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Last Updated: Friday, 14 January 2005, 11:13 GMT
Tsunami disaster spurs video blogs
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

Picture taken from a US Seahawk helicopter en route to a relief mission in the remote areas, shows a tsunami devastated area in Suak Beka, west coast of Aceh province,
The tidal wave left a trail of destruction

Some of the most striking video of the tsunami was taken not by professionals, but by amateurs.

They used relatively-cheap, relatively-simple digital video cameras to shoot the footage. They then put their video images up on the internet. It is called video-weblogging, or vlogging.

The clips are short, grainy and jumpy, and the sound is marginal. But there is no mistaking the impact of the amateur videos of the tsunami. In clip after clip, waves slam into shorelines, and people run screaming for their lives.

It took only hours for videos like this to make it from Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia to the internet.

Suddenly everybody in the entire world who has internet connectivity wants to see those videos
Alex Yuriev, Zubr Communications
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of culture and communication at New York University, says that much of the historical record of the tsunami is based on these videos.

"In this case, it seems that we could not do without the amateur images and amateur accounts," Prof Vaidhyanathan says.

Web-savvy

"There was just no way to have enough professionals, in enough corners of the earth, on enough beaches, to have made sense of this."

An Indian fisherman walks on the beach with his two sons following the tsunami
Many thousands of people are having to rebuild their lives

People who shot the footage wanted to share it, quickly.

Bloggers, people who have online diaries, and other web-savvy folk wanted to carry the videos. And so they began linking up in the hours after the tsunami.

Vlogging is not new. It is popular among those who want to move beyond text-based blogging, and explore a new medium.

The problem is that video files can be big and unwieldy. In fact, the demand for tsunami footage pushed web traffic off the charts.

"Suddenly everybody in the entire world who has internet connectivity wants to see those videos, because they're hot," says Alex Yuriev of Zubr Communications, a company based in the United States.

"Now you see hundreds of thousands of people trying to obtain videos from sites that would normally never handle a request like that."

Even a week after the event, some sites hosting tsunami videos were getting 300 to 400 hits a second.

Discontinued

That kind of web traffic meant trouble for some vloggers. They exceeded their bandwidth allowances - how much internet traffic their websites are allowed to handle - in a matter of hours.

Some received bills for thousands of dollars from their webhosts. Others were told to stop hosting tsunami videos, or have their service discontinued.

But that is when vloggers like Geoffrey Huntley tried to come to the rescue.

Huntley, who lives and works in Sydney, Australia, created a website called waveofdestruction.org. He wanted to provide a central place for tsunami footage.

"Footage was turning up in weird places," he says. "There was no central site to turn to, so I just decided to go for it. It was the least I could do."

Through mirror sites, Huntley shared the load with willing partners in Australia, Europe and the United States.

A woman surveys damage to her home in Aceh
Countless homes were damaged by the water
He also used a popular file-sharing program called BitTorrent that speeds video uploads and downloads and more crucially shares the bandwidth among all those seeking to download the video.

Another group called the Media Bloggers Association started a Tsunami Video Hosting Initiative. The group is linking people who have videos with hosts who have server space.

"Vloggers are just like anybody else - they're real people," says Bob Cox, founder of the Media Bloggers Association.

"Some people just want to do it to experiment with it, or get their message out or push their point of view. There are other people who are producing video content that are trying to make money."

Some with tsunami videos did get their videos to the websites of mainstream news outlets such as The Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper.

Some of the amateur footage appeared on broadcast outlets such as CNN, and the BBC.

Dan Gillmor, author of the book We the Media, says that more of the mainstream media should tap into the work of vloggers.

"What I would like to see is for news organisations to acknowledge and embrace this wider community of first instance reporters."

He adds: "And say we're not going to pick for you not only the one or two things we like, but point to everything we can find that we have some reason to believe is authentic, so that you can get a wider view of what happened here."

Big issue

But copyright is a big issue. Many of the tsunami vloggers found their videos downloaded and linked to without getting any credit.

That troubles Norwegian vlogger Raymond Kristiansen, who says that the vlogging community needs to tackle the issue head-on.

"I think the video-logging community needs to create an ethos of at least giving the copyright owners at least a nod and say, we got this from that company, instead of just ripping it off and becoming a pirate organisation."

Such issues will come to a head sooner rather than later. Just about anyone with a digital camera, an internet connection, and a bit of editing software can become a vlogger.

And as the tsunami shows, a vlogger in the right place at the right time just might help write the first draft of history.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production.


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