On Video Essays

With recorded video and audio, the written word has diminished in responsibility and power. In a movie, a text can be read aloud or focused on by the camera for the audiences to glance over. In video games, text is part of ammunition counts, loading screens, and instructional content. But writers have resigned themselves in subservience to audio and visual delights, and we can see this within YouTube video essays. The two most important aspects of text are accessibility and portability. Accessibility: unlike 100 years ago, it is a given that just about everyone in the United States is able to read and write text. Unlike 150 years ago, it is rather affordable to purchase the tools to write text. And unlike 200 years ago, it is trivial to print and disseminate that text for others to read. I will compare this with the video format later in the essay, whose timeline is much more recent and compressed. Portability: a contributing factor to the ease of disseminating text is that the format is highly portable. It can be transferred from the palm of the hand to a sheet of paper to a stone tablet. Now digitized, text is the medium upon which people, machines, and software programs run; portability means compatibility.

These two aspects of text contribute to one overarching idea: that the normal person is able to easily write their ideas and disseminate them among people. They have the ability and they have the means of production. This idea was realized in the late-90s through mid-2000s with online discussion boards and blogs. There didn’t seem like any reason for a person with internet to not write and share their ideas with others in textual form.

But we have seen in the last 2000 years that illiteracy brought a different form of idea-sharing and creativity: theatre was the visual-auditory alternative to text-driven entertainment and literature. In the last 150 years, printed photos and projected videos eclipsed the importance of theatre. In the last 100 years, recorded video and audio eclipsed live projection. In the last 20 years, digital video has now challenged the textual form as a primary means of idea-sharing. And evaluating each of these periods, the accessibility and portability of video leads to one question: why should anyone with internet not record and share their ideas in video form?

The question of this essay is whether or not the fall of the written word is coincidental or integral to the rise of inhabiting others’ copyrighted works — to relay criticism/exploration of themes or technicalities of that given work.

With YouTube, it was trivial to upload copyrighted materials, either audio or visual; for years YouTube was an asylum for free, copyrighted entertainment. At the same time, it was also trivial to record, edit and upload homemade videos, and this is where YouTube built its legacy: entertainment by the masses, for the masses, a role that was initially immortalized by text and its accessibility and portability.

But then something happened: the text-based critique of a movie, taken for granted by newspaper publications for a century, began to transport itself into the movies it critiqued. It was a match made in heaven: why would one not show the film’s weaknesses and strengths in order to make a more salient point? Here, in the intersection of homemade media and copyrighted, institutional entertainment media lies the video or film essay.

The video essay explains its concepts through visual and audio forms, infrequently interspersed with textual elements. With over a century of copyrighted but available visual and audio content, editors have found that expressing their ideas and themes through familiar images would increase the essay’s impact on the reader; instead of relying on the audience’s prior understanding of a given work, the essayist could display the excerpt in its entirety.

The excerpt is displayed without the context of the original intent: the essayist recontextualizes prefabricated content to fit their worldview or argument. To compare with text, the essayist must describe the idea of the excerpt and then recontextualize. The reader would have to access their own memories and ideas about that excerpt and then apply the essayists’ own interpretations on top. This may muddle the intended message of the original creator and the essayist, but it also encouraged an active “connecting the dots” within the reader’s mind. Thus, the reader provides the third context to a given work.

Issue Number One: The audiovisual medium is a medium that encourages passive consumption rather than active consumption.

In other words, the audience, or consumer, is incentivized to take in the content and its message rather than to synthesize it with their own values. As a result, a video essay can easily become more of a monolog, or a one-sided lecture rather than a dialogue of ideas. In moralistic terms, an unthinking audience is also one that will not dynamically absorb the essence of the film essay but rather simply its contents. The unthinking audience may as well have had a forgettable dream in the timespan of a video clip.

This is not to say that text does not have its own authoritarian pitfall: the finality of the textual statement appears as if it were fact, and would require aesthetic “waffling” words in order to reduce the perceived conviction of each sentence. The essayist assumes authority by way of simply having the reader’s attention, even if the writer shouldn’t deserve it.

Issue Number Two: The video essayist has given up the rights to their ideas by displaying the legally protected content of others.

Perhaps in the future, publishers will relinquish their right to harshly protect copyrighted content, but at the moment, sites like Vimeo and YouTube must actively work in accordance with the law and take down any videos that incorporate copyrighted material for monetary gain. This means that video essayists have given up their ideas and potential direct revenues in order to insert their ideas in the works of others. If the essay may go too far, if the law is slightly changed, or if the essayist receives money, the publisher can move to take the video essay down.

We arrive at a harsh reality: by relinquishing our ideas to the will of others, we also give up the right to protect these ideas, their accessibility, and their portability. To express oneself in the works of others is work within a system that seeks only to take and sell, rather than give and pay. The transience of YouTube as a website and the legislation of copyrights, paired with the proprietary nature of .MP4 versus .AVI or .MOV makes videos into a highly risky territory of sharing ideas.

In one sense, the audiovisual format inherently works against the preservation of creativity and thought-provocation. Another interpretation finds that video is a highly portable and accessible medium that zooms through the internet at the speed of light, and perhaps that makes it worth the ephemerality. But caution should be in the wind as one puts their blood, sweat, and tears into making video essays; our works should be thoroughly our own, and text continues to be key to such a reality.