Cherry Picking, or Why We Don’t Watch Videos

Cherry Picking, or Why we don’t like watching videos
How can you, dear content creator, get people interested in your stuff? People don’t read, right? People like pictures and people love videos, right? Think again. Do you like to sit through a video you don’t even know you might enjoy watching? I perceive today’s web community as being post-video. Here’s why and how to deal with that.

The past

I remember the good old times, circa 1996, when websites had no fancy formatting or colors and only the occasional thumbnail, usually dithered to 256 colors (or notably less) beyond recognition. I also remember how an AltaVista search on my Netscape Navigator for some visual information lead to a very sparse harvest. Coming across a picture of what I had been looking for at last was both great (“Yay, I found it!”) and often discouraging (“I waited for the whole 100 kb to download, and all I get is some crummy scan out of a book?!”).

Pictures were expensive, and notices were put in place to warn web-surfers that a haphazard click on a something as innocuous as “picture.jpeg” could inflate your phone bill as you were forced to wait countless minutes for the pixels to trickle in through a meager dial-up connection. The authors of gaming walkthroughs tried to dodge the issue of long downloads by using elaborate ASCII art in their guides (hell, they still do!), but you couldn’t quite search for that either. At least you’d spot it right away when scrolling through the text.

Bottom line: Times were tough when all you wanted was some info that was not text based.

Around the futuristic year that was 2000 (“TWO-THOWWWSANT!” [with echo effect]), faster connections like ISDN and DSL emerged, and also webspace was getting cheaper and more generous. I remember my provider offering me a whopping one megabyte on the web, which I used to host my personal website (which is still up, by the way!). Still, pictures were expensive but at least the big newspapers and magazines offered the occasional image in their articles. In 640×480. If you were lucky.

The Toob

And then out of nowhere along came YouTube. You could upload videos at no charge whatsoever!


The first featured clips there had a resolution akin to the GameBoy and were as interesting as your uncle’s slides from his trip to Chihuahua. After all, you had to own a camera and the prowess and software to digitize, edit and upload your videos. Things got easier with affordable webcams, yet still you had to exhibit some nerdy tendencies to go through all that hassle just to put up a video featuring yourself talking about what you thought of Episode III.

But that narrow user base broadened quickly over the years following the day somebody thought it to be neat to have cameras in mobile phones for some reason. Web 2.0, “digital natives”, iPhone, wifi everywhere, yadda-yadda-yadda.

Today you can look for almost anything on YouTube and find a video tutorial for exactly that. Potty-training your cat? Done. How to tie your shoe laces? Hell yeah. How to stay in the present moment (whatever that means)? Bet your ass! Instead of reading up on a subject (let’s face it: reading can be tiresome if you’re only interested in the content) you could watch a video. Learn and be entertained. It’s like TV. And who doesn’t like TV?!

Cherry picking

So everything was just great. Everything you want to learn (or not) is just a click away, saves you a lot of time skimming through text. But now comes the big downside to videos: You have to actually watch them. You can’t quite skim them as easily as text. Whether you’re on a computer with a big screen and mouse or online with your phone really makes a difference. Scrubbing through a video can be a real pain. How often have you received a funny video from one of your friends (subject: “omg so funny u hav 2 watch srsly!!!1”), the video was longer than 30 seconds and you haven’t watched it precisely because of that. Or just skipped to the end, hoping the good part was somewhere there. And woe betide your friend, if it wasn’t.

I noticed how all that constant presence of never ending stuff on the web tremendously gnawed on my attention span. I am much more impatient than I was ten years ago, I think. And I am quite certain that I am not the only one.

Don’t worry, this won’t become a rant about how much better humankind was in the old days before all this. Our ways of media consumption just changed noticeably. Because everything is available at our fingertips, we’ve become spoiled and picky: I want to know how to tie a Windsor knot now and not after watching two and a half friggin’ minutes of a mumbling Brit who can’t even set up his webcam straight! I don’t have time for this! And I turn my attention towards finding a better alternative, the purest info without all the useless fat around it, spending more time than actually sitting through the first video.

