Why video is “liquid” content in a solid social media world

liquid content

By Michael Keara, {grow} Community Member

Video is exploding on the web today. Wider bandwidths, faster processors and increased storage capacity have opened the door for video to enter into the social web. So it becomes logical to ask, as Will Overstreet does in a recent post, “how do we make video more social?’ But if we are to ever achieve a truly social web video practice, technology designers will have to deal with the deeper contradiction in meanings between “social web” and “video.”

In his post, Will points out that video interactivity falls way behind in comparison to standard social media practices. He asks how we can make video live up to the same expectations and thus make the user experience more seamless. These are valid questions.

I want to crack open the problem by using an analogy: video is “liquid” and social media is “solid.”

Let’s get liquid

Video works as a flow. It is a steady stream of information ‘dots’ that are structured into rows and stacked vertically to produce an image. In the old days of analog televisions the images were produced by shooting a stream of electrons at a special glass surface. The energy of these electrons illuminated points on the glass surface with varying intensities and, magically, images of Lucille Ball, The Beatles, and Walter Cronkite appeared in our living rooms.

This stream of organized energy was almost liquid-like in its nature. It flowed through our living rooms and into our consciousness. Like its predecessor, film, video is essentially about narrative content. They are both story-telling mediums. Video comes streaming directly into our homes as a continuous resource, like hot and cold running water.

While this techno-cultural revolution was taking place, another, even bigger, revolution was unfolding – that of the computer. Computers were not designed to process stories – they process data. If television, with its analog roots, dealt with “liquid narratives,” computer data resemble a dry powder – grains of digital information bound together in ever more complex structures, ultimately taking on forms that humans can understand.

Video draws its content from “electronic eyeballs” – i.e. cameras. The name of the game from the outset is to capture a visual field and transport it as faithfully as possible to a remote viewing device. Computers on the other hand draw their ‘dry’ content from discrete user actions. In the early days this meant punching holes in cards but (thankfully) these days it’s typing on a keyboard, clicking a mouse or touching a screen.

These are fundamentally different kinds of approaches to deriving, delivering and consuming content. Cameras are inherently passive. Their job is to witness. The best cameras convey the scene with minimal distortion. This inherent passivity induces an essentially passive behavior on the part of the consumer. Historically, the culture of television consumption is rooted in the armchair.

The dividing line between computers and video

On the other hand, computers require effort from the user. They are inherently more production-oriented. Users navigate, click on links, fill in forms and generally do a lot of work in order to use this technology. At the core of all computer usage is a tacit agreement to exchange user labor for data delivery. So it makes sense that the social web is also based on these kinds of active engagements.

No wonder we are stumped by the very definition of “social video.” Built into the term is a deep contradiction. But all is not hopeless. I believe we can sort this out – if we follow the borderlines of the technologies.

If social media and video are to be truly integrated then we need to know how to merge passive story consumption with the active narrative of the user’s own life as it is expressed in social media behaviors. It’s literally about weaving other people’s stories (the video) with one’s own (the social stuff). This requires the articulation of a finer boundary between our inputs and our outputs. Let me explain.

Weaving the passive and active together

In his article, Will imagines a more granular interaction with the videos. In response to viewing the content, he envisions such actions as inputting a response or adding comments; clicking on items within the video to get more information about them; leaving the story and returning later to the same place; copying and pasting video segments for sharing with others. It’s a fine blend of passive and active behaviors.

These are perfectly reasonable (and nicely imagined) scenarios. However, as a system designer, I believe all of these capabilities would have to be part of two parallel worlds: solid social media data structures imposed over and around the liquid video narratives.

This is the important factor: the power of the video component is its story and it needs its own narrative integrity left intact. Any user-specific relations to the story belong in a sort of parallel, data-oriented layer (or layers). These layers could include links and annotations supplied by the story producers, or the story consumers, or both. This is where the social media component takes form.

What YouTube can do now

In the process of launching a YouTube channel I was thrilled to see that there are several tools that allow us to approach this dream. For example, a channel owner can place interactive annotations on their videos and they can link them to other YouTube videos or to certain other websites. There are still restrictions and conditions imposed by YouTube on these capabilities, but we can see the general direction is moving towards a deeper integration with social media practices.

In fact, even with today’s capabilities, a YouTube producer can, with some effort, create a rich interactive video-based experience. To my mind, the design challenges for this are similar to those facing content strategists for mobile applications. Karen McGrane and Sarah Wachter-Boetcher have each written pivotal books on this and they point out that it requires higher levels of content organization (e.g. “chunks” instead of “blobs”). Like Will, Karen and Sarah have also made a call for tools to allow content producers to do this more efficiently.

