Attention Artists: Brushes and Paint are now Free

Flickr and YouTube are wonderful services that have been lauded in the press hundreds of times this year, but recently I figured out their worth was much more profound.

Back in college, I spent my free time designing web pages for fun and due to my dead broke status, I got a lot of software on heavy student discount, borrowed copies from friends, and if need be, pulled copies from usenet. It used to be pretty easy to get copies of anything you needed and I justified it by saying when I went on to a career in web design, my employers would be purchasing full licenses of the products I bought, borrowed, and stole.

I also had this idealistic mantra: when everything you are creating is digital, the supplies should be free. An artist should never be limited by tools she cannot afford. Ideas should be the only limits.

Fast forward a few years and most of the things I clung to in college came true. My employers bought full copies of Photoshop and I generally had access to limitless free bandwidth thanks to employers and friends. The only limiting factors were my ideas and imagination. Anything I could create I could upload to my server and share it with the world.

But there was one thing I never thought quite worked out right, and that was The Bandwidth Problem. The web is an amazing, democratic, open, limitless thing that has forever changed my (and everyone’s) life, but it always had the Achilles Heel of paying for bandwith. In the early days of the web there were plenty of free hosts with limitless bandwidth and we got all sorts of things like Mahir’s I Kiss You, dancing hamsters, and fighting stick figures.

Free hosting popped just like the bubble did, and as blogs began to gain popularity in 2001-2003, paying for bandwidth was a constant problem, especially for sites with no revenue. During those years I talked to a lot of people with interesting ideas that were held back by the fact they couldn’t afford to host their work or pay for the downloading of it by thousands. Nosepilot was a great example of the problem. Flash was still synonymous with “skip intro” and crappy techno background sounds when some random freaky artist builds a continuous sort-of story that takes the form of a whimsical scrolling film. The hosted file was something like 50Mb in size if you played the whole thing and as it gained instant popularity, the creator was hit with a multi-thousand dollar bill from his provider. I remember him trying to raise money through donations and giving him something via paypal. He eventually had mirrors set up to view the file on other servers while he was trying to sue his host into cutting the bill down. It was an ugly outcome for such a lovely piece of net art.

These days, whenever I see someone on Ask MetaFilter wanting to explain something, they’ll almost always link to a screenshot hosted on flickr or a short cameraphone video on YouTube. I think we’ve all forgotten what the web was like before YouTube came around. Just a year ago, video on the web was still a thorny problem. The only people that could reliably offer it were huge movie and TV studios, and I recall even downloading the video for “A Million Ways” by Ok Go last summer required people volunteering mirrored downloads of a quicktime file.

Just over a year ago, I found something incredible on usenet: a mock terror exercise that was part of some anti-terrorism training program. In order to share the 81Mb file, I had to set up my own bittorrent server to share the download bandwidth with others. Even with bittorrent, when the file was linked on BoingBoing, the server crashed to a halt, and when brought back, almost maxed out my bandwidth for the month in a couple days. Until that time, I always considered my server shared with a friends was limitless at 1200 gigabytes a month, but this one video almost cost me a bundle.

Thankfully in 2006, everyone has YouTube and Flickr. Video is no longer a problem online. You can post thousands of huge images on Flickr and not have to foot any bill. You are free to create any movie, design, or photograph without fear of getting punished financially for its popularity. It can cost nothing to host, and millions can experience it.

The tools to deliver your creations are finally free. I am already seeing profound changes in how students can create and share their work but I bet in a couple years from now it’ll be even more dramatic. We’ll look back at the days when you were charged by the downloaded megabyte as quaint and laugh and wonder what things were like before YouTube and Flickr (and others, of course) took away those limits.

8 Comments

  • I’m glad you are so optimistic. I was just thinking the opposite a few days ago — that at some point YouTube is going to need to turn a profit to actually pay for the insane amount of bandwidth they are using, otherwise all that content is going to go dark. I hope your vision of the future lasts, though, in many forms.

  • I have exactly the same thought as Manton. I’m afraid the jury is still out on Youtube’s long-term future.

  • Another data point: when the Decemberists released their music video for “Sixteen Military Wives” and asked people to spread it using BitTorrent. Nowadays, nearly every band premiering a music video just slaps it up on YouTube and the blogs point there. It’s almost unthinkable for the music video NOT to be on Youtube.
    Youtube is nice for consumers because they’re shouldering the hosting burden, but remember what happened to that one site that used to host commercials online? I believe it was adcritic.com — that was the only video I remember watching on the web until Youtube exploded. And it was the to go watch Superbowl ads the day after the game.
    And, sure, the tools to deliver the content are now practically free. But creating and hosting web pages doesn’t require physical equipment outside of a computer, like a digital camera or video camera. They’re both getting cheaper but aren’t exactly free just yet.

