extremists as a recruiting tool, it has been used to shine a light on the massive inequality in this country. Technology is neither good nor bad. Media creation is neither good nor bad. They are tools, we have to use them.

Next Steps

For me, personally, recognizing the impact of DIY Media in the Jan 6th attack on the United States Capitol was a wakeup call that led me to question some of my core beliefs. This concept of participatory media is something for which I have advocated for the last ten years, and I had to face that the events on the capitol were a direct result of the application of participatory media by people with whom I have no other common ground.

Discovering this forgotten, hidden history of DIY Media was akin to a revelation. For as long as it has been possible, people have been creating their own art and culture, using whatever tools they had access to. That’s both obvious, and important to call out explicitly. I have been forced to recognize the potential for good and for ill that exists in the work that I want to do. That’s good, it means I’ll be more explicit in my goals.

I will continue to make media. I will continue to tell stories. I will continue to encourage others to do so. Here’s what I’m doing differently:

Doubling down on DIY Media

I’m devoting more of my time and energy to the creation, consumption, and curation of DIY media, and just generally spending as little time and energy as I can on commercial media. All three of those things are imporant:

  • I’m creating media, because the act of creating media outside the existing power structures of our media oligopoly is an act of radicalism.
  • I’m consuming media created outside those power structures for the same reason.
  • I’m curating (and possibly assisting in the distribution of) DIY media because if I don’t help highlight the things I find, other people are going to have to work as hard as I did to find them, and the alternative to manual curration is currently the model in use by Facebook and Youtube.

No youtube, no twitch, etc.

It’s not enough to have community media production. We need community media distribution.

I’m not posting anything to youtube anymore. I’m actively discouraging others from posting to youtube. When I have video to share personally, it will go on the peertube instance I maintain at MountainTown.Video, and get mirrored at The Internet Archive when appropriate.

I’m not depending on youtube for content discovery. If I have to watch a video on youtube, I will do it via Invidious, which is an alternative youtube front-end that respects user privacy, or via youtube-dl.

I’m not linking to youtube, except for in situations and circumstances where an Invidious link would not make sense, such as for linking to specific user accounts or providing attribution.

We can’t trust corporations to produce our media, we can’t trust corporatins to preserve our media, we can’t trust coporations to curate our media, we can’t trust corporations.

Helping others tell stories!

I’m learning more about video editing, special effects, 3D animation, etc. I’m learning how to do these things using software that is free, and that respects it’s users. (At the moment, my toolkit includes Blender, Kdenlive, Davinci Resolve, and Glimpse.)

I’m explicitly ignoring media production tools that can be taken away by fickle corporate whims. That means no Adobe CC. I’m mostly ignoring media production tools that cost money, in general, because that makes them inaccessible. I’m favoring Open Source tools, because Open Source tools are (at least in theory) able to be modified by end users. (I’m making an exception to my Open Source preference for Davinci Resolve because it’s free, works on linux, has no apparent DRM, and provides an alternative to many workflows that are otherwise only available in DRM encumbered software.)

I’m working on tutorials to help non-technical users get up to speed with these tools. I’m building resources to make media creation and distribution easier and faster. I’m parterning with organizations in my community to teach people how to make media, and to help them get the computers and other equipment required to do that.

A media production toolkit can be as simple as a single smartphone, but providing slightly more than that can significantly reduce the Level of Effort required to tell a story.

Curation

The algorithmic curation model that Facebook and Youtube use to drive media discovery prizes Engagement above all else. This has the side effect (intentional or not) of rewarding disinformation, extremist, and inflamatory content.

I’m being careful about the media I consume, I’m being careful about the media I recommend. I am working towards (though I do not yet have) a system through which I can review, recommend, and potentially distribute media that aligns with my values.

That is to say, I want to use the platform I’ve built to draw attention to work that might otherwise go unnoticed. This is a big task, and not something I can do alone. I hope you’ll do it too.

Further Reading


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