Technically, I believe a social media overlay could include many rich forms of user interaction and social communication. But at a fundamental level, designers of such a system will have to embrace the merging of two seemingly contradictory kinds of user experience: active social media data production versus the more passive watching, hearing and feeling of video-based storytelling. In turn this will provide tools for video producers to open their door to the social media world – providing they build the required data layer for social engagement.

This raises many questions for social media practitioners. Would this work for you? Would you be willing/able to organize your video data to this degree? Have you tried the YouTube tools or other similar techniques? If so, what is your opinion of them? Will YouTube take us this far down the road?

michael kearaMichael Keara is a User Experience specialist who learned the most important things he knows about usability from the dance floor. He runs a UX consulting service called The User Advocate Group 

Illustration courtesy BigStock.com

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  • Phil Donaldson

    Michael, cool that you brought this up. It would certainly be great as a video content producer to be able to provide opportunities for deeper and more meaningful interaction for viewers. Perhaps some sort of social media/information kiosk/immersive game “tribrid” functionality.

  • jpw

    Both Will and Michael set up some good perspective on the state of the
    social web and plain old video at the end of 2013—as Michael dubs it,
    the solid and the liquid (maybe along with a “gas” state for the radio /
    portable audio medium that has never really left us after nearly a
    century). No matter, the stance is we’re behind the curve, innovatively,
    in tapping into the video storytelling medium to the degree we have
    with online “print” media. It’s clear why: the production side of it is
    still work. The consumption side has always been piece-of-cake passive.
    Michael’s article favors the concept of an overlay to keep the video
    essence fluid, with bonus potential for richness, but that is right
    where I see space for some more interpretation.

    I mentioned the present year up front because I feel historical context
    plays a bigger role than meets the eye. As a product of the ’60s, I
    can’t help but think of how prominent radio was, hand in hand with TV.
    The difference being that radio was everywhere—you could hear it in cars
    driving by, you could hear it from your neighbor’s house, you could
    hear it in a baseball stadium. You could always drive into a new city
    and know that by twisting the tuning knob, you could find a familiar
    genre or talkshow host. It was portable and simple. Volume and
    tuning—that’s all there was. No one complained. You could even make it
    social, by dialing in to an FM rock station on a rotary phone,
    anonymously, and place a request or even get to know a DJ. That social
    aspect wasn’t obligatory let alone forced on us by peers or others; it
    was discreet. Eventually some of us started sharing music on cassette,
    also with the press of a simple button or two.

    Early TV was also straightforward and free (pre- cable and satellite),
    making the consumer’s task almost trivial compared to the production
    half of the equation. The analog channel allocations never changed and
    you never had to rescan or initially set up your TV set. Maybe a little
    fine tuning between stations and some antenna adjustment, but that was
    also intuitive compared to the array of inputs and buttons and menu
    options on any contemporary DTV.

    All in all, the constraints of old-time TV/radio didn’t really seem like
    that at the
    time, and our behavior was dictated more by our own whim than by the
    design complexity (read, choices) of the modern day, questionably
    standardized web. We used to let media content itself augment
    and accent our existence as private people who could behave as
    themselves within the structure of their electronic news and
    entertainment without much worry or
    really even a hint of ever becoming part of it. Today, it can become a
    lofty obligation even for youth who need to be aware that their
    identity is out there for others, including future employers, to see
    once they have an online presence.

    For most, e-mail became the gateway to an inversion—from becoming almost
    entirely passive observers to active online participants. Then the rise
    of more rapid obsolescence in hardware and also software, plus
    fee-based access to the Internet, most TV and even some radio imprinted
    on society a new obligation to spend in ways never seen before. And to
    maintain a social media presence, we have all become producers to
    varying degrees. In the past we were more productive when it came to
    brick-and-mortar categories like running a store or business. Today,
    with bigbox chains for most retail and only a fraction of our small
    scale manufacturing still around, our
    managerial energy seems to be flowing into our entertainment life (in
    the form of being our own YouTube publisher, or Facebook/Twitter
    Gone are the days when most of us earned money by serving other people
    person, and acted as passive media consumers as our reward. There’s the

    In light of the role reversal and these new money and time obligations,
    through the lens of history it’s hard to see a path to truly social
    video that demands much work. The amenities of online search and
    downloading and video on demand have arrived but under the new
    constraint of ease—we probably won’t be going back to the days of AOL or
    DAT decks or Blockbuster, obviously. I am pretty sure complexity is
    passé. Michael seems to be making the point that organizing the active
    social media layer in the
    presence of the passive flow of video is an obligation, really, and the
    key word is ‘willingness’ in the scope of anything beyond YouTube’s
    basic captioning and linking. It could be a real chore to engage the
    user, since I don’t see YouTube having a specific initiative to
    streamline the task.

