January 25th, 2020

The attention-span paradox of text versus video

I recently received a comment on one of my YouTube videos which complained that my video had wasted the viewer's time because there's a point in the video where something happened which surprised me, and I spent some time in the video trying to figure out what had happened. The video is about experimenting with low-level computer code, and because the video is not a how-to video about performing a specific process with set steps, but rather about experimenting with various things to see what happens, I replied that mistakes and surprises are part of any experimental process, and thus showing what can go wrong belongs in a video on the topic; if I were to cut out all the problems and unexpected results, the resulting video would be misleading because it would only show the things that went "right", when in fact understanding how failures can happen so they can be anticipated and avoided is just as important to any process of exploration. I noted that in any case, text is a better medium for hard information than a video, and so someone who's looking for quick and accurate information should probably be reading an article rather than watching a video. The viewer responded that Millennials can watch a video faster than they can read text. I replied that a person can physically read faster than they can speak, and so if a person wants information in a hurry, they should learn to read faster.

The discussion ended there, but this exchange later got me thinking about how pointless videos often are for the purpose of information exchange. When I'm looking for information on the Internet, I'm usually looking for something fairly specific, and it's usually information which could be conveyed in a matter of seconds, if only I had it in front of me. In most cases, the most efficient way to convey such information is text, because again, a person can scan through text faster than a person could intelligibly read that text aloud. I often hate it when I'm searching for how to do something and the only search results I find are YouTube videos, because it's almost certain that those videos will be mostly a waste of my time; even if the video is only a few minutes long, there will usually be some kind of setup where the video explains what it's about and what it's attempting to do, and the actual part of the video which shows what you need to do, what I am actually trying to search for, is usually literally a few seconds long. The entire video could have been pared down to those few seconds. It would have been better to write a one-paragraph article about this information than to take the time to make a video, because not only does the video take longer to make, it also takes longer to watch.

It seems to me, too, that with regard to people's attention spans, there is a sort of paradox in the dichotomy of text versus video: We're told that people watch television because they have short attention spans and can't focus on anything for longer than a few seconds, but in fact, text gives you the ability to skip between ideas much more quickly, because again, a human being can read a page of text faster than the ideas in that text could be conveyed in moving-picture format. If people really have short attention spans and want to race through ideas at a fast pace, they should read, because that would be the quickest way for them to gather a lot of ideas. Watching videos, television, and movies is usually a slog, because there's so much unnecessary filler which could have been eliminated. How much do you remember from most movies that you've seen? The parts of movies that actually make any impact on audiences, the parts which people clearly remember, can usually be summarized in a half-page of text which a person could read through in a minute, rather than the two hours it takes to watch the movie.

There seems to be an expectation among some people, however, that a video should do two things at the same time: First, it should show people exactly what they want to see at any given moment, and secondly, it should show them something new and entertaining which they have never seen before. Is it not apparent that these two goals are mutually exclusive? If you already know what you want to see, it cannot be something new to you, because you're already familiar with it. If you want to see something which you've never seen before, it will necessarily have to be something surprising and unexpected; there is no guarantee that you will like what you see, only that it will be something unfamiliar to you. And yet people complain if a video is either not what they wanted to see, or not something new, accusing whoever made the video of wasting their time because they have some impossible-to-satisfy expectations. The whole point of a video is to waste your time. People only watch videos when they have a span of time where they have nothing to do and need to kill that time somehow. This is why television is so popular: It's a way to drag out long, pointless sequences that do nothing except waste people's time because people want something to distract themselves with. If you don't want to waste your time, don't watch moving pictures, because you can read information faster than you can get it from a video. If you read so slowly that it literally takes you longer to read something than it takes for someone else to say that information, then the problem is that you read too slowly, and you should learn to read faster so that your demand for faster information can be met.

What a video is good for is not targeted, concise information, but a larger production: I make videos when I have not a specific piece of information that I want to convey, but rather a more speculative discussion which doesn't necessarily come to one conclusion but which can be expanded out to a larger spectrum of thoughts and opinions. This is also why I make the sort of travel videos I make. When I'm in a new country and want to capture the feeling of being there, I turn on my camera, start walking around, and simply pause to comment on whatever catches my eye. Many viewers have posted complaints on my travel videos, accusing me of not learning anything about the places I travel to and thus not knowing anything about some of the landmarks I pass during my wandering, but what these people are missing is the whole purpose of my travel videos. The point of my travel videos is not to be a thoroughly-researched documentary on the tourist landmarks of any place. For anyone looking for such information, Google and Wikipedia will deliver plenty of information on famous statues, buildings, and other tourist attractions in every major city in the world. Again, text can communicate this information more accurately and quickly than a video. What you can't get from a Wikipedia article is a sense of what it feels like to be in a place: When you've just stepped out of an airplane, train, bus, or taxi and taken your first steps in a city you've never been in before, what does it feel like, physically, emotionally, and socially, to be there? That's something you can only really know by going to that place yourself, but I try to capture some of that feeling when I make my travel videos, and that's why I make those videos by just wandering around and talking about the mood I get from wherever I am. The whole point of such videos is that I don't know much about where I am and am giving a spontaneous, subjective reaction to the place. This is the reason why I make travel videos, and this purpose would actually be diminished if I did a lot of research about my travel destinations ahead of time. If you want to know a lot of concrete information about some foreign place, go to Wikipedia. A video is not the right medium for such information.