10 Aug 2017

Is Social Media Video Part of a Throw Away Culture?

In an increasingly disposable social media multiverse, with attention spans shrinking and options for content expanding all the time, it seems the shelf life of a video has been reduced to a single news cycle – just long enough for a momentary wave of popularity or ‘trending’ before being replaced by the next big thing.

It is perhaps oddly comforting, then, that a milestone has recently been passed for one of the most unassuming, unfashionable and yet presciently short videos in history: “Me at the zoo”.

What? You’ve never heard of it?

Hardly surprising, since this 19-second video features nothing more remarkable than a young man in front of an elephant enclosure commenting on their “really, really, really big – um – trunks” in slightly sarcastic high school tones.

But this year, as the first video ever uploaded on YouTube, it passed the 40 million view mark despite its mundane content.

The young man in the video was Jawed Karim, You Tube’s co-founder, and little could he and fellow student Yakov Lapitsky have known the impact their creation would have on the world (and in the month that Mendip Media was also founded too).

Perhaps if they had, they might have put more effort into ‘Me at the Zoo’. And yet, this short piece of content set the tone of what was to come with the tsunami of social media and user generated video that is now part of our cultural landscape.

Out of this soup of video are there any general rules for creating truly engaging content with the enviable longevity of ‘Me at the Zoo’?

It is impossible to predict what the shelf life of a video might be, but there are certainly classic pitfalls to avoid:

SO HIP IT HURTS – Using a new technique or style so distinctive that it will quickly be seen as cliché.

When pioneering film composer Miklós Rózsa used a newly developed electronic instrument called the theremin in his score for Spellbound, its eerie, wavering chords quickly became shorthand for every alien invasion, psychodrama and brainwashing B-movie which followed throughout the 1950s.

TOMORROW’S WORLD – Depicting a vision of the near future using technology which will be outdated long before that day comes.

Who can forget the idiot-proof, gigantic on-screen ‘coding’ of such films as Wargames, Hackers or The Net in which supposedly genius programmers type such technical trickery as “override all security”?

A HAPPY MEDIUM – Creating content in a format which won’t quickly deteriorate in quality by comparison.

If you are slapdash, budget constrained or simply don’t care, it’s easy to fall into the high-volume, low-budget output of the music video world in the 1980s which generated endless hours of ropey content shot on video and jazzed up with the latest special effects of the day, only to be consigned to the dustbins of MTV.

Give anything enough time, however, and what is considered dated will come back into fashion, even be celebrated.

I was once asked by an ad agency to recreate the stilted, stop-motion charms of some classic Noddy animation for a nostalgic campaign.  Weeks of efforts, trying to communicate the brief for a ‘vintage look’ to an overseas animation studio, resulted in the finished product going unused as it was considered “too good” to pass the rose-tinted spec test.

Indeed, intentionally making something look “bad” in a good way is an art in itself.

Using original camera technology, sourcing just the right wardrobe, lighting and editing (and even acting) in just the right way is a challenge which has been masterfully pulled off by such satires as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace or cult favourite Kung Fury proving there is a market for outdated kitsch – when paired with clever writing.

Twelve years and many millions of views later, the sniggering, pointless commentary of a couple of high school kids on location with a camera seems as timeless and as relevant to the world of social media video as ever. Perhaps it says less about the heritage value of their content than it does about the standards of quality which You Tube has redefined for a generation.

By Michael Lekes, Producer