With more than 35 million views on youtube, and countless facebook and other social media shares, I’m sure that many of you have seen this viral video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1XGPvbWn0A#t=31, nicknamed the catcall video. It’s just under two minutes of footage showing an attractive young woman walking through the streets of New York City. The purpose of the video is to draw attention to the volume of men who interact with the woman as she makes her way through the crowds. It’s worth watching, as it’s an interesting film study as much as a social awareness documentary, but I think if we take this video and other viral videos at face value, we’re missing the bigger, and maybe better message.
After watching this and reading hundreds of outraged comments pointing fingers in all different directions, I began to realize that we as a culture lack the critical thinking skills necessary to analyze and interpret the information presented to us in the form of the two minute viral video. So here are five lessons to apply to Internet videos before commenting or sharing. Please note that I’m using the catcall video as an example, but the purpose here is not to discredit that video, but to learn how to watch viral videos with a deeper awareness.
Lesson 1: All Media is Constructed
As someone who has worked with live video, filmmaking, and screenwriting in many different ways over the years, I can promise you that no media is created without significant conscious effort from someone. All media is purposefully and thoughtfully constructed.
Live video footage of a football game for example, is controlled by a director who chooses which camera to use for each play, if and when to show a replay, and how often to show the coaches on the sidelines. He or she chooses when you will see an announcer’s face or hear their voice. Supporting graphics are used to help illustrate the announcer’s point, compelling us to agree with their opinions even when the referees disagree. This leaves us feeling cheated when we could clearly see the yellow circle where the receiver’s foot went out of bounds, but the ref still called him in. Live video is carefully constructed, and edited post-production video, is even more so.
In the case of the catcall video, the production was done by a non-profit organization aimed at ending the street harassment of women. As such, they chose these specific moments of footage from over ten hours of film because they felt that these particular clips, in this order and at this speed, would have the highest impact on their target audience. Do I want to watch the other hours of footage to see what I missed? No. And neither does anyone else. But, we tend believe them when they say that these two minutes are representative of what the whole experience was like, even if it was not. So ask yourself, “What got left on the editing room floor?” and “Why did they choose to include these moments?”
Lesson 2: All Media has a Target Audience
All media, but news media and viral videos in particular, are always aimed at someone. That’s right, you’re a target. So ask, “Who is targeting me and why?” Many videos have multiple audiences. In the case of our viral video, there are at least two audiences: men, who should stop acting like animals, and women, who should join in the outrage.
It’s a video intended to be shared, mostly by women, who can identify with the lead character. The very opening shot shows a young woman fixing herself into the proper position of her camera. It’s a selfie. And what young woman today, can’t identify with another young woman taking a selfie? This makes us feel at home. It allows us to trust that this woman is doing her own filmmaking, that she’s just a girl alone on a mission to speak truth to the world. But, what was left on the editing floor is the man walking in front of her carrying the camera on his backpack. The microphones she’s carrying in her hands tether her to him. If we don’t think critically about the angle of the camera or the quality of the sound, or even the subtitles that were added just to make sure that we don’t miss any of the words, we could assume that this was somehow done alone with an iPhone. That’s what we’re meant to think, because we’re being targeted as women who can relate.
Lesson 3: Media has a Goal
Once a viral video has captured its target audience, it always tries to invoke a response. For the news media this is selling more papers, or cable subscriptions, in the hope of attracting more advertisers. Internet videos aren’t much different. Likes and shares all boil down to clicks, tracked by sophisticated analytics software, and ultimately used to sell advertising or raise money through direct sales or donations. We understand this principal about television, but somehow we’ve lost sight of it on the Internet. We tend to trust the makers of viral videos because average people, not big media companies, produced many of the original viral videos. But now, there’s a recipe for making a video go viral and companies use it as much to their advantage as they are able.
