Sorry, Facebook, But Video Isn’t Replacing the Written Word Any Time Soon


If you’ve noticed more video in your Facebook feed of late, it’s no accident — according to Quartz, Facebook is boldly predicting the end of the written word. Well, sort of, anyway — the head of the company’s EU/Middle East/African operations, one Nicola Mendelsohn, said recently that “[in five years’ time], Facebook will be definitely mobile, [and] it will be probably all video.”

As Quartz reports, this prediction was met with something less than enthusiasm by Mendelsohn’s audience: “In the room, there was a perceptible shifting—perhaps because the written word seems a rather major aspect of civilization to dispatch with so quickly.” Well, quite. If we’re to dispense with the written word, we’d want to replace it with something a lot fancier than video, because video is a bullshit format.

It might seem like I’m a turkey arguing passionately against Christmas here — after all, I’m a writer on the internet — but trust me, I’m arguing this as much as a consumer of words as I am a writer of them. And to put it bluntly, this is why we invented writing: because spoken communication is inherently flawed. It’s beholden to the subjectivity of speaker and listener, which is where the phrase “putting it in writing” comes from — the relative ability of the written word to avoid ambiguity. You might argue that the greatest historical drawback of speech, its impermanence, is mitigated by the advent of recorded video. But writing is still a lot easier and more efficient to store than video; storing a video of someone reading words takes orders of magnitude more storage space than recording those words in a simple text file. Video codecs come and go, too, and it’s not hard to imagine future generations trying to figure out how in god’s name AVI files worked.

Even more than that, though, spoken words are inefficient. Mendehlson claims that ACTUALLY, watching video allows one to absorb more information more quickly than reading: “The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video. It conveys so much more information in a much quicker period. So actually the trend helps us to digest much more information.” This is demonstrably horseshit — if you’re an average reader, it’ll take you a couple of minutes to read this piece, whereas if I read it to you, it’d take significantly longer. How often have you clicked through to a website and sighed when you’ve found several minutes of long-winded video instead of a couple of easily digestible paragraphs? You’re not the only one.

Just as importantly, it took me a whole lot less time to write this than it would have done to record a video: I’d have had to get out my phone, set it up somehow on a stable platform to record video, and then start reading… what? I don’t know about you, but I’d still have to write down whatever I had to say about this. This isn’t always true, obviously, but as far as replacing a simple piece of writing with video goes, you need to start with… a piece of writing. Even Mendehlson admits, “You’ll [still] have to write for the video.” So why not just publish that? It sure beats dicking about with a camera and getting the lighting looking OK and making sure you get everything right in one take and etc etc etc etc zzzzzzzz.

You can see why Facebook is making this argument; they’re all-in on Facebook Live, a live video service that launched was announced earlier this year and seems to be the latest step in the Zuckerbergian plan for world domination. For once, though, Facebook seems to be betting on the wrong horse. Publishers are scrambling to work out a use for Facebook Live because of Facebook’s fondness for the format — you may have noticed yourself getting “so-and-so is live now” notifications, which you certainly don’t get every time your favorite blog posts something. But thus far, the content generated has been, um, not great, unless you consider exploding watermelons to be a killer app. No-one, this publisher included, has really worked out exactly what Facebook Live is for yet. It’s a solution in search of a problem.

The appeal of Facebook Live to Facebook is clear: this is content that is hosted and consumed via Facebook, rather than directing people elsewhere. (Cf. the Facebook Instant Articles that you may have noted appearing in your newsfeed of late.) For everyone else, though, the appeal is less than clear, and for all the gaudy numbers being bandied about, there isn’t a whole lot of people watching these videos. (This post on Gawker does a good job of breaking down the numbers, if you want to read further on that point.)

So yes, no doubt a Facebook executive would say that video is the future of the web, because of course they would. And video is great in some contexts — covering events live (it’s strange that more people haven’t used Facebook Live for this), presenting visual content, and, um, other things, no doubt. As a replacement for the written word, though, it’s pretty useless — which is something anyone born in the last few thousand years could have happily told us.