READ MORE: The video essay boom (Vox)
Video essays are thriving in the TikTok era, even while platforms like YouTube are pivoting to promote short-form content. According to Vox, their popularity reflects our desire for more nuanced content online.
Video essays have been around for a decade or more on YouTube. Since 2012, when the platform began to prioritize watch-time over views, the genre has flourished.
Today, there are video essays devoted to virtually any topic you can think of, ranging anywhere from about 10 minutes to upward of an hour.
“Video essays are a form that has lent itself particularly well to pop culture because of its analytical nature,” Madeline Buxton, the culture and trends manager at YouTube, tells Vox. “We’re starting to see more creators using video essays to comment on growing trends across social media. They’re serving as sort of real-time internet historians by helping viewers understand not just what is a trend, but the larger cultural context of something.”
To Vox writer Terry Nguyen, what seems especially relevant is how the video essay is becoming repackaged, as long-form video creators find a home on platforms besides YouTube. This has played out concurrently with the pandemic-era shift toward short-form video, with Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube respectively launching Reels, Spotlight, and Shorts to compete against TikTok.
Yet audiences have not been deterred from watching lengthy videos on TikTok either. Emerging video essayists aren’t shying away from length or nuance, even while using TikTok or Reels as a supplement to grow their online following, Nguyen finds.
She points to the growth of “creator economy” crowdfunding tools, especially during the pandemic, that have allowed video essayists to take longer breaks between uploads while retaining their production quality.
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YouTube creator Tiffany Ferguson admits to feeling some pressure from audiences to make her videos longer.
“I’ve seen comments, both on my own videos and those I watch, where fans are like, ‘Yes, you’re feeding us,’ when it comes to longer videos, especially the hour to two-hour ones. In a way, the mentality seems to be: The longer the better.”
In a Medium post, “We Live in the Golden Age of Video Essays,” blogger A. Khaled remarked that viewers were “willing to indulge user-generated content that is as long as a multi-million dollar cinematic production by a major Hollywood studio” — a notion that seemed improbable just a few years ago, even to the most popular video essayists. To creators, this hunger for well-edited, long-form video is unprecedented and uniquely suited to pandemic times.
Last month, the YouTube channel Folding Ideas published a two-hour video essay on “the problem with NFTs,” which has garnered more than 6.4 million views to date.
Hour-plus-long videos can be hits, depending on the creator, the subject matter, the production quality, and the audience base that the content attracts. There will always be an early drop-off point with some viewers, who make it roughly two to five minutes into a video essay.
“About half of my viewers watch up to the halfway point, and a smaller group finishes the entire video,” Ferguson said. “It’s just how YouTube is. If your video is longer than two minutes, I think you’re going to see that drop-off regardless if it’s for a video that’s 15 or 60 minutes long.”
Some video essayists have experimented with shorter content as a topic testing ground for longer videos or as a discovery tool to reach new audiences, whether it be on the same platform (like Shorts) or an entirely different one (like TikTok).
The growth of shorts, according to Buxton, has given rise to this class of “hybrid creators,” who alternate between short- and long-form content. They can also be a starting point for new creators, who are not yet comfortable with scripting a 30-minute video.
“It’s common for TikTokers to tease a multi-part video to gain followers,” Nguyen reports. “Many have attempted to direct viewers to their YouTube channel and other platforms for longer content. On the contrary, it’s in TikTok’s best interests to retain creators — and therefore viewers — on the app.”
In late February, TikTok announced plans to extend its maximum video length from three minutes to 10 minutes, more than tripling a video’s run-time possibility.
Last October, Spotify introduced “video podcasts,” which allows users the option of toggling between actively watching a podcast or traditionally listening to one.
What’s interesting about the video podcast, Nguyen suggests, is how Spotify is positioning itself as an interchangeable, if not more intimate, alternative to a pure audio podcast: “The video essay, then, appears to occupy a middle ground between podcast and traditional video by making use of these key elements. For creators, the boundaries are no longer so easy to define,” she writes.
The video essay is not a static format, and its development is heavily shaped by platforms, which play a crucial role in algorithmically determining how such content is received and promoted. Some of these changes are reflective of cultural shifts, too.
That’s because the basic premise of the video essay — whether the video is a mini-explainer or explores a 40-minute hypothesis — requires the creator to, at the very least, do their research. This often leads to personal disclaimers and summaries of alternative opinions or perspectives, which is very different from the more self-centered “reaction videos” and “story time” clickbait side of YouTube.
“The things I’m talking about are bigger than me. I recognize the limitations of my own experience,” Ferguson reports. “Once I started talking about intersections of race, gender, sexuality — so many experiences that were different from my own — I couldn’t just share my own narrow, straight, white woman perspective. I have to provide context.”
This is a positive shift, Nguyen concludes. “A video essay, in a way, encourages us to engage in good faith with ideas that we might not typically entertain or think of ourselves.”