Written Media Is Getting Its Ass Kicked by Video

Why does video consistently engage more people than written?

Ever since I started this page, I wondered why text has a general tendency to result in much lesser viewership than video. At first, it might seem like it’s an effort vs payoff affair — one where imperatively, video must make more views since more creative power is dedicated to it. But that didn’t make the least amount of sense to me when I’m adamantly more used to seeing low-effort videos get far more views than ones edited and scripted masterfully, so that linearity of scale must have a natural limitation to it, or it could be that we simply put video a pedestal that it does not deserve, and that audience trends are as easily swayed in favor of mediocre content as they were when radio and written were still reigning supreme.

“The Horse of Motion” was but a mere series of photos stringed together back in 1878, but little did we know, the sophistication equal to that of a burst shot from a smartphone, was going to completely change the way we consume content in the decades to come.

Initially, the plunge to film was marked by an element of wonder. My mom would tell me that her, and grandma, used to refer to the television when it started hitting the shelves as the “box of wonders”. People couldn’t believe that what they once consumed in the form of letters on a page, would soon come to life on the theater screens, or the controlled environment of their own living room. There was a distant rift between those who made the product, and those who limited themselves to consuming it, and it was why the miracle of moving pictures on a semi-flat plane was of no particular amazement to the panel manufacturers, compared to the common peasantry who’d be hard-pressed not to deem it the deceitful work of ancient sorcery.

Video as a form of media, has undergone a multitude of mutations and deep radical changes since it was first conceptualized. At first, it was akin to a concept car that was “technically built” but could never be driven. We were able to string together a succession of images, but there were little to no practical applications of how such an ordeal would contribute in any tangible way to our daily lives. Then with the advent of cinema, and theater transforming from this monolithic space where only plays were to be hosted, to somewhere people can watch these very early dabblings in the art of successive photography, it started to become less of a myth that video would then come to dominate every aspect of our daily lives. Motion picture studios soon saw the potential, and sought to fully capitalize on it — as is every artform doomed to be — and it looked like it wasn’t a passing trend like many have predicted it to be, but it was rather the entertainment standard for many years to come, well into modernity.

In light of a conflation I intentionally made, it’s important to distinguish between television and cinema — one was spearheaded by industries to solidify film as a mainstay in the zeitgeist, and the other was more about letting the consumer assert control of the content they were watching. Cinema had already been conceptualized when radio was the dominant form of entertainment in the technologically assertive parts of the world, but it took television screens becoming mainstream for film to finally take on a more commercialized approach rather than the pet projects of a few privileged, multi-million-dollar production houses.

There was a major debate when radio was first starting to get phased out in favor of television. Would a form of media that has solidified itself for three straight decades until the late 40s go down that easily without a fight, or would it simply co-exist alongside television due to the market segment having been already carved out? We wonder that ourselves about product categories whenever a major innovation happens in the technology sector when pertaining directly to entertainment. It’s very hard to not see these patterns play out every time a new format comes with the promise of overtaking the existing status quo.

Let’s take the iPhone for example. Apple, the company, is in a bit of a slump concerning its product sales currently, but with the release of the very first iPhone, they kickstarted an entire revolution wherein every new smartphone to be considered even aptly “smart” had to have a touchscreen, and preferably, a smooth and buttery experience to cope. Google, Apple’s main current competitor, wasn’t able to keep up with the pace of technological progress at the time, but they quickly caught up, and are now host to hundreds of OEM’s making devices using a forked version of their Android operating system. What many would be reluctant to accredit Apple for, is the creation of the smartphone — afterall, Blackberry had been doing it for a while and was making a killing in the market selling their full-sized keyboard slabs with a heavy aim at businessmen and entrepreneurs — plans of unlimited texting thereafter started to catch steam, but the industry seemed to had plateaued for a while. But what Apple helped allow happen, is make the endeavor of owning a smartphone less special. It spread forth the doctrine that owning such a luxurious piece of hardware would soon become the norm, and isn’t something to particularly gaff at when roaming the streets of a metropolitan concrete jungle. Now, smartphones are in nearly every adolescent’s pockets, and most, if not all adults own them not only as a courtesy of increased financial responsibility, but as an important utility where capital and social connections are established, then maintained.

Netflix had made a similar deal with video on-demand. I still remember the earliest days of iTunes and the Xbox Video Store, where the promise of watching 1080p movies in 5.1 surround sound was the hot talk of the era. As was unfathomable for me to even own enough bandwidth to take advantage of these services, all of them required an upfront cost of at least €5 to get an HD rental. That meant spending a takeout worth of cash each time I wanted to watch a movie — and unexpectedly, that’s when I resorted to alternative methods when digital distribution of video was still starting to catch its footing. Netflix however, completely changed the game — the company bet its existence on its ability to accumulate subscription fees from an increasing lot of users in order to finance the creation of original shows, licensing some most iconic, and maintaining a healthy influx of user sign-ups so cost of entry doesn’t skyrocket from there being so little to split between content right holders on top of the initial licensing fees. What that has allowed to flourish, is an increasing confidence on part of production studios and publishers, that the average consumer is no longer tempted to just yank a video file of a movie or a TV show off a shady website, and would rather wait for the inconvenience of that dropping on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon in a lag that can last up to a year. It’s shown market analysts that the consumer is willing to put up with a bit of friction if it meant they’d have to pay a steady subscription free without batting an eye.

The intersection of the two, along an increasing demand in fast broadband internet connections, has made it easier than ever for anyone with a healthy income, to take part in the digital revolution. Download it, and upload it, such as it were.

