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The Road That Brought Us Here (Chapter 5)

You know the cool thing about video blogging? It can be as punk rock as we want it to be.

– Michael Verdi

Historically the journal existed primarily as Henry David Thoreau used his “a daily record of things thought, seen and felt.”(1) But to uncover the origins of journaling, we need to travel back prior to the written diary and place video aside for the moment. In fact, we jump to a period thirty thousand years before the Latin word “video” (to see) would even be used, let alone the technology be invented.

We find ourselves in a dim cave. Shadows from a primitive fire flutter against damp rock. One of our early ancestors uses crude stone tools to carve symbols in the cave wall and ochre to color them. On these moisture-laden walls of stone, we view crudely etched images such as: a horse, male warriors, and representations of animals. We may never know the precise purpose behind these ancient artworks, but the fact that they retain such intrigue today points toward their meaning.

The origin of the journal rose from our innate desire to communicate and express. During the Paleolithic era, when language was a collection of grunts and gestures, we used the most powerful method we possessed. The first “journals” consisted of images.

From nearly as far back as history travels there seems to have been a psychological satisfaction gained from having an audience to communicate one’s hopes, dreams, and fears. Whether that audience existed as the damp wall of a cave or brittle sheets of parchment, the experience of communicating held the promise of connection to self and others.

Flash forward thousands of years. Japanese women in the tenth century were among the first to use the written diary as a form of personal expression. These women explored fantasies and internal musings through their private words. Writings such as The Kagero Diary laid the foundations for the Japanese literary tradition.(2) But these diaries were accessible to very few people because it wasn’t feasible to print books in large numbers.

This state of affairs continued for centuries. Journals and all written works were cloistered among the wealthy and well connected. Then a technology came along that changed the path of history.

Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type via the printing press in the fifteenth century and books were mass-produced for the first time. Once this happened, the information floodgates burst open. The individual who often receives the honor as the first widely published diarist is Samuel Pepys.

Note that what follows is not exhaustive. Visit and click “resources” to learn more or to include favorites of your own.

– Samuel Pepys –

Saw a wedding in the church. It was strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition.

– Samuel Pepys

If not for Samuel Pepys, we wouldn’t know much about the Great Plague or the Great Fire of London. Yet despite Pepys’ eventual fame, when he first began writing his diaries, he intended them to be private – at least at the time. His entries included a combination of personal introspection and eyewitness accounts of great events that might have been lost to history if not for his efforts.

The care Pepys took in the expensive paper he used and the high quality of binding gives a clue that he may have realized that someday someone might find his journals interesting. If that’s what he was thinking, he was right. Ultimately, his became the first diary to be published in the 19th century. He probably never realized that he would come to be seen by some as the “father” of the diary and set off a chain reaction that inspired thousands of others to keep their own.

Takeaway: What is seemingly “everyday” in your own life might one day be fascinating and valuable to others. However, video has a much shorter life span than paper. In Chapter 13, you’ll learn how to protect your videos so that they survive as long as possible.

– Lewis and Clark –

This immense river so far as we have yet ascended, waters one of the fairest portions of the globe, not do I believe that there is in the universe a similar extent of country, equally fertile, well watered, and intersected by such a number of navigable streams…

– Meriwether Lewis

In 1804, the American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made the first overland journey to the Pacific coast and back to discover the Missouri River area and beyond. In current times no doubt there would have been a feature-length documentary made of their extraordinary journey. If their great trip took place in very recent times, they may have made regular video blog entries and uploaded them to their web page using their mobile phones.

However, Lewis and Clark had to be content with the tools that they had. During their cross-country expedition, they wrote over five thousand pages in a journal that cataloged their experiences as they crossed the continent. Their journal entries often filled dual duties. They were meant both as a record of their travels and as letters to important people in their lives.

Takeaway: Consider going beyond the average “travel video” and keep a video journal or blog during your travels. More on how this differs from your regular vacation video can be found in Week Seven of the Eight-Week Workshop.

– Carl Gustav Jung –

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

– Carl Jung

The first modern psychologist to embrace journaling as a therapeutic device was Carl Jung. He is best known as the Swiss psychiatrist whose therapy sought to help patients understand their psyches by exploring dreams, art, and mythology. Throughout Jung’s life, he kept a meticulous and detailed journal referred to as the Red Book because it was bound in red leather. Jung’s work on himself and his patients reinforced his view that our main task in life is to discover and fulfill our inner potential.

