Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Text Killed the Multi-Media Star

Recently it occurred to me that video and (to some extent audio) has become a less important requirement for most of my web content management clients these days. If I were to extrapolate the interest trend I was seeing back in 2004, I would expect to see the web resemble billions of tiny television stations. But that hasn't happened. While video and audio remain important for companies in the business of developing and/or distributing multi-media content (primarily for entertainment), multi-media has not achieved ubiquity as a medium for communication. Instead, the focus is still heavily weighted towards text and images. There are some obvious explanations for this trend. Services like YouTube, Vimeo, and BrightCove are taking care of video hosting so my clients don't have to worry about it. Also, companies have realized that, other than the large file sizes, video is just not so special that deserves so much special concern and attention.

But I think that there are larger forces at work. I experience issues with video both as a content consumer and a content management professional. As a content consumer, I don't like how video takes control over my experience of the information. Unlike text, you can't scan video for the little bit information that you want. You have to sit back and wait for the video to get to the point. This is great for entertainment (suspense!) but less so for information exchange. Take, for example, this video (below) where the spokesman just spurts out technical information about a computer. It would be so much better just to have a spec sheet so you could scan right to the part of the specification you want. For a while it seemed like all companies were looking to make their websites more "dynamic" by leveraging multi-media. Customers may have reacted positively at first to the novelty of seeing moving pictures but I think this has played out.



As a content management professional, my issue with video is that it breaks a key principle of content management: the separation between content and format. In video and audio, the information is inseparable from the format. Yes, you can transcode into different encodings and file formats, but reorganizing and editing audio and video is difficult to automate. As a result, video and audio content gets stale and out of date because it is too expensive to change. If you want to change the information, you need to re-produce the whole thing.

There are some things that belong in audio and video, like a recording of some performance or something that you need motion to understand. But in most cases, the production and maintenance effort that multi-media requires introduces an unnecessary barrier between the information source and consumer. This obstacle stands out even more in the social web that tries to blur the line between author and audience. In the social web, video is most successful when it is short, entertaining, and performance-oriented. It is less effective for basic information exchange. The best uses of video I have seen for information exchange is on some news sites where visitors are invited to upload short videos of their eye-witness account. In these cases, the video needs to be authentic (no need to edit!) and shows something that cannot be captured in text and still images. But information about that event is more accessible in plain text.

I am sure that there are people in the video field that have different experiences with the medium. If you have any insights, please leave a comment or send me an email.