The Perils of Watching Video for Informational Purposes

A smartphone with video playing next to a pair of headphones

Videos proliferate on the internet with claims of being educational and informative. They claim to give you deep dives into niche topics, show you alternative perspectives, or brief you on current events. They give you the impression that staying informed and savvy is as simple as opening a video streaming app. "Do your own research" is a frequent exhortation on the internet not uncommonly accompanied by a video recommendation.

But can watching a video really be an effective form of research? Can you think critically and absorb information efficiently while watching flashing images accompanied by immersive audio? Lately I've speculated that those goals are either impossible or very difficult.

Hypnotic Hobbies

This suspicion stems from a certain hobby of mine: visiting websites meant for people other than me. I consume blog posts, news articles, and social media posts spreading messages and perspectives I don't believe in. I'm morbidly entertained by the angry rants, outlandish conspiracy theories, and vitriolic memes totally devoid of humor. I'm frequently in awe of their ability to amass facts and statistics without sources, or reinterpret data from a scientific study to answer questions the authors never intended. I contemplate the human labor that must be required to push these narratives. It's incredible and sometimes terrifying.

This pastime, though, often brings on a strange phenomenon. At some point, I become aware that I'm beginning to accept the authors' claims as possibly truthful, even when the claims are completely baseless. It's a strange feeling, because cognitively I know better than to simply accept unverified (or unverifiable) statements. Yet the sense remains that this internet person might just be right.

Of course, I can easily shake the feeling and mentally sober up just by leaving my device and doing something different for a while. When I reflect on it, though, I suspect the feeling is an inevitable result of prolonged and uninterrupted consumption of media. When that media is focused on a specific ideology, a lack of vigilance on my part allows belief in that ideology to take hold. My choice of entertainment in that way tends to choose me for its seedbed.

Text Input vs. Video Input

That thought made me consider my wider media consumption habits. If reading text can do that to me, what about watching video, an undeniably more immersive experience? It can involve images, subtitles, animation, music, narration, ambient noise, computer-generated images, and sound clips. All of these elements combine to form an input constant and uninterrupted by nature, and you're meant to absorb all of it as it flashes in front of you or pours into your ears.

Efficiently processing that sizable input I suspect necessarily, or at least usually, involves suspending faculties like critical thinking. Enjoying a fictional movie almost always requires some suspension of disbelief, but I think I tend to suspend my disbelief for the sake of nonfiction video as well. As I absorb everything a video has to show and tell me, I'm obligated to at least temporarily accept as truth whatever point the video's author is trying to make. As I watch it, the video, with its high level of sensory input, has effectively subsumed my reality.

That alternate reality is further ensconced by one of a video player's essential features, the pause button. To cease consumption of a video you have essentially two options: allow the runtime to complete (assuming your platform hasn't enabled autoplay), or press the pause button. The former option condemns you to an extended period of subsumed reality, and the latter option is just plain annoying. Who wants to stop in the middle of a video to contemplate something they've just been told, or to reflect on how the input is affecting their emotions? Fact checking is equally problematic; even if the video cites sources, any disruption of a stream seems to impose on the appeal of watching videos. I'm probably watching the video on my phone or my smart TV while sitting on my couch after a long day at work, and you're asking me to do what?

Contrast that experience with consuming text on a website, where citation links breed browser-killing oodles of tabs, and where pausing is as easy as looking away. You consume information the moment you're ready for it, with no stop-and-start fuss.

The Proper Handling of Alternate Realities

Of course, as I stated earlier, text still has some power over me, but I don't think it's the same caliber as video. I'll also admit that I regularly watch informative videos, and they often leave me feeling more knowledgeable about the given subject.

However, I'm thinking I'd benefit from considering how much of that feeling is only feeling instilled by the video author's clever editing. How captive did I allow myself to be during the runtime? Did I bother with checking sources at all? Am I mistaking good craftsmanship for authority? How much did elements like striking imagery, emotional music, and thought-provoking narration influence my perception? If my perspective was changed, was it changed in the direction of love, justice, and peace, or something else?

Realistically, I'll probably still watch informative videos, and I probably won't pause any of them mid-stream to verify claims. For goodness sake, these days my favorite spot to watch videos from is a treadmill. Reflecting on these questions though I hope will allow me to properly handle the internet's endless stream of information.

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