Previously in Web Citations:
David A. Taylor reports on the Mountain Forum, a boon to hill people around the globe.
Is politics on the Web a bust? Nicholas Confessore investigates the new wave of for-profit "politics portals."
Alec Appelbaum on why the Web should do better than one-click charity.
Get a Life
Katie Bacon on Cyberguy, DotComGuy, and other intrepid trailblazers on the e-commerce frontier.
Wen Stephenson on why new commercial efforts to bridge the "digital divide" may only make it wider.
Shake Your Musicmaker
Are the days of the album format numbered? Ben Auburn looks at Musicmaker.com and other sites that let you build your own CD compilations.
Nicholas Confessore on Vote.com, Dick Morris's foray into online democracy.
More Web Citations in Atlantic Unbound.
A Channel Called "You"|
May 24, 2000
Last fall at "The Million Channel Universe," a Columbia School of Journalism conference on the future of broadband, Steve Rosenbaum, the CEO and president of the TV production company Broadcast News Network (BNN), asked a room full of journalists a leading question: Would we rather have digital television or interactive television? The show of hands was overwhelmingly in favor of the latter -- the right answer according to Rosenbaum, who not only believes in rising "consumer demand for a less passive experience," but also has based his latest business venture, a streaming-media site called CameraPlanet.com, on both this supposed demand and the ostensibly impending expansion of broadband.
Almost twenty years ago, Rosenbaum gained some measure of fame for developing a brand of television journalism that, in his words, "empowers people to share what they know." Here's how it works: his production company sends out video cameras to real folks (just like you!) who have stories to tell; the folks talk to the camera, film the stuff of their daily lives, then send the camera and the tapes back to BNN, where the film gets edited into segments for, say, CBS or MTV News (BNN's pieces for MTV -- "MTV News Unfiltered" -- garnered a good deal of attention a few years ago) or full-length documentaries for television series like A&E's Inside Story.
CameraPlanet.com, which launched in early May, operates on essentially the same principle. You submit your story on the site; if the producers are taken with your tale, they send you a camera. The resulting tapes are edited, scored, and placed into one of CameraPlanet.com's channels -- a story about meeting your fiancé in a chat room, for example, would end up in "Meet Market," while an anecdote about the restraining order your wife has taken out against you (unjustly, of course) would probably be placed in "Court TV."
The site is imbued with Rosenbaum's "power to the people" rhetoric. Upon entering, you are bombarded with CameraPlanet's slogans, such as "Don't see TV, be TV" and "Tune in to people like you" -- accompanied by music that harks back to the early days of the Casiotone. The videos themselves recall tabloid television shows like Hard Copy and the absolute worst of MTV journalism -- "wacky" camera angles, far too much pop music, extremely fast cuts. It's very late eighties. Why, one wonders, does Rosenbaum think people will want to watch this? After all, they can see the same thing on their televisions, without having to worry about CameraPlanet.com's plug-ins or extended load-times or confusing navigation.
The answer, of course, lies in the two "c" words: community and convergence. Rosenbaum is not relying on your awe at the remarkable quality of the content; rather, he is encouraging you to think of yourself as an active member of the CameraPlanet.com community, someone who makes TV instead of just watching it (no matter that someone else edits the story for you). Moreover, CameraPlanet.com does not differentiate between "television" content and "Web" content, slyly guiding the user toward thinking of the two mediums as one and the same (as we are told they will be with the expansion of broadband).
Although Rosenbaum insists that he is in the business of "providing consumers with the ability to tell stories to each other," his business model is essentially what many major Web sites seem to be moving toward: a reliance on cheap user-generated content, rather than expensive editorial content (or, what I think of as "The America's Funniest Home Videos Effect"). Nowhere does user-generated content reign quite as supreme as on the big corporate women's sites, like iVillage.com, Women.com, and Oxygen.com, all of which strive to make a buck by convincing women that their place is in neither the kitchen nor the boardroom, but in the chatroom. Oxygen.com has gone the furthest in this direction, and has implemented an area of the site rather similar to CameraPlanet.com, titled Our Stories.
Although Our Stories' production values are somewhat higher than CameraPlanet.com's, its narratives more treacly sweet than tabloid trash, the site's message is the same: You, user, can take control of your life by telling your personal story online. The name alone tells you that we're talking about community again -- Hey women, we're all in this together! These are our stories. Indeed, Our Stories is based in the community area of Oxygen.com's service, an area called "Interact," which encompasses more traditional community tools, like forums and chats. Our Stories are little snippets of Flash animation -- and I do mean little, each one is about two minutes long (which is about how long it takes for the story to load with a 56K connection) -- compiled by Oxygen producers from still photographs and audio recordings submitted by users. The stories are divided into twenty or so topics that read like a laundry list of stereotypes of women's concerns -- there is a whole channel of stories about shoes, for example, and another called "I knew he was the one"; several channels deal with mother/daughter angst issues, like "Becoming Our Mothers."
Ultimately, though, these sites are cashing in on two other "c"s, inviting users to participate in the irritating obsession with celebrity and confession that seems to have overtaken American culture. From where does the impetus to tell one's story to the world come, if not from the desire for celebrity (via confession)? Perhaps Rosenbaum does truly want to empower his users, to give us voice, to provide us with the interactive experience he believes we want. But is he not, as CameraPlanet.com's "Network You" slogan would suggest, also guiding us toward a rather familiar entertainment model -- the hall of mirrors, in which all we see are reflections of ourselves, edited, scored, and categorized by a cash-hungry media?
--Joanna Smith Rakoff
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Joanna Smith Rakoff is the books editor at About.com.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.