this space intentionally left blank

April 28, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media»video

No More Broadcast

Hey journalism: this is the Internet. Let's act like it.

Dumping video straight online is a flawed idea, I'm convinced. Not that it doesn't work, in the crudest sense of the phrase. But it's like using the Internet to sell rotary telephones. You're doing it wrong.

Whether we like it or not, the Web trains us to interact with content in new, non-linear ways. Take hyperlinking (please!): during the average blog post or news article at a relatively hip outlet, there will be lots of links inside the article, any of which basically derails the flow of the narrative onto a new, temporary track. That is a drastic change from the way journalists have thought about writing for years--so much so that I'm constantly being sent articles on "how to link" by coworkers who are trying to adjust.

Once you've spent enough time online, of course, this becomes second nature (making the forwarded articles more than a little tedious). In fact, it becomes addictive and even desirable--if nothing else, it lets you back up your assertions immediately, and synthesize it with other works. But the hyperlink does require you to understand that the medium is no longer a broadcast proposition, even for documents: you can't simply assume that people will read your piece start to finish. Instead, they're going to interact with it, drift away and come back as they follow their own path through the hyperlinked text.

Web video takes a step back from this. Sure, it's got a pause button, and when contained in a content-management system like YouTube it can be shared/linked/commented. But it's primarily a one-way street, especially as implemented by the majority of news organizations. I think this is part of the reason that media types are often particularly eager to leap onto the streaming video bandwagon: it feels familiar and controlled.

Here's my take: to do this right, we need to get past the broadcast mentality with web video, and move to something like smart videos, which incorporate some of the same non-linearity of web text. For example: while watching a video, you should be able to click for more information--the equivalent of an inline link. While someone explains something, you should be able to slide open a pane and explore the data behind their statements. When the video's over, you should be able to link to recent media on the same topic via an RSS feed. You should also be able to "skim" longer videos--jump through them by using an outline or overarching structure (B-SPAN had a primitive version of this, and the TED conference has a very nice interface for it).

This accomplishes a number of important goals. First, it appeals to viewers who, after years of surfing the Internet, really do have the attention span of a frightened mayfly. I've mentioned before that I doubt these people actually exist, but if they do, here's a way to keep them interested for a few more precious advertising-sellable seconds. Second, it turns the video into a dialog, and one that interacts with the rest of the site, where previously it was isolated from that content. Finally, it extends the lifespan of videos by making it possible for them to remain valuable as teaching and package resources even beyond when their intended topicality has passed.

The really good news is that this isn't hard to do. We've been working with BrightCove at work, and they provide a decent API for embedding their streaming video component into a custom Flash app that provides these services. Building it without BrightCove would be more frustrating from a service and bandwidth point of view, but isn't necessarily any more technically difficult. A few lines of code, a carefully thought-out index file written in XML, some attention to design, and you're all set.

There's really not an excuse any more, except that you don't have the time to do it. And that is, to some degree an acceptable excuse--we're all busy people, I know I am--but I don't think it will be acceptable for long.

Future - Present - Past