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Short and “Sweet”: Web Video Forms and Functions

NMC Online Conference, March 2007
Michael Z. Newman (mznewman37@gmail.com)
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Introduction

This poster considers the forms of web videos—their length, their use of audio-visual
technique, and their mode of address and reception—in relation to the contexts of their
production and consumption.

We can call my approach a poetics of web video. Poetics (from the Greek for
“creating”) is concerned with how artifacts are made. In particular I am interested in
how web videos are made in response to specific constraints and to fulfill particular
functions. Thinking about creation in relation to constraints and functions positions texts
in a context of making and using rather than abstracting them as objects for
interpretation. Thus my basic question for web videos is: In response to what forces (to
adapt to which constraints, to address which functions) have their formal characteristics
been fashioned?

Forms

Many typical web videos share some common conventions. Most apparently, videos
made for the web tend to be short. Even when users upload favorite TV or movie
moments, they typically excerpt only a few choice minutes. When videobloggers create
a new installment, they typically work in a format that rarely exceeds five minutes. Like
blogs and many other fixtures of the contemporary web, videos offer brief nuggets
rather than extended discourses.

Web videos are also eager to please, to appeal to viewers and engage their attention
right away. This is what I like best about these videos (the good ones, anyway): they
capture my attention, make me go Wow, and then they’re over. They dispense with
elaborate intros and outros and use every second of their running time to make an
impression. Hence my title: web videos are “sweet,” in the slang sense.

Videos produced for the web have an amateur aesthetic. They look like do-it-yourself
projects, not like corporate mass media. The sound is noisy, the lighting is over- or
under-exposing the subject, the cutting is jumpy, the performances are made of real
people goofing, not professionals playing a role. Even lonelygirl15, a pro web video,
adopted an amateur aesthetic to pass itself off as authentic. Authenticity trumps polish.

Finally, web videos are produced not just by individuals but by communities, and their
forms betray this collaborative and participatory genesis. Videos answer other videos.
YouTube allows videos to be marked as responses to other videos. They quote each
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other. Rocketboom, a hugely successful videoblog, often inserts other people’s clips
into its own daily show. These texts can take the form of a conversation between
creators and consumer. The Show With Ze Frank, bills itself just this way and
incorporates video clips shot by viewers among many participatory components.

To summarize, then, web videos are characteristically short, “sweet,” amateur, and
collaborative.

Constraints

One way of thinking about form is as a product of constraints. We like to think of
creativity as ideally unconstrained, but in reality every act of production is limited by
what tools are available to the creator. So in the production of web video, you can only
do what your camera, microphone, computer, hosting service, budget, skill, and
imagination will permit.

Some of the forms of web video are clearly products of meager economic and
technological resources. Videos on the web are typically shot with consumer-grade
equipment. They are produced by passionate hobbyists or eager youngsters aspiring to
a career in media. In either case, the means of production are those of the do-it-
yourselfer, not the professional. Even the parodic sci-fi video series Galacticast, which
uses impressive digital effects like green screens, reveals its modesty by using the
same BF/GF dyad as performers in every episode. And although there is some
potential for earning revenue by offering video online, most web videos would seem to
have a production budget of approximately zero dollars. Time is another limiting factor.
Most people who make video for the web also have other things to do, like school and
jobs.

One significant technological constraint is the scarcity of computer memory and
bandwidth. Our machines do not yet make it as easy to share long pieces as short
ones. YouTube restricts length to ten minutes (though there are some videos there that
are longer).

But even without these technological and economic limitations, there is another reason
why web videos would tend to be short. This is the social constraint of the consumer’s
scarcity of time and attention. When we watch videos online we are typically doing
more than one thing. We have our computers on to work or study, and in addition to
video we might also be paying attention to a word processor or spreadsheet, an e-mail
or IM account, an RSS reader or MySpace page. Short and “sweet” fits our patterns of
computer use.

It can be tempting to bemoan our constraints, but clever and talented media producers
work within them, make them into opportunities, and create work that best exploits
available materials and conditions.
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Affordances

Media producers are motivated by a desire to fulfill specific functions. Web videos
function as brief diversions, “snacks” as opposed to the meals offered by movies and
TV. We experience these videos in the context of a wider experience of computer use,
another reason for their brevity and their sweetness.

We can think of functions as affordances, as the creation of potential for use. Web
videos afford us these momentary diversions, but they also exploit the affordances of
their delivery system, the internet. In particular, the internet is good at connecting users.
It is, after all, a network. Unlike TV and movies, which travel from a small number of
producers to a vast public of consumers, the internet allows both sending and receiving
among all those connected to it.

Like other social networking on the web, video can take advantage of the internet’s
architecture of participation. A good example of a video site that does this is The Show
with Ze Frank.

The Show is a daily video series that ran from March, 2006 to March, 2007. It was the
work of a solitary artist from Brooklyn, Ze Frank, who performed, shot, and edited it
himself, and also wrote, performed, and recorded original music for many episodes.
Frank inspired an impressive following of fans, dubbed Sports Racers, who became his
collaborators in various ways on The Show. Sports Racers would take part in contests
and initiate projects like the “earth sandwich” made by placing two pieces of bread on
exactly opposite ends of the globe. They collaborated against him in chess; they plotted
their moves in their forum and he gave his during the show. At one point, the upper
echelon of Sports Racers, known as the Fabulosos, scripted an entire episode
collaboratively on a wiki and Frank performed it to the letter and in its entirety. Sports
Racers collaborated on songs and music videos, and uploaded video introductions
starring themselves to begin each episode, which Frank integrated into the vlog.

In essence, The Show is a social network. It is an audio-visual expression that makes
use of the web’s affordance of bringing people together. The form of the program,
Frank says, is a conversation between the host and the viewers. Frank champions the
amateur media maker seizing control of the tools of expression and fashioning a new
participatory aesthetic. This can be seen in the episode of July 14, 2006, in which
Frank introduced contestants in an “Ugly MySpace Contest” and defended his use of
the word “ugly” to signify a new conception of amateur design aesthetics for the web 2.0
age. This clip is a good illustration of all of my points. It is short and “sweet,” and has
an amateur look and feel with its rough editing and bland mise en scène. It is also
participatory insofar as it initiates a contest for viewers to take part in and also spends
most of its time with Ze answering a viewer’s question, a regular feature called “S-s-s-
something from the comments.”
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Conclusion

Web videos like The Show have their own distinct formal traits. Considering these in
relation to the constraints and affordances of internet culture reveals much about how
web videos come into being and about how they are typically used.