For the past few months, I’ve been noodling with the blasphemous idea that photographs are kind of silly and maybe even outdated. I don’t mean professional or artistic pictures. I mean amateur ones: snapshots, pictures of your kids, pets, vacations, Thanksgiving at Grandma’s. A decade ago, cellphone cameras and social networks gave new life to the family photograph. We could take dozens of pictures of everything around us and share them with everyone. This sounds kind of nightmarish, but it turned out to be a boon for both photos and the Web. Facebook is as big as it is thanks to snapshots, and snapshots are as big as they are thanks to Facebook.
But the same technology that reinvigorated pictures is threatening to outclass them. Now that our phones can do video, and our networks are fast enough to transmit and display video, why take snapshots anymore?
In the nearly three years that I’ve had kids—they just showed up on my doorstep one day—I’ve taken thousands and thousands of photographs of them. (According to Picasa’s face-recognition algorithm, I have 3,500 pictures of my nearly 3-year-old son, which is an average of three a day.) I love these photos dearly. Yet when I go through the huge stash, I often find myself skipping past the photos to look at one of the few hundred videos instead.
It’s not just that videos contain more stuff: movement, dialogue, facial expressions, and consequently, more emotional resonance. The more important thing is that videos are truer. As Jenna Wortham wrote recently in the New York Times, “Instagram isn’t about reality—it’s about a well-crafted fantasy, a highlights reel of your life that shows off versions of yourself that you want to remember and put on display in a glass case for other people to admire and browse through.” Wortham likes this about Instagram’s pictures, and she worries that Instagram’s new video feature ruins the fantasy. And I agree that sometimes creating a fantasy of your life can be nice—and a nice way to make other people feel bad about themselves.
Most of the time, though, I don’t want fantasy. I want authenticity. When I’m trying to capture my kid’s birthday party, I don’t want the best moments. I want the truest moments—I want to remember exactly what it felt like, what it sounded like, how frustrated and stressed-out and over-the-moon I was all at once. And for authenticity—or, better authenticity—videos handily beat photos.
Until recently, the only problem with video was that it was too hard to do it well—or, rather, it was too easy to do it terribly. Taking a good photo was easier than taking a good video, so when you wanted to act fast, it was easier to snap. But that’s changed. The rise of short-form video services like Vine, Instagram Video, and now MixBit—the last of these founded by Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, who started YouTube—has given video an edge over photos.
Each of these apps works slightly differently, but they all have the same effect. They all make it easier to capture better videos than you could in the past. First, they all use an interface that requires you to hold down a button while you’re shooting; because you don’t click once to start shooting and click again to stop, you stay focused while you’re capturing video, which results in better clips. Instagram and Vine also limit the length of your videos. (Vine’s videos are six seconds; Instagram’s are 15 seconds.) This prevents your videos from droning on. (MixBit is trickier—each cut is limited to 16 seconds, but you can string together multiple cuts to create videos that are as long as an hour.) These improvements sound slight, but I suspect they will prove deadly to photos. Now that it’s easy to shoot videos that aren’t crap, it usually makes sense to go for clips instead of snapshots. Most of the time, videos are just better.
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