Video or Text-Based Web Pages?

In previous blog entries, I have written about the way different communication channels influence the message received. We have known for a long time that the medium is the message. (See also Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage). One of the principal concepts behind the message inherent in the titles of books (including McLuhan’s) is that communication channels are themselves “messages.” The original discussion about this concept focused on the differences being communicated by print media and television. the movie, Medium Cool, was based on McLuhan’s concept that video was a “cool” medium, one that forced viewers to think about the message to understand it.

McLuhan’s “cool” is based on the need for those doing the filming and later the editing to remain emotionally detached from what they are filming ind producing. The TV reporters covering the Vietnam War, for example, had to film combat without participating. They had to stay “cool,” emotionally detached from the action to be able to film it. Video of combat, whether “real” or “staged” (for movies) is different from text-based discussion of combat, whether “real” or “fictionalized.” Whether you agree with McLuhan’s concept or not (and I’m not sure that I do), most will agree that movies and other videos induce a different visceral experience than we typically get from text-based coverage of the same subject.

This isn’t necessarily the case for readers and viewers. If you read A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, for example, and watch one of the movies based on it, your experiences will not be the same. The book describes the people being guillotined during the French Revolution, whereas the movie shows them in a line, marching to their doom, and we hear the roar of the crowd when the blade drops. Video may be “cool” for those who create it, but it has emotional impact for the viewer. Readers can and do, of course, associate into the material they are reading, but the degree of association is less than that of those viewing video.

And then along comes the Internet…. At first, the Internet was text based. Early text-based email, for example, didn’t even provide much in the way of formatting. That is, of course, no longer the case. These days, even email allows for very fancy text formatting and the inclusion of graphics, photos, and even videos. For a brief history of the Web, see History of the Web. At this point, the Web is ubiquitous, and can communicate audio and video in addition to text. If you have a good connection to the Internet, you can even “stream” movies. Just because you can, however, doesn’t mean you should—at least not all the time.

You may have noticed, for example, that many news pages convey many (in some cases, most) stories using video. MSNBC, for example rarely includes a text-based story. When video became relatively easy to do on the web, its use on all websites started expanding. At the same time, the availability of print media declined. I used to subscribe to a daily newspaper and several weekly news magazines, but I let my subscriptions expire because the printed versions of the information increasingly lagged behind what was available online. The Internet has changed everything. If you are old enough, you can remember manual typewriters, typing pools, and “mailable” letters (those without obvious errors). To communicate by writing in the “old days,” you had to dictate a letter to be typed, proofread the letter, sign it, put it in an addressed envelope, drop it in the mail—where it would be carried by truck, train, and/or airplane to its destination. The reply would have to be prepared and sent the same way. My guess is that typing pools have ceased to exist, and there are far fewer secretarial jobs than there were.

At the same time, the use of television as a communication device has greatly increased. It used to be used almost exclusively for entertainment. Radio, of course, came fist. Franklin Roosevelt had his Fireside Chats, and radio provided both comedies and dramas for entertainment. Then television took over, and soon fostered what became known as the Golden Age of Television. Since the early days of TV, we have gone from 3 channels that broadcast black and white images for several hours a day to as many channels as you want to pay for on a “24/7” schedule. “News” shows abound and have themselves become our “entertainment.” (See my previous blog, A Media Star Is Born.) Given that, what do we want from the Internet? Why not just watch more TV? Instead of turning to MSNBC online, why not just just watch it on TV? The same individuals report on the same stories on both TV and the Internet, but the difference is that the TV stories are constrained by time, whereas the Internet stories can be accessed “on demand.”

Given the increasing ubiquity of video, I have wondered whether we are heading into a “postliteracy” age. Early humans were, of corse, preliterate—they could neither read nor write. Even as recently as the Middle Ages, most people in most places could not read or write. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century being able to read and write were considered important. My sense is that even if oral and video communication are increasingly available for all, we will still need text-based communication for critical communication, the kind of communication that requires thought and analysis. If we’re not able to do our own thinking and analysis, others will give us theirs.

Literacy is our best—and perhaps only—defense against tyranny. For this reason, my favorite web pages are those that put their most important messages in text form. Web pages that put their main messages in video format have less appeal for me.

What about you?