We're not gonna back down. And if the U.S. government wants to help us -- great. If Google wants to help us -- great. If no one wants to help us, that's fine, too ... This is something we believe in at our core...
-Brad Hunstable, Ustream CEO
Before we begin, remember this: Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, in a joint news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, stressed that Moscow condemns the massacre of Houla in Syria.
Damn... this was supposed to be a tools-of-the-trade comparison piece. How a tech revolution ignited a new kind of social organizing in a type of blitzkrieging protest model laid out by the now "granddaddy-of-them-all" protest known as the WTO Battle for Seattle, which can be directly connected to the recent Chicago NATO Scrap.
I swear I was gonna draw a line from the incredible efforts of northwestern hippies using now-archaic text tech to slip in and out of Seattle's coffee-strewn cross streets to frustrate, confound, and confuse a Barney Fife-channeling police force, to a smartphone-laden high-next-level-but-elegant-and-durable-streaming-tech-toting batch of citizen journalists facing the wrath of a full, borne-out, riot gear-clad, military-posing, non-Posse Comitatus-ed police nation mashed up in Capone's backyard.
I swear I was gonna do it.
But then I got on the phone with Brad Hunstable... the now lone CEO of Ustream... and the whole thing got... bigger.
And, in the wake of the Sean Parker and Sawn Fanning celebrity dotted misfire of the chat tech, Airtime, it makes sense to see how established techs can face, stumble, adapt to, and overcome challenges of their own.
Basically, Ustream is in competition with only a few other streaming companies in the world (yes, the world), most notably Livestream, to become the ubiquitous all-star in streaming. Google it and you'll get the gist.
The free service of Ustream became a staple of citizen journalism from within the center of America's Occupy movements.
Hunstable: "We've been part of it from the early days. At its heyday Occupy [on Ustream] had well over 1,000-plus broadcasters and well over two million views across the board. Now if you add other countries, the numbers just go up."
Ustream and Occupy experienced challenges at the same time. While big city Occupy encampments were dismantled, Ustream had some leadership adjustments to make. Occupy encountered public pressures, Ustream encountered private. The venture capital model offers great latitude... until it doesn't. Last year, while police grabbed bags and blankets and bundles from soggy parks, one of Ustream's founders, John Ham, was compelled by investors to step down.
Hunstable: "The vision has been very consistent ... I was there to step in and continue the vision..."
Where there were two to manage a global reach, including a deal that has further opened up the Asian market for more media and content opportunities -- now there is one. And this has left Hunstable living like the John Hurt character, billionaire S. R. Hadden, from the movie Contact: on a plane.
Blank stare... just Google it... damn.
Occupy Wall Street's media stream became famous for its "eye-of-the-storm" perspective, how it raised funds out of that situation, the controversy that brewed, and the heightened level of citizen journalism. It bore a star in Tim Pool, who knew what to ask and also when to shut up and simply roll the camera phone.
A camera phone. That's it.
Hunstable: "Our strategy is a little bit different. It's not one of being sort of a closed system, but one of being an open system... so [we] have this vision of enabling anyone to do this and that sort of necessitates us having lots of partners..."
This open system strategy is the key. It makes for an elegant and no-frills phone app that makes it easier for a person to both be involved in and document a protest. The dynamics and actual physicality of the camera phone is very important.
This is Occupy Los Angeles at City Hall Park on November 28, 2012. It's a piece recorded by the crew from thedarkroome.com (my site) for the film FUSE: The Voice of Occupation. The important thing here is this: no matter how small a screen you're using, when you're focused on it, you lose peripheral vision. And in a raucous crowd facing down the authorities, that can be dangerous or even deadly. One misstep can lead to violence or one push, and you go to jail and pay a $5000 bail.
Citizen journalists need to see everything. A smartphone allows for quick and easy twists and turns in a crowd while providing a real-time witness. Easily palming it to run, duck, or whatever, indeed mobility is essential while streaming, because the very nature of the global version of Occupy ensures that people will face violence.
Hunstable: "I have no desire for anyone to get hurt...we work with organizations around this exact topic. How do we protect identity? How do we protect people who are doing this, or educate them to be smarter about how they do it?"
