NEW YORK — We are living in the golden age of the silent video. Although we may still pop headphones in to watch a YouTube rant, social media has cultivated its own mute visual culture. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are designed to encourage endless scrolling, and that boosts videos that are made to catch the viewer’s eye without offending her ear with grating bursts of noise.
The clips that spread the furthest online are the ones that can be consumed anywhere without disruption: On the subway, the sidewalk or in the doctor’s office; next to a partner in bed, behind the counter at work or under the desk in class. They’re the ones that allow for private experiences in the most public of places. And in the internet’s global marketplace, they’re the ones that transcend language barriers, instantly legible to viewers in Peoria or Paris.
Tubular Labs, an online video analytics company, has found that of videos posted to Facebook by media companies, 46 per cent of views go to videos that are completely silent or just accompanied by music. And in practice, an even higher proportion of social videos are watched silently. Advertising agency BBDO Worldwide says that more than 85 per cent of its clients’ Facebook videos are viewed with the sound off.
All of that has given rise to a particular kind of video spectacle on social media, one that is able to convey its charms without dialogue, narrative or much additional context. To entertain soundlessly, viral video makers are reanimating some of the same techniques that ruled silent film more than 100 years ago.
“For coincidental reasons as much as knowing reasons, we’ve seen a rebirth of a very image-forward mode of communication,” said James Leo Cahill, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Toronto. Among its hallmarks: A focus on spectacle, shocking images and tricks; the capture of unexpected moments in instantly recognisable scenarios; an interplay between text and image; and a spotlight on baby and animal stars.
Social media has created a new kind of variety show, where short, unrelated videos cascade down our feeds one after another. If early films were short by necessity * the earliest reels allowed for just seconds of film * modern videos are pared down to suit our attention spans and data plans. THE NEW YORK TIMES