Jung proposed uncovering our hidden potential by using journaling to explore the unconscious mind. According to his theories, the further the split between the everyday conscious mind and hidden unconscious the less we are able to respond and adapt to life. Dr. Ira Progoff, one of Jung’s students, is best known for creating workshops that encouraged participants to explore their unconscious and unveil their inner destiny using a specialized journal format.

Takeaway: Video can also be used to tap into the unconscious. In the workshop, there are several exercises that will help you learn how.

– Anais Nin –

So I feel the great changes in the world will come from a great change in our consciousness.

– Anais Nin

Anais Nin was a Parisian writer who became famous for ten volumes of her personal diaries: The Diaries of Anais Nin. Her journals garnered widespread attention not only because of the quality and style of her writing, but because she recorded her active sex life with openness and candor. Today she is considered one of the most influential female authors of the twentieth century.

Nin’s ideas surrounding “male” and “female” had substantial influence on feminism. However, the feminist idea of the time that women should be “just like men” bothered her.(3) She strove to use her writing to express and celebrate her true self as an individual (but entirely equal) woman. Nin viewed her journals as an expression of life as art. Ultimately she disassociated herself from the feminist movement believing that self-knowledge gained through journaling was the key to personal liberation.

Takeaway: Seeing video as an expression of “life as art” can open new channels for self-expression. Learn ways you can translate this into action in Week Eight of the workshop.

– Anne Frank –

I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone.

– From the Diary of Anne Frank

Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929. Her family was forced to hide from the Nazis in a sealed office flat in Amsterdam after they fled to the Netherlands. Her diary covers two years of her life at that time. Frank’s writings are a poignant record of her hopes, disappointments, and conflicts with her family as well as moving observations of daily life.

Frank’s diary acted as a cathartic outlet during one of the darkest moments in human history. Frank is also notable for the time she spent looking back at her writing, reviewing it, and reflecting on its meaning. The excellence of Frank’s prose and the importance of the subject have led her diary to become the most read of all time.

In Fall 2009, the Anne Frank Foundation created a YouTube channel that includes the only known footage of Frank, as well as the view from her window and the sound of church bells that she wrote about.

Each of the above individuals had an enormous impact on an incalculable number of people. Thousands who might never have kept a diary or journal started because of the influence of these pioneering individuals. But not only that, these diarists were the first in a wave of people who reinforced the value of self-examination. They were the vanguard that showed us that by examining ourselves we could not only enrich our own lives, but the lives of others as well.

Takeaway: Looking back at a journal can be as valuable as keeping one. You’ll learn about using the “instant replay” in Week One of the Eight-Week Workshop.

– The Blog is Born –

During the roughly four hundred years after Pepys popularized the diary, the form evolved dramatically. Many individuals known and unknown adopted the habit of keeping a journal or were influenced by the practice. The early diarists are said to have inspired the “Beat Generation” poet Jack Kerouac’s heavily autobiographical novels. Jung’s work encouraged individuals to explore their unconscious thoughts and feelings through journaling. Because of Anais Nin’s impact, the diary became seen as a potentially provocative and liberating act.

But we will never appreciate the true extent of the diarist’s influence, because for the many thousands who kept a paper journal or diary, only a small percentage of those were published. Even if someone were keen on making their journal public, it was unlikely they would find a publisher who shared their eagerness. Then in the early 1990s this all changed.

If you spend time online, you’re familiar with blogs. Blogs evolved from the online diary, where people kept a running account of their personal lives. For the first time there were virtually no economic barriers to getting a personal journal out to the masses, no matter how niche the content.

Justin Hall began keeping an online diary in 1994 when he was a student at Swarthmore College and is generally recognized as one of the earliest bloggers. In 1997, an online diarist, Jorn Barger, coined the term “weblog” which was later shortened to “blog.” Then in 1999, the Blogger website was launched. It became the first popular, free blog creation service that allowed bloggers to find one another easily – the blogging community was born.

Blogs ultimately changed the face of journalism. Many bloggers cite the “Rathergate” scandal as being the decisive moment when blogs were first taken seriously by the mainstream. In 2004, Dan Rather presented George W. Bush’s military records on 60 Minutes. Bloggers challenged the documents’ authenticity and were able to uncover information that proved they were forgeries. CBS had no choice but to make a humiliating public apology. This was a victorious moment for bloggers everywhere. The era of mainstream-dominated journalism was crumbling.

But the history of written journaling and blogging provides only half of our story. In order to continue we need to take another slight detour back in time to the early days of film.