There are whole websites like Viralnova, Upworthy, and BuzzFeed dedicated to the idea of making content viral, but these are for-profit websites who accept sponsored content from corporations, and it’s a completely unregulated market. This is perhaps best illustrated by the viral video created by Dove in 2013 showing women, drawn by a police sketch artist, how inaccurate their self-descriptions tended to be. The point was to tell women that they are more beautiful than they know, but as a side motive, perhaps they could be even more beautiful, if they used Dove products.
Internet sites are not required to tell you where the content came from or how it was constructed, but this doesn’t mean that viral videos are only intended for profit. Many of them have more altruistic goals, like raising awareness to social injustices or driving political change. But thinking critically about these videos means making a conscious choice to help the video meet its intended goal or deliberately not being supportive of those goals. The catcall video we’re discussing asks for direct donations at the end, so at least they are upfront about telling you what action they want you to take. A donation is best, but if they can’t get your money, they’ll settle for your likes and shares.
Lesson 4: We Undervalue the Listener
Watch TV for an hour, especially a talk show, debate, news commentary program, or other politically charged media. Pay attention to how much time the camera spends focused on the speaker verses how much time the camera spends focused on the listener. The standard format for a dialogue is to switch shots every time a new person speaks. So without conscious thought as viewers, in a dialogue between two people, we turn our eyes to the speaker every time. We never get to watch the listener. As such, we very rarely have good listening skills modeled for us. Most of us even spend more time in an argument thinking about our own rebuttal rather than listening to the other person when it’s their time to talk. We’re terrible listeners. We place a value on quantity rather than quality. He who speaks the most wins.
The catcall video is an interesting study in listening as a result. The young woman that we follow never says a word the whole time. So in a sense, we are watching the listener, but she’s not an active listener. Her complete neutrality feels a little foreign to us, and I imagine it felt foreign to the men who tried to interact with her too. Many people have argued that her lack of response helped to fuel some of the continued interactions, which might have been put to rest with a simple acknowledgement. We all want to be acknowledged when we speak, and we all want to be around good listeners. This is a lesson that tv/video does not teach well.
So when watching viral videos ask, “How is the person off screen, who I can’t see, reacting?” and more importantly ask, “How are my listening skills?” and “What is my reaction to this scene? Am I really listening and responding or have I already formulated my next action before getting all of the information?”
Lesson 5: It’s Easier to Judge than to Improve
Passing judgment is easy. Teaching is hard. In my mind, the number one problem with viral videos is that they frequently judge rather than teach. Here’s the difference: teachers model good behavior, while judgers point out bad behavior. It’s much easier to make a video popular if you can outrage your target audience. No one gets excited about videos that show men being gentlemen. But, if we only try to judge and don’t endeavor to teach, we’re left feeling as though there are no good options.
It’s very clear that we’re not supposed to call attractive strangers “beautiful” or swear at them from across the street, but what else aren’t we supposed to do? I think we could argue that this video also suggests not being male, and not being Hispanic, and not selling things in the street. Possibly not living in New York City, or saying good morning, or walking with your head up instead of looking at the sidewalk. If the message here is that women don’t like catcalling, what do women like? Where’s the model man who gets it right? Do we want to perpetuate a society where it’s wrong to say hello to the people who get into an elevator with you or pass you on the street? Or is it only wrong if that person is the opposite gender or an attractive person of the opposite gender?
Due to the short attention spans of viewers, viral videos make an attempt to cram as much power into two minutes as possible, but this leaves them horribly one-sided and they almost never tell a complete story. While most viewers already recognize this, they still allow an emotional response to lead their actions. Instead of using these videos to start really good discussions that lead to improvement, most commenters simply choose a side and continue the finger pointing. Many even suggest punishments for the wrongdoers instead of encouraging change. Try asking yourself, “If it’s obvious that this is wrong, then what is right? What behavior should I be encouraging? How can I encourage better behavior, rather than trying to stop or punish this behavior?” and finally “If I help the makers of this video to meet their goals, will that bring about the change I would like to see, or will it only increase the negativity?”