It wasn’t only that Netflix, was as easily attainable on a phone as it once was on computers and television screens, but it also meant that entire films were going to be made on iPhone’s, only to be later published using prestige video distribution platforms such as Netflix. The meeting of the two is a parallel technological evolution tale of uttermost poetic proportions. To see hardware, software, and platform, become so utterly indistinguishable, was ample enough proof that “getting Netflix” was starting to be less perceived as an action of active financial participation in another company’s war chest and more as just yet another utility to take advantage of.

When video started becoming utilitarian, that’s when demand and offer shook hands the manliest. It was no longer a case of a very few taking advantage of what was once the promise of a revolution in digital distribution means, but now, anyone and their dog can just open a Netflix account, funnel what would still be a favorable portion of a monthly wage even in the poorest of developing countries towards it, and enjoy a library of content the likes of which are yet to be rivaled by another player in the industry. Service, was getting melded with utility, and it was only a matter of time until something along the lines of “Netflix and chill” would become lingo, instead of a widely-misunderstood reference.

YouTube, to which many the spoils could be attributed, is a benefiter in this revolution from a distilled cultural standpoint — though it remains to be seen whether profitability is ever on the horizon. It allowed many a people with a camera, to upload their thoughts unfiltered for the whole world to see. The usual limitations standard with a regional production aren’t there — no geo-restrictions, no fee of entry, and no prejudice towards a segment of the audience was immediately apparent. It was the purest manifestation of internet’s earliest promise in uniting the world under one banner of information-proliferation. What would soon come to pass however, is when the platforms start to reflect more of humanity’s ills, and less of our transcendent creative vices, it creates a never-ending feedback loop whereby a small minority dictate their rules on the widest majority, and as YouTube continues to bleed more ad money in favor of a more benign “laissez-faire”, “publisher, not a platform” nebulous interpretation of the law, it’s starting to become more of an open question whether poor management of the site will be the thunderous blow to kill its questionable profitability once and for all. YouTube can’t simply afford to lose, if only for the fact it nearly boasts close to two-billion active monthly users, and is exerting of a cultural influence unparalleled by any other free-of-charge content distribution platform — auditory, visual, or written.

YouTube becoming a utility, was key to its cultural perseverance. Written outlets still yet do not have that silver bullet to propel them into the eyes of the mainstream as primordial. On top of a natural inclination to prefer visual cues over literary ones, evidence seems to show there’s simply a much bigger source of perceived satisfaction from consuming video content — which usually is more entertaining than informative — than from reading the latest column of a renowned NYT opinions writer. As I write these pieces, I often wonder myself, what’s the utility of continuing to pen them if the audience still proves to be fairly limited — after all, it’s not like I can churn out content with the consistency a prestigious production house can, and I’m surely not expecting nearly the same financial, nor cultural compensatory return that they do. So why do newspapers, and digital outlets still continue to publish even as their credibility in the modern media space is still in much peril, and under heavy scrutiny?

A major component of the answer lies in the same advantages that allowed video to rule over the landscape in the first place — written, does not subjugate itself as heavily to framing, as video does.

To pick an example perhaps unusual, if I were to make a video on a game being buggy, all I’d have to do is frame a fact of anecdotal occurrence, as one of regularity — i.e. it would entail me having to show only one bug happening, and me constructing an entire thesis about how why would the incidence of one bug dictates that many others like it must occur. In another, I can show a footage of a bearded brown man being spiteful, and vindictive, to construct a narrative on why Muslims are a dangerous subsection of western society, and run with it as a generalized conclusion on how Muslims conduct themselves on the regular. There are way too many to count, but what this basically seeks to facilitate the understanding of, is that wherein controlling the framing is much easier by showing footage that is taken to be of necessary justification when presenting an otherwise insular, and isolated thesis on something completely unrelated, shows that video is much more tightly tied with emotion than writing is.

That’s not to say that writing can’t manipulate emotions as easily as video can — but to show, is to make people believe, and to make them believe, can be often as short of a cut to a half-constructed truth as any.

It is in part due to this, why I became increasingly reluctant on assigning more literary value to video than I do with text. Just because a wall of letters and numbers don’t illicit in me the same emotion as a video, doesn’t mean it’s any less veritable. Of course, separating the two sounds a whole lot easier intellectually, but it isn’t as intuitive to make out when approaching it from a point of mere emotional resonance.

Video has simply become much more fun to consume than text, and many platforms of news distribution still struggle immensely with curation. I’ve tried MSN News, Flipboard, Feedly, Pocket, and all the major fixtures — the only one to come close to a fully personalized stream based on relevant interests and reading habits, is Google News. It has somewhat subsided my desire to open the front page of a major publication and just read whatever my eye caught onto, but it still isn’t enough to completely change the face of written publication as we currently know it. We need that Netflix, that YouTube, that iPhone, of the written medium to see it finally flourish and reach its peak engagement numbers. As Ezra Klein once said, “there’s a lot of, I think, business in video, but there’s not good business in video just as a business strategy”, and seeing how the likes of Mic. were entirely sunk due to their premature pivot to video, is good enough proof that we shouldn’t bank on a one-to-one transformation of text into video as the savior of the medium, we should rather siphon its characteristic strength to its ultimate aid.

Written, stands lots to gain from becoming a more impactful part of the wider culture. What it’s rather stifled by currently is an unmissable hesitance on written publication platform holders to enact any sort of radical change in the way we consume written media. Medium isn’t looking like it — if their incessant recommendations of crypto-currency and snake-oil sex advice is to be believed — so we’ll probably still have to wait for that perfect aggregator to finally fully bridge the gap between reader, and writer. When the barrier entry is low enough for both producers and consumers of content, that’s when the revolution occurs. Until that happens, I’m still bound to be read by a thousand people a month at most, even though I could do five times better if only curation towards independent writers was as comparably favorable as it is to the major trades.