Why Social Video Platforms Might Have a Quality Problem

September 12, 2017

10:50 am

Every major social media platform loves video, and most of the minor ones do, too. They’re even catching up to TV at a fast clip. The reason: Ad revenue goes way farther in video. At this point, the internet’s pivot to video is so huge that some companies are trying to directly deny a pivot by pointing out that they’ve always done video.

But creating video isn’t easy. There are a few unavoidable rules that govern how user-generated content can power a site, and video isn’t the type of content that best fits the mold. As a result, social media platforms — all of which rely on user-generated content to keep users coming back — might face a quality issue when they start focusing on video in a big way.

Here’s why, as demonstrated by the successes of two forms of content that are definitely not video: sports bloggers and short-form poetry.

User-Generated Content Must Be Simple

In 2014, Chipotle reported its stores’ revenue was up by 24.4 percent, totaling $904,200,000. The company takes a smart approach to advertising: They stretch their dollar by letting users generate their own Chipotle-themed content. And in order to succeed at the task, they make it incredibly simple.

Case in point: Their 2015 haiku campaign. Here’s how one blogger described it:

“In early 2015, Chipotle ran a contest on Twitter and Facebook, offering a Chipotle dinner for two for the 20 best (decided by retweets, likes and shares) burrito themed Haikus customers could come up with. While many contests revolving around consumer-generated content tend to go south (read: Internet Trolls), this contest actually went pretty well.

Writing a haiku is relatively simple – all you need is the ability to count to 7 and a basic command of English. The low barrier of entry ensured it would be a simple task for people to participate in the contest.”

A haiku is also a way to showcase creativity, and can be consumed in seconds, creating a low barrier of entry. So how does video stack up? Sure, it’s creative and auto-playing video has an annoyingly low barrier to entry, but it’s far from simple to create: Videographers must take the time to shoot and edit everything in addition to knowing basics like how to frame and light shots. You can write twenty tweets in ten minutes, but twenty high-quality videos would take weeks to produce.

User-Generated Content Must Be Cheap

SB Nation, a Vox Media-owned network of sports sites, demonstrates the need for cheap content and the dangers of pushing for every cheaper content. The entire longread on the subject from Deadspin is a well-documented takedown, but the short version is that SB Nation’s sites rely on the work of underpaid community editors who might make as little as $600 for a month’s work.

“The SB Nation team-site institution is a relic from a past internet age, in which having a blog was something special and business strategies didn’t hinge directly on advertising dollars. When anyone can make a blog on WordPress or Tumblr or post something on Medium or any other of the near-infinite options for putting your ideas online, though, having a platform like an SB Nation blog site becomes more appealing. SB Nation knows this, plays up that advantage in recruiting contributors, and uses it to wring labor from people. It is not alone in having done this; many companies including Gawker Media Group, the former parent company of Deadspin, have attempted to carry out similar strategies. What makes this one unique is its persistence, scope, and professionalization, and the extent to which it has become integral to a billion-dollar enterprise,” Deadspin sums it up late in the piece.

The article notes that the issues arose following the focus on an ad model that resulted from the revenue needs of venture investors. Something like the ad model that powers content platforms’ pivots to video today. While SB Nation’s constant need for content isn’t specifically video, it’s easy to see how the same problems will apply to the format.

And Video Can’t Be Both

Video isn’t simple to produce, which means isn’t cheap. 

You can look to Vine for the gold standard of a successful video content platform: The (typically low-rent) six-second clips are short, allowing them to be addictively clever or random. But because they’re short, there’s no room for ads to run, leaving Vine without a revenue model and, eventually, a shutdown from its parent company Twitter.

Currently, social media platforms are investing a ton into video (like Facebook’s rumored one-billion-dollar video budget) and avoiding the need for cheap content in the process. But when the other shoe drops, video is going to have to stabilize into a sustainable type of content platform, and it’s going to have to get a lot more simple, a lot cheaper, or a lot more exploitative of its user base to do that. Here’s hoping we don’t get all three.

Read more about the trials of video content here at TechCo.

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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