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Obama inauguration marks new chapter for digital media

Obamaoath

On March 4, 1901, a lone cameraman in the employ of Thomas A. Edison was dispatched to capture the swearing in of William McKinley. To posterity he delivered a total of 44 seconds of grainy footage showing a white-haired man on the Capitol steps solemnly, if indistinctly, raising his right hand.

The snippet lives in the archives of the Library of Congress along with a note apologizing for the Edison Co.’s picayune contribution to American history: “The rain began falling in torrents with almost the first words of the President’s speech, which of course prohibited our taking a greater length of film.”

For the inauguration of Barack Obama 108 years later, the sky stayed clear, and a lack of footage was not among the concerns. The torrents this time around were digital. Worried phone companies, anticipating a flood of text messages, phone calls, photos and video streams deluging the nation’s capital, spent millions to boost capacity — and begged revelers to keep their phones in their pants.

But though no major communication meltdowns were reported, multimedia activity was anything but restrained. Thanks in part to Edison’s long-ago tinkerings, the National Mall was occupied by an army of media producers — some professional, some amateur, the rest just armed with tiny recording devices. Even the president’s daughter was playing shutterbug.

All morning, thousands of pictures flowed onto online image services like Flickr, Twitpic and Photobucket. “People on cameras everywhere,” wrote Twitter user Eric Langberg of Pennsylvania. “Most documented crowd in history? The sheer humanity packed into this place is astonishing.”

Many of those who couldn’t make it to Washington crowded onto online thoroughfares, adding another milestone to a day already full of them. By all accounts, the Obama inauguration was the most-watched live event in the history of the Web.

KC Estenson, the head of CNN’s Web operation, had predicted the inauguration would set the high-water mark for Web viewership. The simple fact that it happened during the day, when many people were at work and closer to a computer than to a television, gave Web video a rare kind of advantage  over TV.

CNN.com, which partnered with Facebook to allow users to watch the event online while chatting with friends — sort of the virtual equivalent of an Oscar party — built a platform that could support 1 million concurrent viewers. Facebook users noted their favorite ...

... parts of the songs, speeches and poems (“Praise Song for the Day,” wrote one user, echoing the lyrical title of Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem).

After the swearing in, CNN.com reported that it had attracted 1.3 million live viewers, smashing both its own optimistic projection and nearly doubling what industry watchers considered the previous record, a virtual audience of 700,000 drawn by “YouTube Live,” the video site’s November variety show.

But the total number of live viewers would’ve been substantially larger. Besides CNN.com, one of the nation’s top news sites, hundreds of other newspaper and television news sites offered live feeds of the proceedings. With latimes.com, Fox News, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and others, there were so many viewing options that, for the first time, Web viewers could actually do the online equivalent of channel surfing.

Mogulus.com, one of the Web’s largest live video platforms, powered the inauguration feeds for C-SPAN and all 108 of Gannett’s news websites, including USAToday.com. Chief Executive Max Haot reported that the site had broken its own record by clocking in 100,000 simultaneous viewers.

The demand for streaming video has been growing rapidly, Haot said, noting that Mogulus’ viewing traffic has been doubling every two months. That’s in part because broadband technology has evolved so that producers “can send a good quality feed from pretty much anywhere.”

Add in the ease with which news sites can plant videos on their own sites — a process that takes only a step or two — and the result is that the Web is “making live streaming more commoditized,” Haot said. “And therefore you’re seeing more content coming from it.”

Hulu.com, the up-and-coming video site co-owned by NBC Universal and News Corp., made a point of giving its inauguration stream away free, encouraging users and site owners to embed the broadcast on any Web page.

“The more Obama leverages online video, the more we have an appetite for offering this type of content,” said Hulu spokeswoman Christina Lee in Los Angeles, hinting that the Web-savvy candidate may actually be helping along the development of online media. “We’ll be watching him closely.”

Consumers with the iPhone, that Swiss Army knife of mobile devices, were even able to open a live window onto the National Mall. By downloading a brand new “app” from Web video site UStream.tv, they could choose from a menu of live TV streams — some from major broadcasters and others from users on the ground.

Overall, the consumption of online news spiked as well, reported Akamai, a Web services company that facilitates much of the world’s Web traffic. According to Akamai’s usage index, Tuesday’s Web news activity was the fifth-highest peak since the site began tallying news traffic in 2005 — with nearly 5.5 million people visiting online news sites every minute. On election day, which holds the No. 1 spot, that number was 8.5 million.

Though these Mt. Everest-type traffic days are rare, they have an outsize effect on the development of the online media landscape. Sites like CNN and Mogulus design new interfaces to showcase during high-profile events, while at the same time bulking up to be able to handle heavy loads. Like a city building stadiums for the Olympics, this new construction remains intact and can be used again. This is how new viewing habits emerge and old ones recede.

Some credit is also due to Obama, a world leader who made social networking a hallmark of his campaign and chose YouTube as the medium for his fireside chats. And if you need more evidence that Obama likes his media the electronic way, check out the White House’s brand-new blog.

Appeared in print as "Spirits, live site usage soar"

-- David Sarno

 
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