It’s sort of odd, but I’ve gotten to the point I really hate seeing video on the Internet. It’s funny because I love video. I’ve been shooting it since I was in middle school. I think my first gig was recording a training seminar for teachers. That would have been in either 1976 or 1977. In high school I had access to this weird-ass Akai VT-400 camera/ recorder combo that I used to record whatever I could talk anyone into letting me record. I spent a lot of time with the basketball team. Up until five or six years ago my professional life revolved around making video in one way or the other. Back in 2008 Streaming Media Magazine named me a Streaming Media All-Star. As best I’ve been able to determine, my team at UC was the first ever to stream a high school graduation live on the Internet back in 2001. That’s a footnote-to-a-footnote kind of accomplishment, but it illustrates the point that I’ve been at this for a while. I still care about video a lot. I’m enjoying this writing thing, but I’d kill to direct a multi-camera shoot just one more time.1,2. But I do hate seeing video pop up on social media.
It’s not the production values (or lack thereof) that bother me. I can’t tell you how many “Intro to TV Production” courses I’ve taught. When you see some of the stuff students do intentionally for a grade when you warned them not to, you’re not terribly overwrought when you see people with no training fall into the same traps. It’s definitely not vertical video. I feel the same way about people who get all holier-than-thou about that issue as I do about people who turn up their noses at a well-made lager because, well, it’s a lager. The phrase “douche canoe“ comes up almost immediately.
After putting milliseconds of thought into it while making a Facebook comment on this topic, I came up with three reasons I dislike most video on the Internet:
- Environmental Demands. Few videos are silent. Most have sound. I’m not always in a place where it’s appropriate for sounds to be playing. I keep my phone muted a lot of the time. When I was in cubicle-land I had headphones, but a lot of time I wore them just to muffle outside sounds. Sounds are intrusive. The Internet may be a dark, seething morass of overdeveloped outrage and underdeveloped potty-training skills, but at least it’s usually quiet.
- Cognitive Throttling. I read fast. Like everyone, I read differently depending on the circumstance. If I’m trying to immerse myself in the piece I read every word and am happy to go back and re-read a passage again. If I’m in a hurry or looking for a specific thing I’ll scan until I locate what I’m looking for. Everyone does this to one degree or another. The brain is an amazing thing. The amount of information you can take in at a glance is quite remarkable if you think about it. Of course you don’t have to think about it. That’s kind of the point. Until it’s video. Now you’re getting locked into a single speed. Whatever’s in there you’re looking for, you get to wait for it with everyone else, damnit. It’s going to drip, drip, drip and you can’t do anything about it. That five-minute video is going to take five minutes to watch. Plus anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds extra because there’s probably going to be a pre-roll ad.
- Cognitive Hijacking. When you watch a video, you’re outsourcing your cognition to whomever made it. You’re only going to see what the person who made it wants you to see. You’re only going to hear what you’re given. The camera is never passive. It draws attention to itself in varying degrees depending on the technique being used, but you’re not the one who’s deciding what you’re looking at. That’s been done for you. Saying “I’m going to watch TV” or “I’m going to a movie” pretty much means you’re signing up for this voluntarily. I like how Steven Spielberg manipulates my cognition. Uwe Boll? Not so much. But that’s just me. My main objection to most video on the Internet is that I’m usually doing something else and I can’t really afford to sign over my consciousness to this other person who might or might not share my cognitive goals right then. One of the hoary chestnuts of the Internet is that videos have to be short because no one will watch long videos. Bullshit. People will hang in exactly as long as they need in order to get out of it what they want. You just can’t shove 50 unrelated things into a long video and expect people to wade through all of them to find that one nugget they really want.3
If you have a video of your cat doing something adorable and you label it as such, I have all the information I need in order to decide whether or not to watch it. And let’s be real. I probably will. Because cats. On the other hand, I have no interest in watching a recipe. Some of the best recipes in the world have been passed down through generations on 3×5 index cards. How is making a video supposed to improve on that? Some particular technique in some step? That’s fair, but then just show me that. You can just write out the rest and I’ll be very happy.
Video is good at showing complex spatial relationships among multiple objects. That could be anything from a baseball game to a gymnastics meet to a video on how to remove a car stereo from a car. Video is good at showing parasocial cues like smiling and body language. Video is good for demonstrating complex techniques. We’ve all seen the line drawings of how to tie a tie or assemble some piece of furniture. Most of the time there’s this one key step that video is perfect for. You look at the drawing on the instructions and you wonder if Screw 2B goes into hole 3C or whether you’re supposed to invade France by way of Belgium4. There are certain things video is good for. It’s not good for everything.
I always liked to tell my students that it’s nearly as hard to make a really crappy video as it is to make a good one. The amount of effort that goes into something has absolutely nothing to do with how good or appropriate it is. The flip side to that is that just because it’s easy to shoot a video and put it up, it doesn’t mean you ought to. I could go on for at least another thousand words about the crime against humanity that is the “video user guide” for most software. Just admit it. You were too lazy to write out the text for what each menu item does. That’s all I want to know. I don’t have to see you do it.
To get my point across do I need anything more than words? No? Then stop. Can a picture help show a two-dimensional relationship? Yes? Add that sucker in. Is there something we absolutely have to see in motion and hear in order to understand? Yes? Then video is a good idea. Otherwise it’s not. It’s not that complicated.
1OK, maybe not kill. I’d be willing to kick you. Call me?
2I did order one of these things way back. It was supposed to ship this month but it’s been delayed to July. Not perfect, but it could be fun.
3As an aside, I think 360-degree video is a cool and interesting technology, but I’m betting people are really going to struggle to find a good use for it in a story-telling setting. How do you direct attention when you just opened up the world by a whole lot? I’m definitely not saying it can’t be done, but I sure don’t know what it looks like. Then again, that’s the fun part, right?
4I’d like to apologize again to the governments of Belgium and France for that misunderstanding when I was assembling my Weber grill.