– The Early Pioneers –

In the classic black and white comedy Sherlock, Jr., Buster Keaton plays a movie projectionist who falls asleep on the job. As he drifts off, he dreams that he becomes part of the film he projects. The movie audience within the film itself and the audience of Sherlock, Jr. witness Keaton conjure pure movie magic: He races down the main aisle, leaps up onto the stage, and gleefully enters the film.(4)

Because video is a new technology compared to writing, it may seem that it’s only been recently that we’ve “raced down the main aisle” and leapt into our own videos.

Most people think of the Internet as heralding the revolution of video blogs or video journals. But there are numerous noteworthy pioneering individuals from well before this. The following pre-Internet, and in some instances pre-video, folks laid important groundwork. Though some remain obscure, they are definitely worth checking out. They might inspire you with some innovative ideas and directions of your own.

– Jonas Mekas –

Mekas was born in Lithuania in 1922. He emigrated to New York City in 1949 and almost immediately purchased a 16mm film camera. Soon he began recording the moments of his life. Mekas bucked the trend of mainstream Hollywood in the 1960s, and is often credited with inventing the diary film.

His films such as Walden have inspired numerous others to explore autobiographical filmmaking. Mekas has kept a film diary of his life in New York since 1950. At the age of eighty-four, he still makes one film every day and posts it to his website.(5)

Takeaway: Creating one video entry per day doesn’t need to be difficult. Learn more in Week One of the Eight-Week Workshop.

– Ed Pincus –

Ed Pincus was one of the first filmmakers to call his work a “diary” in his autobiographical documentary appropriately called Diaries. The film includes Ed, his wife Jane, and their two children, and encapsulates the 1970s. Ed and Jane bare both body and soul as they discuss the challenges of their open marriage in intimate detail. He used what was cutting-edge technology at the time to shoot the project entirely on his own.

The innovative film opened the door for others who had big creative visions with small budgets. It also furthered the idea that a diary need not be written.

Takeaway: Deciding to make intimate material public can be rewarding, but it requires consideration. Week Eight walks you through various ways of going public.

– Ross McElwee –

For over twenty-five years, McElwee has used his own life as a vehicle to explore the grand themes of existence. He is a filmmaker willing to take the risk of allowing a film to be an unpredictable and unplanned process. He often speaks directly to the camera and shoots on his own with the camera placed on a tripod.

In Sherman’s March, McElwee first sets out to make an essay piece that follows the path of General Sherman, but he undergoes a traumatic breakup just prior to shooting. The film ends up searching for ways to heal a broken heart as McElwee follows General Sherman’s path while reconnecting with the women who affected his life along the way. He was one of the first autobiographical filmmakers that showed himself, flaws and all, with boldness and humor.

Takeaway: Be open to changing goals and directions. Creating a video blog or journal can throw unexpected opportunities your way.

– Sadie Benning –

In 1988, fifteen-year-old Benning was home alone one night after having gone through a difficult period. Her father had recently given her a Fisher-Price camera that shot black and white video onto audio cassettes and she began to record her feelings. As Benning expresses it, she liked the fact that “it didn’t judge meit just sat there and recorded what I said.” Rather than write in a diary or muse in front of a mirror as many other teens do, she used her camera as a kind of diary-mirror.(6) Benning became the youngest person to be included in the Whitney Biennial. One of her best known works is If Every Girl Had a Diary, a video portrait that uses ultra close-ups of her body and surroundings to explore her sexual identity and frustrations with social stereotypes.

Takeaway: Learn how you can create your own video portrait in Week Four of the Eight-Week Workshop.

– Mark Massi and Tom Joslin –

Viewers who watched the final night that Silverlake Life: The View From Here was broadcast on PBS witnessed an extremely private moment. They saw the still body of Tom Joslin, who had just died of AIDS-related complications. From behind a shaking camcorder, Tom’s partner Mark Massi tells us that Joslin has just died. He then says to Joslin that he loves him and makes a promise to finish the tape.

When the couple was first diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s, it was still a death sentence. Massi began filming a day-to-day video diary of their experiences as they occurred. When Massi died as well, one of his students took the footage and edited it together for broadcast.

Takeaway: Massi and Joslin demonstrated courage in sharing their lives openly and honestly. In Chapter 14, you’ll learn about some of the ways that people use video blogging to heal and connect.

