When The Video Plays You

Stop calling glorified powerpoints and two-minute summaries “video”

Print is dead. Editors are being laid off. And everyone who’s anyone in media is “pivoting to video.” But video is a lie!!!! Listen up.

What these people are talking about isn’t even actual traditional worthwhile video. It’s a box with a play button on it just begging you for a click. It’s a glorified powerpoint presentation—slides, essentially, with words and pictures that flash and Ken Burns around the screen, sometimes with a shaded overlay. Consider this “video” that accompanied Vanity Fair’s cover story about Serena Williams’s romance with Alexis Ohanian:

Cover Story: Serena Williams’s Love Match

It’s literally just some still Annie Leibovitz photographs with Serena’s head cut off and some giant text—pull quotes from within the story that you are not reading because you are now watching this video—over it. What the hell? It’s just a bunch of animated pull quotes!!!!!!!!!!! How can you have a VIDEO about THE BEST ATHLETE ON EARTH and not have video footage of her just owning everyone up down and across every tennis court on earth? Why would you do that when you can just have anodyne stills that do a slow zoom?

These are not videos, they are lightly animated pull quotes.

Will people click this video online, say, on Facebook, where they won’t have to read the article through Instant Articles (hahaha remember Instant Articles), and they can just be satisfied with this summary? Sure!

Okay, how about a prestige newspaper like the Washington Post? A few weeks ago though honestly it seems like an eternity, the Post’s Adam Entous reported on GOP leaders speculating (humorously, but still) about Trump being paid off by Russians, “according to a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post.”

Good sport, Adam Entous.

Now maybe it’s just me, but if you drop a huge news bomb on me and say you got access to the recording, I’m probably expecting to hear it play when I press a multimedia button. But nope, what did I get instead? Adam Entous as a talking head, reading me a bedtime story. Just kidding, he was summarizing the news article he wrote in a nice, sharable, snackable two minutes and twenty-seven seconds. (It does not go unnoted that the video is embeddable here—always be sharing!—but I shan’t because I know you know how to click.)

These are the equivalent of Buzzfeed Tasty videos, but for news, and just like Tasty videos, it’s not a move into the “food” space so much as it is a content play. Likewise, these videos are not about “news” or even “stories” as much as they are pink-slime content nuggets. There is no nutritional value in most of the videos that advertisers are paying for these days. That’s not to say there aren’t people out there making videos of substance—indeed, video done well is an incredibly expensive, time-consuming, and laborious process. (Topic, for one, is aiming to create actual visual storytelling, not just empty-calorie animations.) Unfortunately most of these videos are following the model of the most successful viral feel-good videos.

Consider one I saw this morning in my Facebook feed: A knife-wielding man in the Bangkok airport is talked down by a security guard, who then gives him a big hug as he breaks down crying, presumably from stress. The Daily Mail renders the story in a classic pre-video powerpoint bullet-point style—the entire story is above the dateline.

The Daily Mail linked to the CCTV video, posted online. From there, the video was spun off into any number of viral videos by various news outlets and content farms, with Upworthy-like headlines, with slow and meaningful-yet-urgent-sounding music, white and yellow block letters recapping the amazing, unbelievable, gotta-see-it-to-believe-it story:

Maybe to you this qualifies as a video because at the base of it is security camera footage. But to me, this is a cross between the shitpic and a John Oliver video. A digital copy of some image, either moving or still, then widely distributed for everyone to watermark and overlay and earn some of the likes and shares from. The videos these content companies are making now are just proprietary shitvids.

So yeah, the whole pivot to video thing is distressing because a) these are NOT videos, and b) the hype about videos is completely manufactured, just like the videos. As a wise man once vehemently blogged, everything is lies.

Don’t Watch What Happens Live