Video is exploding on the web today. Wider bandwidths, faster processors and increased storage capacity have opened the door for video to enter into the social web. So it becomes logical to ask, as Will Overstreet does in a recent post, “how do we make video more social?’ But if we are to ever achieve a truly social web video practice, technology designers will have to deal with the deeper contradiction in meanings between “social web” and “video.”
In his post, Will points out that video interactivity falls way behind in comparison to standard social media practices. He asks how we can make video live up to the same expectations and thus make the user experience more seamless. These are valid questions.
I want to crack open the problem by using an analogy: video is “liquid” and social media is “solid.”
Let’s get liquid
Video works as a flow. It is a steady stream of information ‘dots’ that are structured into rows and stacked vertically to produce an image. In the old days of analog televisions the images were produced by shooting a stream of electrons at a special glass surface. The energy of these electrons illuminated points on the glass surface with varying intensities and, magically, images of Lucille Ball, The Beatles, and Walter Cronkite appeared in our living rooms.
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This stream of organized energy was almost liquid-like in its nature. It flowed through our living rooms and into our consciousness. Like its predecessor, film, video is essentially about narrative content. They are both story-telling mediums. Video comes streaming directly into our homes as a continuous resource, like hot and cold running water.
While this techno-cultural revolution was taking place, another, even bigger, revolution was unfolding – that of the computer. Computers were not designed to process stories – they process data. If television, with its analog roots, dealt with “liquid narratives,” computer data resemble a dry powder – grains of digital information bound together in ever more complex structures, ultimately taking on forms that humans can understand.
Video draws its content from “electronic eyeballs” – i.e. cameras. The name of the game from the outset is to capture a visual field and transport it as faithfully as possible to a remote viewing device. Computers on the other hand draw their ‘dry’ content from discrete user actions. In the early days this meant punching holes in cards but (thankfully) these days it’s typing on a keyboard, clicking a mouse or touching a screen.
These are fundamentally different kinds of approaches to deriving, delivering and consuming content. Cameras are inherently passive. Their job is to witness. The best cameras convey the scene with minimal distortion. This inherent passivity induces an essentially passive behavior on the part of the consumer. Historically, the culture of television consumption is rooted in the armchair.
The dividing line between computers and video
On the other hand, computers require effort from the user. They are inherently more production-oriented. Users navigate, click on links, fill in forms and generally do a lot of work in order to use this technology. At the core of all computer usage is a tacit agreement to exchange user labor for data delivery. So it makes sense that the social web is also based on these kinds of active engagements.
No wonder we are stumped by the very definition of “social video.” Built into the term is a deep contradiction. But all is not hopeless. I believe we can sort this out – if we follow the borderlines of the technologies.
If social media and video are to be truly integrated then we need to know how to merge passive story consumption with the active narrative of the user’s own life as it is expressed in social media behaviors. It’s literally about weaving other people’s stories (the video) with one’s own (the social stuff). This requires the articulation of a finer boundary between our inputs and our outputs. Let me explain.
Weaving the passive and active together
In his article, Will imagines a more granular interaction with the videos. In response to viewing the content, he envisions such actions as inputting a response or adding comments; clicking on items within the video to get more information about them; leaving the story and returning later to the same place; copying and pasting video segments for sharing with others. It’s a fine blend of passive and active behaviors.
These are perfectly reasonable (and nicely imagined) scenarios. However, as a system designer, I believe all of these capabilities would have to be part of two parallel worlds: solid social media data structures imposed over and around the liquid video narratives.
This is the important factor: the power of the video component is its story and it needs its own narrative integrity left intact. Any user-specific relations to the story belong in a sort of parallel, data-oriented layer (or layers). These layers could include links and annotations supplied by the story producers, or the story consumers, or both. This is where the social media component takes form.
What YouTube can do now
In the process of launching a YouTube channel I was thrilled to see that there are several tools that allow us to approach this dream. For example, a channel owner can place interactive annotations on their videos and they can link them to other YouTube videos or to certain other websites. There are still restrictions and conditions imposed by YouTube on these capabilities, but we can see the general direction is moving towards a deeper integration with social media practices.
In fact, even with today’s capabilities, a YouTube producer can, with some effort, create a rich interactive video-based experience. To my mind, the design challenges for this are similar to those facing content strategists for mobile applications. Karen McGrane and Sarah Wachter-Boetcher have each written pivotal books on this and they point out that it requires higher levels of content organization (e.g. “chunks” instead of “blobs”). Like Will, Karen and Sarah have also made a call for tools to allow content producers to do this more efficiently.
Technically, I believe a social media overlay could include many rich forms of user interaction and social communication. But at a fundamental level, designers of such a system will have to embrace the merging of two seemingly contradictory kinds of user experience: active social media data production versus the more passive watching, hearing and feeling of video-based storytelling. In turn this will provide tools for video producers to open their door to the social media world – providing they build the required data layer for social engagement.
This raises many questions for social media practitioners. Would this work for you? Would you be willing/able to organize your video data to this degree? Have you tried the YouTube tools or other similar techniques? If so, what is your opinion of them? Will YouTube take us this far down the road?
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