We spoke to Bambuser’s Executive Chairman Hans Eriksson in a Google Hangout on Syria, streaming video, and the future of a platform that’s become a gateway for content from the Arab uprisings. Below is an excerpt of that chat.
SD: We’d seen people in the Middle East broadcasting live [on Bambuser] from Egypt and around the region. Did you notice a moment when it took off?
Eriksson: When the opposition tried to cover the elections in Egypt [in November 2010], as the Mubarak regime didn’t allow any international observers in the country. During that single day, 10,000 unique videos came out from Egypt – it was their way of capturing what was happening at poll stations, trying to capture anything that wasn’t done in the correct way. From there it all started. More and more people started using Bambuser in Egypt, and from there it grew in the Middle East.
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We saw videos coming in starting 18 months ago from Syria, videos of peaceful demonstrations, particularly from Deraa. Media focus on Syria was numb, no one cared. I personally started talking to these guys—they ended up being the foundation of the Shaam News Network. Since then the community has been building in Syria. We have been helping them as we have been helping activists in the rest of the world, which is basically trying to distribute the content and get the world’s attention about what’s going on. In particular cases we have been helping them with technology advice and safety issues. It’s been a long process, both in trying to get to know the groups and trying to get the media’s attention about what’s going on and what content is coming out of the country.
SD: As the Syrian community of Bambuser users started broadcasting, was there a moment when you realized: this is history, live on Bambuser? What was the turning point for you?
Eriksson: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have a good answer. The dialogue we had with them was that they wanted to get the world’s attention about what was going on in Syria. The oppositions approach to that violence against the Syrian population was for the people to go out in peaceful demonstrations, to show they wanted a peaceful uprising with dialogue, but everything escalated – videos from peaceful demonstrations turned into something else, people were actually capturing gun battles in the streets, shelling of Homs, Daraa, Aleppo, Damascus.
SD: Many of us were watching the feeds from Homs that went live on Al Jazeera. You had a Bambuser user siting in the midst of shelling, going live on his cell phone and not budging from the scene. What was going on that day? What was it like for you realizing this guy was in the middle of this flight, and live from your internet network?
Eriksson: There was mixed feelings obviously. That was not the first time he was broadcasting. He was broadcasting up to the day the Assad forces bombed a pipeline in Homs-that was the first time media got to understand what Bambuser was. It was the first time in TV history that user generated video was used/aired live on a major TV network. It was live on CNN, Sky, BBC, Fox. That was a breakthrough for us and for the Syrian broadcasters, realizing we have power to show the world what is going on. The total reach of the Homs video was over 1 billion people. We have seen plenty of those videos come out in the last 18 months, with similar reaches.
SD: Who are the people broadcasting on Bambuser? Is there an average profile? How do you get to trust them?
Eriksson: It’s about them getting to trust us. On my Skype contact list I have about 150-200 Syrian broadcasters. I don’t know their real names. I speak to quite a few on a daily basis via trap door or voice. I don’t know their background, names, jobs, but they are all people with big hearts, that are exceptionally friendly. They all have an amazing sense of humor, which is amazing!
SD: As social media has come to play a bigger role news coverage, especially coverage in conflict zones, there is always the concern with YouTube videos, that you can’t verify the sources. How do you think about verification of the images that come through Bambuser?
Eriksson: For us it’s not an issue, especially as we have gotten to know the people. We know who they are, where they are.From a news media perspective, we don’t take on any verification—it’s not our job, we don’t have the resources. It’s interesting to see how new media deals with verification. It’s quite simple; they quickly call in someone with a visual and verify the city. They also check the weather at the scene and compare it to the video. They listen to dialects, car signs, and street signs. A news agency, like AP, Reuters, CNN, can verify a video in 60 seconds, which is amazing. You can’t stage a war. We always get the information from every single video coming in from Syria, about what it is and who is broadcasting. So far they have never been wrong, never said anything that isn’t true. We are confident with the contacts we have. We know what news media does to verify videos to make sure what comes out is 100 percent correct.
SD: You’ve told us the regime specifically wants live broadcasts to stop coming from Syria, especially broadcast from Syria, How do you keep your people safe? In general, what are the challenges to doing this?
Eriksson: The biggest challenge is, you risk your life. The single thing you have to look out for: not giving away your exact GPS location, so switching your GPS off on your phone. Regarding safety, we have been telling people not to do this…if you want to film it, put your camera, and put yourself in a safe place and leave. But people don’t want to leave. The guy in Homs, with mortars falling around him, was very specific—he didn’t want to leave, every time a mortar was falling around him. “I’m not going to leave. I’m going to stay here till Homs is free or I die.”
SD: Syria is an intense user case for Bambuser. How has this conflict changed the way you see what you do and what Bambuser does?
Eriksson: The whole situation in the Middle East has changed a lot about what we think we are going. We might be a bit naive, bit stupid, but we believe Bambuser is a tool that can be used for free speech—it can enable free speech, with democratization apart of that. We are using a huge amount of time and resources in supporting activists in the world, helping them use Bambuser and distribute content. We aren’t making money whatsoever; we aren’t growing our user base either. It is become a thing so important to everyone in the company, we aren’t going to deviate from that, we are still going to be there and be as supportive as we can.
SD: What’s next for Bambuser? How do you grow as a company? How do you keep this kind of work going?
Eriksson: We need to find revenue sales elsewhere. Just looking at what we have now and are developing, we see the money comes from white labeling our technology, so that media companies to integrate the Bambuser technology into existing applications-primarily IOS and Android devices. It could happen that CNN app users on apple and android devices can just open the CNN application and broadcast to CNN directly—this is something that is going to change the media world, it’s going to change how you aggregate content and how you work with you audience.
SD: Any closing thoughts about the episode in Syria that you wish the world knew, about what it’s been like to see this unfold?
Eriksson: It’s been a rough time…it’s been something, emotionally, I have never experienced in my life. It’s something I will have to carry with me for the rest of my life, the good and the bad. The bad thing is I get to see dead people on a daily basis. You can never get used to seeing dead children, tortured children, mutilated children… that’s something that brings you down, but you have to watch it. I, as well as the Syrian broadcasters, believe that it’s important that the world see it and get the context around it, not only a video on YouTube with dead bodies. You need context: Why it happened, what happened, who committed a crime. The good thing is hearing, seeing and feeling the feedback from people in Syria for the little we actually do; we are just a technology supplier. People appreciate what we are going, that means a heck of a lot. That keeps you going.