How we watch video now

Seth Godin is an incisive observer of the current media ecology—of which each one of us, never forget, is an integral part. His latest post is a good example:

Forty years ago, Stanley Kubrick showed us 2001. The first 90 seconds are without dialogue and solid black. It’s hard to imagine that working as the intro to a YouTube video today. 

Instead, our finger is on the mouse trigger, ready to leave in a moment. Not only that, but instead of leaning forward, we’ve got our shields set to level 7, wary of what’s to come. As the video begins, a series of questions arise, unbidden:

Click through to see the questions, they are quite accurate, The list ends with a decision, one which we want to reach as quickly and efficiently as possible: “Okay, yeah, I think I get it… Next.” (And note that “think’” is good enough, no need to be certain.)

His most intriguing point is one I think I disagree with:

Everyone can publish video now, and in many ways, almost everyone is publishing video now. A video won’t work because everyone watches it. It will work because the right people do, for the right reason. The occasional video viral hit has blinded us to the power of long-tail video to build the culture and change minds.

I agree with the Gladwellian idea about the ability of the “right people’”—not right in the sense of superior, but rather right place, right time—to make something viral. And I agree, less strongly, that viral content has the potential to build the culture and change.

But I’m highly skeptical that video is capable of doing that, at least intentionally. Instead, I think it tends to defuse important ideas by turning them into entertainment, thereby making the idea into an aesthetic object to be observed, enjoyed, consumed, rather than one to be engaged. Here’s one such video, which does an excellent job of making its point. It is also free of distractions like fast cutting, high production values, ironic humor, music, and a hyped-up narrator. But it has three qualities that just about any candidate for video virality must have: (1) it is short, about 90 seconds; (2) it makes a single, simple point; and (3) it makes a visual point.

The point this video makes—that what is being trumpeted as a significant action is actually insignificant, once context is considered—is an important one, but only if you use it to begin a train of thought and then follow through on its many implications for the rest of your thinking. However, the requirements of the viral video format tend to stop the train in its tracks, encouraging the viewer to take the point as a significant conclusion rather than an intriguing beginning. It becomes the visual equivalent of a sound bite, and is used as sound bites are used—as a substitute for thought.

My skepticism may be due to being too old to have caught this particular wave. My participation in social media is limited, and not in a curmudgeonly way—the common uses of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube are things I just don’t get at a deep level. And I do find value in each of those technologies, though it tends to be limited, and lurking in areas other than the ones which are commonly championed. But I do look at the cases that are made with an open mind, and continue to do so, and it may mean something that I find them unpersuasive.

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