Engagement with Video Online

In the past week I’ve read a number of articles precipitated by Google’s move to show video ads across their network. The introduction of video to online seems to be heralded as “the next big thing” by almost everyone, and I admit I’ve taken a turn on that particular band wagon.

Yet, this weekend, I pondered the nature of our engagement with online video and find it wanting in many respects. Why? The particular event that triggered this train of thinking was my trying to watch the documentary “Loose Change” on my computer. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s a Michael Moore-ish type investigation of the events of 9/11. Whether you believe it or not, there’s little doubt that the subject matter is engrossing. I watched Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911 on my television and had no problem watching them in one sitting. I was highly engaged and was pretty much oblivious to other distractions, including children.

With Loose Change, I’ve been trying to watch the documentary for 2 months now, and I’m only half way through it. It’s not that it’s less interesting. It’s that my environment is different.

When we sit at a television, we’re used to being passive. I think the past 50 years have conditioned us to expect to relinquish control and be willing sponges for whatever happens to flash on the screen. Recently, remote controls and DVR’s have given us some degree of control over the box, but we’re just beginning to exercise that control. When we sit down in front of a TV set, we’re not expecting to “do” anything with it.

The other place where we tend to watch sights and sounds is the movie theater. Again, we expect to be a passive audience here.

But when we sit in front of a computer, we usually do so to accomplish a task. It’s the most useful box in the house, and I believe it’s this very usefulness that may be keeping video from being more engaging online.

Look at the videos that tend to be watched online. They’re short, they have to be highly stimulating and we usually only watch them because a trusted source has labelled them a “must see”. Either a friend has emailed us a link with their recommedation, or word of mouth has spread about the video and it’s the latest viral craze. And usually they require no intellectual engagement. The most watched clips on YouTube fit these criteria to a T. #1 is the Evolution of Dance, watching a (undoubtedly talented) comedian morph from one dance to another in 5 minutes. #2 is a lip sync done in a bedroom of two teenagers in an ode to Pokemon. And #3 is the live version of the Simpson’s intro. Production values are usually minimal, and there is no intellectual content. There is a kind of counter-culture, anti establishment feel to them, which probably adds to their viral appeal.

If a video meets all these criteria, then it will be watched online.

Now, what do we do with our computer, whether it be a laptop or a Media Center, if we want to watch a show on it in the same manner as we would on TV?We maximize the window, blocking out the other stimuli and making it a TV set.

Let’s go back to Loose Change. While arguably this has been a viral success online, it has still been a struggle for me to watch. Why? Well, it’s long, at an hour and 20 minutes. It’s online resolution forces me to watch it in a window, with other stimuli surrounding it. And I have to think and absorb, it’s not mindless.

When I’m watching a video in these circumstances, I find it very difficult not to be distracted by what surrounds it on the page. I feel this innate guiltiness, thinking that there are a hundred other useful things I should be doing rather than watch this video. In fact, we have been conditioned to consider watching a video as a “waste” of time. We can justify it if it’s a few short minutes out of our day. It’s mindless entertainment. But otherwise, guilt starts eating at us. An inexplicable anxiety starts, with the feeling that there has to be something more useful to do with my computer.

Back to my original point. I think we have to reinvent the paradigm through which we engage with video online. I don’t think moving the types of videos we used to watch on TV to our computer screen will work. And my prediction is that advertisers will spend millions of dollars to discover this. Probably the biggest success online has been the Subservient Chicken for Burger King. And the key? It’s different, and it’s interactive.

With Google’s announcement, there will be many who throw video online, in the assumption that it will be more engaging than a simple graphic ad, or even a text based ad. Don’t count on it. The rules are different, and they’re still being written.

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