Getting into social video

I’ve been poking about the social video space of late and absorbing as many moving pixels as can be safely beamed at a pair of analog eye sockets without producing tissue damage, seizures, or abnormalities of the brain. It’s an interesting space less for what companies are doing than for what it suggests they might do, but the signs are there. In terms of content, well I’m inspired to yank a line out of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing… “eyes glazed insanely behind tiny gold-rimmed greaser shades, screaming gibberish.” That’s Hunter at a traffic light in a state of mind. But it seems to apply to the cumulative experience of watching short video clips online at social video sites.

I’ve said before that I think YouTube is a social system in failure mode. That in a way, the video is a substitute for the blog post, presenting something about its poster that’s neither expository nor opinion, but is in some way reveals the poster’s personality and taste. That the video is in a way an “utterance.” That’s the only way it makes sense to think of YouTube as a talk system (to me, at least). But I really do think that’s what makes it interesting. Short videos can function as a kind of sign system, or symbolic language perhaps. They’re identifying, moreso than Flickr pics for example, because they use content as a reference. In the case of videos shot of the person posting, and by the person posting, they’re obviously even more of an “utterance.” Where blogging requires a person to say something interesting, the video says it for us. It’s faster, its more easily consumed (perhaps), it’s often more easily liked, and as a “linguistic” phrase it is is easily accepted. (How would you reject a person on the basis of their videos?)

If YouTube is social because it creates visibility for posters and involves a communication system in which videos are member contributions, statements or messages through which members identify themselves, then the similarities among different kinds of videos provide a quick route to group identities… The social on YouTube can then differentiate itself: videos have styles, contents, references, and so on. The popularity of comedy, music videos, and TV shows us that YouTube samples popular culture, and that members identify themselves through pop culture clips. We speak TV on YouTube.

What comes next then is where things will get interesting. As video players become richer, and as they embed chat, commenting, rating, lists, and forms of gestural communication and action within themselves (Joost, Click.tv, Clipsync are a few in this space; Jumpcut as an editor system, is communicative but not in the way I’m thinking about at the moment), the challenges of communicating through video, about video, and to other viewers (friends or anonymous) quickly complicates the user experience.

What social practices await us on the other side of video clips, channels, ratings, tags, and lists? Will we use our camphones to create group videos that we then annotate for group memories and video scrapbooks? Will we finally see what really happens in Vegas? Will we send each other video postcards? Will dating profiles link to clips of our stupid human tricks on YouTube? Or will new video intimacies and confessionals provide us with a much richer view of each other (Is that what we even want? Most online daters prefer to pique curiosity by telling about themselves in text form; video is too revealing, and is a direct and less-flattering way to present ourselves than the text profile, over which we have much more control!) What kinds of games will we play with each other through video?

Will social marketers be able to extract good preference data from our social video use? How will we solve the challenges of getting meta data from chats (which are notoriously poor at revealing what it is they are about, given as they are to directing attention among chatters, not what is chatted about)? Will users get together for synchronous video viewing, or does that just fly in the face of the time-shifting benefits of the medium in the first place? How will live social video allow members to manage their presence availability (as any IM tool does today)? How deeply can we become engaged in video content, and between typing, talking, pressing buttons, and turning on our own webcams, which mode or combination will win?

Interesting developments are certainly just around the corner. I would like to think that this time, the moving image might realize some of its educational potential (TV was hailed for its potential in democratizing and distributing knowledge — think Marshall McLuhan or Ed Murrow in Goodnight and Good Luck). If content is king, the king this time is us.

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