– Jonathan Caouette –

Jonathan Caouette created his intensely personal film Tarnation from 20 years’ worth of primarily self-recorded VHS videotape and old Super 8 footage. He combined these with photographs and answering machine messages to tell the story of his life and his relationship with his mentally ill mother, Renee.

Because the footage was extraordinarily intimate, Caouette had to do some serious soul searching prior to bringing his project to life. It was initially made for a total budget of $218.32, using free iMovie software on a Mac. The distributor eventually spent more to bring the film to theaters, but the film’s low budget remains a record.

Takeaway: What aspects of your past might you celebrate or reclaim? You don’t need to plan to make a feature film of your life to creatively mine your past.

– Video Blogging Arrives –

By the year 2000, camcorders had been around for decades and were growing smaller and cheaper each year. In the meantime, the invention of digital video in the late 1990s allowed users to easily and inexpensively edit material on their home computers.

Adam Kontras posted the first video blog (also known as a “vlog”) on January 2, 2000. Kontras’ video blog was called The Journey and it chronicled his move from his hometown in Columbus, Ohio, to strike a path in show business in California. But at that time, few people watched. Not only were there fewer people online in general, but also most people used dial-up connections. Watching video online was an excruciatingly slow and mind-numbing process.

The same year that Adam Kontras made his first foray into online video, Adrian Miles, a researcher at the University of Bergen in Norway, posted his own online video along with a manifesto that detailed his early ideas about video blogging (or “vogs” as he prefers to call them).

Three years later, a Brazilian named Nacho Duran posted the first-known South American video blog. It was a diary made up of soundless video loops from a photo sequence he captured with a portable webcam. Early rumblings regarding online video appeared in the media. Ryanne Hodson was profiled by Business Week for her “videos that mingle the absurd with oddly touching insights.” The Boston radio producer Steve Garfield posted his own video blog online and declared 2004 to be the “year of the vlog.”

The media attention continued to build. Though Garfield had beat them to it, Forbes magazine jumped on the trend and declared 2005 to be the “year of the vlog” but there were still surprisingly few who were watching and even fewer who actively posted video blogs. For example, the Yahoo! Video Blogging group, formed by video blogger Jay Dedman in 2004, still had just over one thousand members by 2005.

Meanwhile, personal videos began to go “viral.” By early 2005 Gary Brolsma’s Numa Numa video had been viewed over two million times. The video features the rotund and charismatic Brolsma lip-synching and flirting with the camera to what was then an obscure Romanian pop song. Since then it has been viewed an astounding seven hundred million plus times.(7) More importantly it spawned the beginnings of a global community in the form of a mass wave of video responses – thanks to YouTube.

The founding of YouTube increased viewers exponentially and the number of video bloggers and producers of personal video exploded. By 2006, people were watching more than one hundred million videos daily on YouTube according to USA Today.(8) Time magazine declared “You” – mainly referring to those involved in creating user-generated content online – as their Person of the Year.

Up until this point, the stereotype was that the world of online video was a youthful one. But in 2007, an eighty-year-old grandma “Bubby” was featured in the Wall Street Journal for her video blog Feed Me Bubby. The video blog was admittedly produced with the help of her grandson, but subsequent seniors went on to produce their own content showing that the movement encompassed all ages.

However, it was in 2008 that video blogging’s true impact began to be felt. During the presidential election, video blogs changed the political landscape. Each candidate scrambled to get in the game, ultimately uploading thousands of videos. They had to adjust their strategies once they realized that their mistakes as well as their messages could go viral. McCain learned this the hard way when his “bomb Iran” comment became a YouTube re-mix sensation.

But the viral nature also worked in the candidates’ favor. Video bloggers such as musician borrowed material from an Obama speech to create a music video called Yes We Can. The video became one of the most watched political videos of all time.

Back in 2007, six hours of video were uploaded to YouTube per minute. By 2009, YouTube was receiving one BILLION visits per day and nearly one full day of video was being uploaded per minute according to its owner, Google.(9)

In 2010, Adam Kontras celebrated ten years video blogging with video number one thousand. Meanwhile, many individuals have forged highly successful video blogging careers. In what may or may not be a threat to the movement’s grassroots, the entertainment industry has taken note.

The stated goal of YouTube is to have the service “on every screen – to take it from the PC to the living room and the cell phone.” Whether it is YouTube that takes us there or one of the many other players, the increased role video will play in our lives seems inevitable. In the next chapter we’ll look at some of the ways this is already happening and why this makes the quality of our relationship to video as important as available quantity.

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