This is frustrating. In many videos there’s just too much I am not interested in: YouTube-channel intro clip, advertising (”You can skip this ad in 5 seconds”), recap of the last show (“Hi, I’m Linda and I want to add something to my last video, because Jeremy wrote in the comments that…”), self-promotion (”Don’t forget to subscribe to my awesome channel! I also show how to knit…”), product placement (”Before diving in, I want to thank my sponsor Mountain Dew…”) — graaah! Where is the part where she’s actually showing how to fold that goddamn T-shirt in two seconds!?

So to recap: Videos can’t be cherry-picked as easily as we can with texts and images thanks to Google search; at least when you’re hunting for a specific bit of information. That’s why I feel that we’re currently moving towards a post-video attitude in our media search behavior.


The big players noticed that already: Google sees YouTube’s future in music streaming, Facebook starts videos automatically when they appear on screen in your news feed, etc. Also, we have Vine who lets users create and share videos no longer than six seconds. You can’t really complain about wasting six seconds, right?

Also, from the perspective of content creators, there’s a switch to less videos apparent. For example, game projects seeking crowdfunding (and essentially an audience) know that simply plastering their sites with gameplay videos, even trailers, won’t reel in fangirls and fanboys alone. I am not really inclined to sit through a two-minute video if I don’t know whether I’d might like it before watching.

Paradox, I know, but that’s the situation with any experience good such as games, films, music, etc. (I’ve written a whole chapter on that in my book about social media management of indie film productions, in case you care. *hinthinthint*)

A blast from the past

What can there be done? Currently the answer lies in a technology from the past that sounds like peanut butter but nobody calls it that way:

Animated gifs. (Yes, I refuse to pronounce them /’dzif/, because I also don’t say /’dzrafics/ to graphics.)

Back in the old days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and bandwidth was scarce, animated gifs were limited to four or five frames at max and usually very small dimensions because, hey, the 12 kilobytes for your sparkly mouse cursor still took a while to download. As bandwidth and webspace limitations grew to be less constricting, the gifs didn’t change much in their size or animation. Only their number did and polluted the web with truly breathtakingly ugly websites to behold. That gifs can hold no more than 256 colors at max by design never deterred anybody.

With all that baggage why the hell would you use them today?

Because they just work. They are so heartwarmingly low-tech and easy to implement by today’s standards that almost every browser (yes, even Internet Explorer) is capable of displaying an animated gif; your computer, your cell phone, your gaming console, even your fridge can handle gifs. Embedded YouTube clips not so much, and even Vine clips are having a hard time on my phone. And animated gifs don’t f♥♥k around, usually, they infinitely loop the exact moment that’s of interest.

Look at 9gag. Look at 4chan. Hell, even look at Polygon. Animated gifs are everywhere. They are more like text than videos because you can skim them, they complement what is written instead of hindering your reading flow. You know what you’ll get. WYSIWYG and all that.

On the downside there has to be said that a wall off animated gifs can be very ugly and disorienting when everything shouts for your attention. Really. That’s why Twitter and Facebook don’t allow them, or rather only show the first frame as still. Sometimes I am saddened by this, then I recall how the average MySpace profile looked in the early days.

The Takeaway

What does it mean to you? Well, I assume you’re some kind of content creator yourself and maybe you want to showcase your stuff to a potential audience.

Consider animated gifs. Don’t fuss around with lengthy videos (unless they are really good and take your viewers on a ride from the first second on), instead identify the single most expressive thing about what you want to get across and condense it to a 2-3 second long gif along with some brief lines of text.

Show and tell.

The people you intrigued are much more open to also dig through the rest of your material once they know they’d enjoy it.

Cherry Picking.

And that’s the word. We’ll be right back.

Colbert - The Word (Cherry Picking)