In 2013, the developers and designers at Facebook made a significant change to their user experience.
Frustrated with the level of video engagement and inspired by the Daily Prophet newspaper from the Harry Potter movies, they set their video player to autoplay as the user scrolls through his or her newsfeed.
Then they made a critical tweak, as this Fortune article notes:
There were internal doubts about video autoplay — few things on the web are as annoying as an unwanted video stream with a loud, distracting soundtrack. [VP of Product Chris] Cox’s team assuaged these fears by turning the sound off by default: Facebook autoplays are silent until users choose otherwise. … The result was, in Cox’s words, “completely rad.”
As a result of this change, my news feed is now exploding with motion. Meanwhile publishers are seeing a corresponding explosion in video views and engagement. They’re also adapting to this new video platform in fascinating ways.
For example, if you’re like me, you might have noticed yourself reading some of the videos in your feed.
Did I just read … a video?
Publishers from NowThisNews to The New York Times have apparently found that they can better capture Facebook users’ attention by allowing them to consume the video with the sound remaining off.
This means doing away with a traditional narrator and instead layering short sentences on top of recent news footage, viral videos, or B-roll.
Here are some recent examples:
This new genre of “readable video” was made possible by the more powerful processors in our phones and computers, not to mention the massive constellation of data centers that Facebook, Amazon, and others have arrayed across the globe in the past decade. Without these advancements, Facebook’s autoplay experiment wouldn’t have been feasible. And without hundreds of millions of Facebook users suddenly watching soundless video, publishers likely wouldn’t be pushing in this direction on their own.
What’s fascinating is that, despite the technological advancements that underpin this new genre of video, our grandparents and great-grandparents would find them … strangely familiar.
Let’s flash back 96 years
On May 23, 1909, the inaugural newsreel played at the Daily Bioscope theater in London. For the first time in media history, journalists had begun presenting world events to the public via moving pictures.
As with the silent movies that they often preceded, a soundtrack accompanied the newsreels, but no recorded speech. The clips of recent events were instead interspliced with text that explained the context. The medium proved hugely popular at the time and newsreel production companies sprung up across the globe in the decade that followed, not to mention theaters wholly dedicated to news.
Here is a newsreel from 1918 showing U.S. troops in Paris during World War I:
And another from 1927 documenting Charles Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight:
For two decades following its Daily Bioscope debut, the newsreel remained a silent format. In the late 1920s, however, filmmakers figured out how to record simultaneous audio and there was no longer a need for such an abundance of text. In his book The March Of Time, Raymond Fielding recounts this moment:
With the commercial introduction of talking pictures in 1926–27 the newsreel acquired a voice. It was a scratchy and sometimes incomprehensible voice at first, but a thrilling one nevertheless. The sound camera could now bring the comments of kings and commoners, the sounds of battle, the roar of a motor car race, perfectly synchronized with the moving image, onto the screens of thousands of theaters.
In the coming decades, the newsreel became a principal information source for the masses. Fielding writes that, at its height, “the American newsreel was seen weekly by at least 40 million people [in the U.S.] and throughout the world by more than 200 million” — all of them gathering in dark theaters, popcorn in hand, to catch up on the past week’s events.
By the 1960s, television sets had appeared in most living rooms and the newsreel format quickly became obsolete. Fielding opens his book (published in 1978) by lamenting how fast it faded into oblivion:
Journalism, like ice sculpture, yields products of transient value. The news fades, the ice melts, and so does our memory of each of them. Less than a decade has passed since the last American newsreels flashed upon motion picture screens, and yet one generation of citizens has nearly forgotten what they looked like, while the next doesn’t even know they existed.
It’s a trip: watching the same water molecules that bound the early-20th-century newsreels reconstitute themselves on my tiny screen as I ride the bus or wait in line.
When consuming news nuggets on the fly and in public, it’s a form that fits surprisingly well. The only thing missing is the popcorn.