I have been thinking a lot about the form of the new web videos, especially The Show With Ze Frank. These are some of my notes. My ideas are in a formative stage, so any thoughts you have in response are most welcome.
When I say “web videos” I am first of all talking about short-form streaming videos from free-upload hosting sites like YouTube, Revver, and blip.tv. I am not talking about long-form streaming video on TV network websites, videos shared using BitTorrent, or TV show or movie downloads on iTunes. For the most part I am talking about videos made for web distribution rather than content whose primary distribution is not on the internet. (The exception is user-uploaded clips of movies and TV shows, to which these observations should apply.)
(In referring to these short-form streaming videos, I am generalizing about a huge category and trying to make some sense of it by identifying some key features. Like any generalizing, this emphasizes some aspects of the category over others and might seem to leave some examples out. I think this is how we generally use categories. Some instances of short-form streaming web video might be peripheral to the discussion, but our notion of the category’s contours is shaped more by prototypical instances than by outliers. For more on this notion of categorization see this Wikipedia stub.)
Three key characteristics of recent web video, all of which are points of contrast with mass media moving-image forms like movies and TV shows:
1. Web videos are ideally short and “sweet” (in the slang sense): they have to fit into their viewers’ patterns of internet and computer use, typically characterized by scarcity of time and attention. Many are video blogs and like blogs they tend to be brief, personal, and topical. Web videos seem eager to please, to appeal to viewers and engage their attention right away. The ideal length might be around three minutes. This is what I like best about these videos (the good ones, anyway): they capture my attention, make me go Wow, and never let me go until they’re over. E.g., Ask A Ninja Question 29 "BBQ".
2. Web videos are produced not only by creators but also by communities. Web videos are an instance of participatory culture: viewers are also creators, or at least potential creators. Because of their episodic nature and the frequency of newly updated material appearing online (practically continuously), creators are able to respond to each other and to their viewers more or less in real time. This has been essential in many of the most talked-about web videos, including lonelygirl15 (which presumably pursued the occultish elements of the story in response to viewer interest in them) and The Show With Ze Frank, which according to Frank takes the form of “a conversation between the host and the viewers."
3. Web videos have an amateur aesthetic. They are made outside of the major media industries -- even if they are remixes of mass media -- and by people who lack not only formal skill and training but also the technological and economic means available to professionals. Their production is artisanal rather than industrial. Like punk and other DIY movements, web video has a democratic spirit that insists on authenticity and is suspicious of anything that looks too good. Amateur means not only non-professional or untrained; more importantly, it means passionate. An excellent statement on the amateur aesthetic comes from Ze Frank's defense of his ugly MySpace contest. Frank reclaims "ugly" as a quality that's "pretty cool" in the hands of amateurs teaching themselves to use media authoring tools. He celebrates the anyone-can-do-it mentality as essential to the new participatory culture.
Why do web videos have these characteristics? Two concepts I find useful in answering this question are functions and constraints. Form tends to follow function and I see the short-and-sweet form of web videos as a response to the function they have of offering their users a diversion from some other activity. Much blog reading and web video viewing occurs in the context of work--in the context of what corporate America calls “stealing time”--and so videos function as little breaks from studying or crunching numbers or doing whatever it is people in offices do all day. It’s for this reason that some people refer to watching these videos as “snacking.” The viewer wants something fast and dirty and doesn’t have time to watch something ten or twenty minutes long. If it’s a clip from The Colbert Report, it’s just the best few moments. Thus web videos are an interstitial form--they are for filling in time between other activities.
Another way of thinking about functions is as affordances to the user. New media scholars often talk about the internet’s social affordances: e.g., social networking sites afford people the opportunity to make friends. The internet, as a network of users rather than a channel that sends media only in one direction from producer to consumer, affords interactivity. This means that YouTube videobloggers can post response videos that have a link from the video to which they are responses. And in the case of Ze Frank, the audience can become a collaborator in producing content for the show: introductions that fans shoot and upload to the site, projects they participate in like making an earth sandwich, and even a whole episode that the community scripts collectively on the site’s wiki. Fans of mainstream media poach and remix and some movies and TV shows allow for a kind of minimal fan input, but the participation going on with web videos can be of a different kind--there may be considerably more of it, it has the possibility of occurring in real time during the process of production and consumption, and it is built into the very structure of the distribution channel. Web moving-image media affords community in a way that other forms do not.
Constraints come in many varieties: economic, technological, cultural or social. Conventions of form (like genre conventions) are also constraints. The maximum running time on YouTube videos is ten minutes; that is a technological (and for YouTube an economic) constraint. The consumer-grade apparatus and budget available to many creators is a constraint. The convention of amateurism is a constraint, too. What’s most interesting about constraints on creativity is how they are made into opportunities, how working within them produces something good. Web videos are short and sweet because people who make them don’t have unlimited time (after all they can't pay their rent making web videos), aren’t professional media producers and don't have the means available to professionals, and want to produce a regular output for episodic release online rather, as in the professional mode, than working for a long time to produce one long video. A constraint becomes an aesthetic advantage when the short-and-sweet form produces the Wow response and the tightly seized attention.
The web itself might also be a constraint because of how people use it. When I watch videos online I am typically doing a number of things at once. At any given time I typically run three or four applications (Word for writing, Firefox for web browsing, NetNewsWire for tracking RSS feeds, iTunes for music, and sometimes Photoshop or PowerPoint or Preview for reading PDFs). In Firefox I generally have multiple tabs open: e-mail, news items or blogs I opened but didn’t get to read, etc. The typical online experience involves multi-tasking, and if my attention for a video flags I might click on one of those other tabs as I continue to listen in on the audio track. Since web video creators are also users, they know about how users’ attention is potentially divided; this feeds back into their assumptions about how to make their videos. Again: it creates the conditions for short and sweet.
A lot of talk about these new web videos is about their potential to be a threat to big corporate mass media's domination. A lot of talk is addressed to the potential for user-generated media to create a democratic revolution of media production by anyone and everyone. While I share the hope of the new media evangelists, my interests as a scholar run more toward analyzing what already exists than fantasizing about what might come to pass. I'm interested in figuring out what makes this new form compelling much more than in trying to divine its implications for the future of society.
I expect to share more of this work here in the near future. Stay tuned.
Recent faves of the web vids:
-World Freehand Circle Drawing Champion--I love little movies shot in classrooms.
-Silent Star Wars--eps 4-6 condensed and silentized.
-Season 4 of 24 in 2mn30sec--24 frames play simultaneously; eat your heart out Mike Figgis.
-101 Impressions--in four minutes!
-Puehse Twins Skateboarding--eight years old, mad skillz.
-Windows 386 Promo Video--skip to around the 7 minute mark.
Bonus: one way to feed your hunger for all this stuff is the aggregator site vidmeter, but you have to be willing to be your own vulgarity filter (or--better yet--not!). Another good way is The Daily Reel, which exercises taste and judgment rather than ranking by popularity.