Videos Are Better Than Photographs: A Manifesto

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Aug. 22 2013 9:36 AM

Videos Are Better Than Photographs

The rise of short-form video services is going to make the snapshot obsolete.

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Yeah, I know this sounds arrogant and overly general. Who am I to proclaim the death of one form of expression in favor of another? And why should they even have to battle it out—can’t they both take off? After all, some situations are better suited to photos and others better captured in motion, and you can always just shoot both.

Yeah, all that’s true. But look at this Instagram Video that Kobe Bryant posted earlier this week:

The video is boring, but if you know the backstory, the clip packs a wallop. In April, Bryant tore his Achilles tendon, an injury that had been projected to take six to nine months of recovery. With this video, in just a few seconds, he can convey to his fans that he’s getting much better much faster than they might have hoped. Bryant could have posted this as a picture, but a picture would have given the wrong impression. Looking through Bryant’s feed, you see that most of his pictures suggest a rich baller’s fantasy life—here he is visiting the Philippines, here he is practicing Chinese calligraphy, etc. The video isn’t color-filtered, and it isn’t artistically edited. It’s not pretty. But it is accessible. It tells a story that feels real.

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The Bryant video reminded me of something Kevin Systrom, one of Instagram’s co-founders, told me during an interview last week. “The things that end up being important for video are the moments where it's not really the aesthetic of the moment that matters as much as it is the moment itself,” Systrom said. He pointed out that people often use Instagram as a way to communicate with their friends. “The reason you take a picture of your latte is not because you think your latte looks really good, even though there are lots of beautiful lattes out there. But there are lots of unbeautiful lattes, too. I think the reason people take photos is a way to send a message saying, Here's what I'm doing, here's who I'm with. Instagram allows you to do that, and I think people can do that really effectively with videos. It's a status update in a visual form.”

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Vine

Courtesy of Vine

You might argue that people don’t want to be authentic in their updates—that we want to present a fantasy rather than reality, and that this desire accounts for Instagram’s popularity. But I think that oversells the case. When I pull out my camera, I’m aiming to record the moment for myself as well as for other people. I want to show off, but I want to create a document that lets me remember what was happening, too. I think that video allows for more nuance in the trade-off between presenting fantasy and capturing reality. With a 15-second video you can show off more of your vacation than just the cliché of a beautiful sunset. You can show off the fantasy of eating at the French Laundry and the horror of being presented with the bill, the joy of taking a Venetian gondola ride followed by the horror of being stuck in a plane with a toddler.

There’s one more reason I think videos are bound to eclipse photos. Technically, there’s a lot more room for improving amateur videos than there is for improving amateur snapshots. Today—thanks to Instagram-like filters, autofocus, and super fast, super high-res cameras—the best amateur photos can be as good as the best professional ones. Our photos are as good as they’re going to get. But that’s not true of videos. Professional videographers have access to much more expensive and sophisticated tools than the rest of us. “There are things that Hollywood has been doing for quite some time that aren’t intuitive to users,” says Hurley of MixBit. “I think we have ways to lightly introduce those concepts in our apps.” And once those tools become more widely available, they’ll produce stunning results that will push a lot more of us to choose clips instead of pics.

Let me end with one such example. Last Friday, a woman named Alexandria Stack was driving along Interstate 96 in Michigan. She had her smartphone out. She captured this Vine, something that would have been impossible with a photo:

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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