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.