    My hunch is that the 2002-vintage MPEG-21 standard (and to a degree,
    MPEG-7) need to be revisited. They were ahead of their time in content
    description and asset interoperability, back when broadcast HDTV was in
    its infancy. Just a couple of years later, this IEEE paper described some
    other advanced thinking in the context of applying these standards to
    personalized, searchable video—the kind of utility that Will suggests,
    but also accounting for Intellectual Property restrictions that could
    become a real can of worms for end-users repurposing video content:
    http://goo.gl/9CKFMC Take a look and see if any of the terminology
    looks familiar. It should (aside from PDAs), since the catchphrase
    “mobile devices” get upfront billing . . . a throwback to the utility of
    radio and its almost effortless UX.

  • useradvocate

    Phil, great to hear you say that from the point of view of a producer. I guess I feel the same way and my discovery phase with YouTube is showing me ways of making more advanced connections with audiences. (Albeit it a slow process for me at least.)

    In that sense I really resonated with the questions that Will posed in his post 2 weeks ago. As you can see by this post, it got me thinking hard about how to maintain the essential narrative aspect of video as we explore that more interactive dimension. My post here is a somewhat geeky glance into the future to sort of map a way through that maximizes the impact of fluid video stories and injected social media entities.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • dave springgay

    It strikes me that the addition of the structure you mention is a very manual process. In this day and age, it may be possible to use voice recognition and face recognition to automatically generate a loose structure for that stream of content. Then a human could organize this raw data into semantically meaningful chunks.

    On the other hand, a video stream can be broken down into a series of frames. If you presented these frames side by side, the stream can be treated like a series of data points. The image of each frame can be treated like a page in a book.

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  • useradvocate

    @jpw You’ve brought some amazing historical and technical insights to this topic. My thinking is that anyone who is interested in the topic of social video might want to take some time to digest what you’ve added here.

    Let me quickly summarize what I think your key points are:
    – You’ve extended the ‘television/video as liquid’ metaphor to see ‘radio as gas’.
    – You’ve offered some insights into the kinds of interactions people had had with traditional media.
    – You raised some questions about the amount work (by users) required to bring social media to video.
    – You’ve pointed out that way back in 2002 the engineeering community was already anticipating technical capabilities that come close to what Will Overstreet asks for in his article.

    Ok, given that, I think the ‘radio as air’ idea really reveals the passive nature of media consumption in the past. As you point out, radio literally enters your space at home, work and play. I think it’s no coincidence that before the web took off the phrase ‘consumer society’ was very commonly used. Now, in the connected social media world, we are clearly a producer society.

    As a user experience specialist, I’d have to say that the amount of ‘work’ involved with integrating video content into social media interactions is a matter of perception. In measuring interaction cost, the simple rule is that the higher the user’s return value, the lower the *perception* of effort. The lower the value, the harder it feels to get a return. This is an ROI thing. That is what I understood Will’s article to be about essentially.

    I don’t know how far YouTube will go with identifying social media integration opportunities and reducing the effort required to do that. My personal perception is that they are well aware of the opportunities and my belief is that they will take it quite far.

    As for MPEG standards, that a mega-topic in itself. I agree with you, someone should be dusting off those early documents and looking into the value for today’s needs.

    Thanks for sharing your very thoughtful insights on this!

  • useradvocate

    Dave, thanks for these cool ideas!

    I’m curious to know how reliable today’s technology is for automatically detecting useful data about video content. It may well be really effective. But I think you are right to reserve a place for real people to organize those chunks. Theoretically, a mixed system like this that could lower the overall effort.

    For me, the challenge that lies ahead for defining a meaningful ‘social video’ culture and practice is to find that right balance between the automatic and the manual. I think this corresponds to the balance between of ease-of-use vs. attention and, more importantly, the value of the outcome.

    In my fantasy world, I’d like social video to be a meaningful experience. Fundamentally I believe that meaning can only come from human beings. And that implies a degree of manual effort. Does that make sense?

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