“YouTube, MeToob? The depersonalization of personal video”

Curator's Note

 A couple of years ago I started toying about with what was then a very new web site called “youtube.com”.  At the time, free video hosting was not widely available and the service seemed liked manna from heaven for those of us who work in and with video.  My first video was a camera test for a cheap web cam I had recently bought to use for video conferencing. I didn’t really know what to record so I grabbed an electric guitar and gave a short guitar lesson. I should say, a very short lesson of about a minute. The audio quality is quite bad, the video quality is no better and there are no graphics, animations, guitar tablature or anything else of production value. Oddly, this is the most viewed video in my entire collection on youtube. It is well beyond 100,000 views.  Later on, I started adding graphics, animated intro’s,  on-screen guitar charts, etc., thinking this would spur viewership. It had the opposite effect. Each video that I produced in a semi slick fashion seemed to lag behind the videos that I produced using no production value at all. 

After about a year of tracking this, I started asking my “students” online from around the world as far away as Macedonia, why they liked the less “snazzy” videos. The response was always the same. The low production videos made the students feel I was speaking directly to them in a personal way. The more glossy vids made the viewer feel there was an impending pitch coming at the end of the video.  As if the entire point of it was to prep them for a sale or expenditure of some kind.  So then, establishing the feeling of a “personal interaction” was crucial in the success of these semi-viral videos. This seemed to be a contradiction in some sense. Once a video is watched by 100,000 or more people, it hardly seems “personal” in the strict sense. Yet this seems to be a key bit of why some vids are huge and other vids can’t break 1,000 views (The 1K view benchmark is a very loose guage to determine if a video is heading towards big or heading towards oblivion. Kind of like first weekend gross at the box office. Quick to 1K is a very good sign. Slow or never to 1K is quite bad and indicates poor prospects for the video to have very many “eyeballs” on it.)

Another one of the videos I posted that generated significant viewership was one that I created for an attorney I had hired after being in a severe vehicle accident some years ago. He suggested I make a short video to describe my experience of nearly being killed by the person who hit me so that he could show it to the opposing lawyer.  Being fresh out of film school, I set to making a short, silent, experimental film about my experience. I called it “Near Death Experience N.D.E.”.  It helped in the case but found it’s real home on youtube where it has generated tens of thousands of views and hundreds of comments of all kinds from people all over the world.  I had zero expectation that anyone would watch this video. Much less that it would be in the top spot for two years running on my youtube channel. My total video views have recently just passed the magic “One Million Views!” mark and this was one of the videos that made it possible.  Back to the “personal” angle, this is a very personal video. It is about human suffering and death on a very personal level and this seems to be what the bulk of viewers are responding too.

When I was in film school, we learned the value of putting emotion on the screen. We also learned the importance of “production value”. This was the hardest lesson to forget as I headed in to the world of on-line video. In the on-line world, production value seems far less important than a personal story or a feeling of being personally connected to the individual or situation that the video represents.  In short, viewers on viral video sites could care less about the technical quality of the clip they are watching as long as they can personalize it in some way.   It’s sort of the “Blair Witch Effect” where the technical quality is secondary to the content itself.   


So for content creators and those who study content being created, especially in the on-line space, there are some new things to think about.  Specifically, how to  create a sense of personal identification among a large mass of people. How do you create something broad enough to appeal to many, yet personal enough to appeal to each viewer as an individual? As we work through those questions, I think the answers will play themselves out not only on the smallest screen, but eventually on the big screen as well as the movies seem to have lost touch with that very idea.



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