No, he doesn't want to see anyone get hurt, but Occupy, which may or may not have started in Madrid or Portugal or somewhere else, is now the largest youth movement of our day. You group the dozens of Occupy outposts all over the world with the remnants of the Arab Spring and European Austerity Protests of last year, along with their ability to view/broadcast live streaming of like struggles across the planets, and what you get is: massive support.
Hunstable: "Last year we did over two billion video views...our user stream is about 50 million hours per month. In fact, we ingest more content per second three times as much as even YouTube does."
If the (1%-backed) global Right and austere-minded have discipline and public offices and money to yell with, the unkempt, loud, boisterous, loaded, and unwieldy rabble on the left has technology. And they are yelling back.
"Our mission is to enable anyone, anywhere to share their stories and build, you know, these communities around these live broadcasts. The way we do that is by being a business, so inevitably there is a commercial element to what we do."
However many of these countries don't share the reverence of a free speech Constitution like we... uh... are supposed to. They've been banned in China ('cept for American hotels), Iran, Syria... but those places are expected to quash things that lead to free speech. And, like in Cairo, there are young techies who find work-arounds, using Ustream to "yell softly" for as long as they can over the Internet. Some of these places lock away loud voices. Some harm them. Some... kill them.
Hunstable says that, with regard to transnationalism, Ustream is "not in the business of breaking laws." That may be true, but that doesn't stop the controversy of WHO uses Ustream to protest WHAT authority. Despite streaming entertainment like the Billboard Awards, business content like quarterly reports, and right-wing events like CPAC, Occupy protests are so dicey an issue that Livestream reportedly took down ads from its Occupy streaming so as to not connect the politics to any sponsor.
"We have obligations to our advertisers to provide brand-safe content ... We have a lot of tools at our disposal. On the one hand, we're here to build a commercial entity; on the other, we are the sort of big vision around connecting people around the world through live broadcasts ... I think the way we've handled that has been respectful to both."
Bowlin: Did any of your advertisers balk when the Occupy movement began to grow so rapidly on your service?
It's this blazing foundry of commerce and free speech where Ustream hammers out a chunk of Occupy respect. Stream by stream. Video by video. Oh yeah, and then there's this: Russia's President/Premiere and spy/chess master Putin was, once again, reconstituting his power in Russia. This time, a Russian opposition movement took to the streets and internet. Russian internet presence is savvy. They also have one of the most capable cyperhacking networks in the world.
From Dec 6, 2011 to Jan 6, 2012:
Twice, protesters crunked the streets of Russia and streamed it.
Twice, Ustream was DDoS-attacked.
Twice, Hunstable said nothing.
And then, in May, it happened again and Hunstable couldn't take it anymore:
Let's revisit that.
"We felt that it was time and sort of our duty to say that this isn't right. And we're not gonna back down. If you wanna keep attacking us, keep attacking us. We're not gonna back down. And if the U.S. government wants to help us -- great. If Google wants to help us -- great. If no one wants to help us, that's fine, too ... This is something we believe in at our core as a company and we're gonna continue to realize what our vision is."
I don't know his politics, but this, right here is where I gain respect for Brad man to man. Sure, I could be wrong, but knowing he's being recorded, this CEO in a reshuffled leadership of a company that was also just infused with another $10 million bucks could easily just have recited Ustream's mission statement again and been done with it. Instead he stands up and talks big shit.
And remember that lil' blurb up top? Russia condemned the reported militia-engaged massacre in Houla, Syria. With one speech, Russia looked as if it would help to sweep away the current Assad regime and quell the multiplying and banned, Ustream-using opposition. It looked like Hunstable could get a knock on the plane door from the state department in a jet pack...
...but after many countries expelled ambassadors, Russia held fast with a "Whoa, whoa, whoa ... Let's not get crazy here!" and reaffirmed Hunstable's defiance.
In a sense, Ustream -- with its rivulets into entertainment, sports, business, social networking, and politics -- might truly be one of the most undercover rowdy companies ever. All of the participants engage in a mash-up of free speech and action and amusement tethered to the real-time daily motions of our lives. And while all of the streaming companies are willing to collect the hits and a check ... few are willing to risk any internet retail space for the idea of global free speech.
Even still, the line of trust is blurred. No one really knows where streaming will take the world. For even in the tempered steel regions of an Occupying ideology that depends on Ustream et al to advance their "call to arms," there are still doubters...
...We get to them... and that... in Part Two.
Follow Brandon Bowlin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/brandonbowlin