  • I guess I should have titled this “canvas and art gallery shows are now free” Kathryn. :)
    I’m taking a big picture approach here: in my 11 years of doing web junk, I’ve seen loads of people crippled by hosting and bandwidth fees and now that’s largely gone. At Creative Commons, I got to interview tons of independent filmmakers and lots of them had great ideas 3-4 years ago that were simply impossible to do online because of bandwidth expenses. Now, they have a popular free outlet to release their film projects.
    I have faith that YouTube is going to be around for a long time. Sure, it’s expensive to run, but it’s already one of the most popular sites on the web and a killer app for many people. Advertising rates on the site are likely a good source of revenue as well as their paid accounts. I think they could make it work, and if not, any major media player would leap at the chance to buy them.

  • Count me as another person who’s dubious about the prospects of concentrating all of our artistic output on a couple of mysteriously-funded megasites.
    I don’t think that “brushes and paints are free” is quite the right metaphor. It’s more like “one brush and one set of paints are now lent to everyone free by Yahoo, but if they ever change their mind, everything everyone made with these tools will disappear.”
    I don’t have faith that Youtube will be around for a long time, for the very reason that believing that requires faith — it shouldn’t. If a business has a future, it should be easily demonstrable. Like “Look, see here how they make more money than they spend.” I don’t think anyone’s seen any credible proof of that for Youtube.
    I still remember way back six years ago, when there lots of businesses that didn’t have any obvious income, but seemed like they were sure bets because they were so popular. And hey, at worst they just had to keep rolling in the eyeballs until the buyout, right?

  • That the media-streaming capability of YouTube — the general concept of it — is the future, I certainly hope. I can’t really fathom how it wouldn’t be. I already get pretty much all of my media via the net, with the exception of Netflix. But there is still the sticky bandwidth problem. Why isn’t there another YouTube yet (Google Video excepted)? I’d say it’s because no one else can figure out how they’d pay the bills.
    Blogger is still around because the idea of blogger could be (and was) done by just about anyone. But think about if Blogger.com was the only service providing blog capabilities today. It would be dust. It would be a whimpering melted puddle of plastic and copper. That’s exactly my point — I’ll believe that YouTube is the future when YouTube.com isn’t the only game in town. Until then, to me, it’s still some weird unproven scheme.
    What I would guess is that YouTube is the thin edge of an upcoming drastic devaluation in the cost of bandwidth. That’s been the trend for a long time already, it just needed someone to make video necessary enough to push overall bandwidth usage over some hurdle where the volume rises to the point where it actually becomes cheap enough for anyone to serve lots of video.
    FWIW, I want a little set-top box that streams movies directly from Netflix’s underground vault of servers to my TV whenever I feel like watching them. That’s not too far off either, probably.

  • Yeah, Flickr and YouTube solve the bandwidth problem. Now, if you have a runaway success, you don’t have to worry about it killing your server. You also don’t have to worry about being able to make any money off of all your hard work, because Flickr and YouTube will make all the ad revenue for you.
    Progress? I’m not so sure.

  • Oh wow, paint, brushes, canvas, and art gallery shows are now free! But only if your work is worthless and disposable.
    Tonight I attended a retrospective exhibit by my photography professor from art school. He spent hundreds of dollars reprinting and mounting work he produced over several decades. I’ve had one of his Cibachrome prints hanging on my wall for about 25 years, it was nice to see new prints of it on a gallery wall. Cibachrome prints are one of the most stable, archival color printing methods, and are expected to last over 200 years, but there is no known upper limit to their longevity.
    I learned how to make archival prints from this professor, it is a skill that photographers specialize in. I use an antique photo process that is expected to last as long as the paper it’s printed on, they will probably last for 500 years or more. It is a lost art, the chemistry was abandoned almost a hundred years ago, only a few people like me use it today.
    If any of these artworks survive the ravages of time, audiences in the distant future will marvel at them and wonder how they were created, just as today when we marvel at the paintings of the Renaissance and wonder how they were made.
    On the other hand, in just a few years, YouTube will be gone, and terabytes of low resolution video ephemera will be unplayable. Perhaps there will be some retro freaks who will cobble together emulators to play the old files. But they’ll be laughable, and regarded the same way we now regard ASCII art like those old posters of Mr. Spock we used to make on the old IBM mainframe’s line printer.

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