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The Rise of Video Essays

The daunting five-paragraph essays assigned in secondary school have created a sense of dread amongst most students, as they engage with the challenge of organizing their ideas and effectively guiding a reader through their arguments. In fact, many face the dilemma of articulating and knowing what they want to say. Yet, what has become the burden of both secondary and higher education students has softened in its perception by reason of the rise in video essays, primarily published and distributed on YouTube. Video essays present several advantages compared to traditional essays. There is undeniable potential for video essays to circulate important information and allow for ways to express critical thought. Though the two types of essays resemble one another in structure and narrative, the multimodal characteristics of a video essay establish it as a new way of composing and presenting the contents as opposed to a traditional essay.

Figure 1: Recording and filming of a digital essay or commentary. UOL TAB. Silveira, E. 2019.

Fundamentally, every essay contains three fundamental parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. The body has a sequence of ideas with transitions and then unites and restates the main message (or thesis) at the end. An argument cannot be told effectively without an established definition and explanation for the reason an argument is made. After all, readers, viewers, or listeners first need to be interested in the main idea before spending their attention capital. Doug Specht (2019), a Director of Teaching and Learning, School of Media and Communications at the University of Westminster, also emphasizes the need for essays, both written and visual, to remain similar in structure and in how they are outlined: “You will still need to define the thesis, the main point of the argument. You will still need to plan the shape of your argument, and the essay shapes can be adapted to audio or visual essays too” (p. 87) Afterall, if a film, YouTube video, essay, novel, and the like do not have a solid purpose for existing, it does not help nor impact the audience.

Additionally, these essential messaging components exist in any medium with a narrative or story, but it must be pointed out that the terms narrative and story have slightly different definitions. According to Merriam Webster, a story is “An account of incidents or events” (2022b), and a narrative is “A way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values” (2022a). Clearly, a story, whether true or fictional, gives a general description of what is happening. Conversely, a narrative is a way in which that description is told. Therefore, written or visual essays do not merely recall connected events, but rather develop a solid thesis supported by relevant research. An effective narrative runs like a thread throughout the essay to keep the readers linear with the argument and its supporting points. Traditional essays achieve narrative through rhetorical strategies and an author's written persona and tone. Video essays use essay content and adapt it to several cinematic techniques similar to documentaries, but on a much smaller scale, especially for novices with low budgets.

Before any writing, filming, or recording of any kind can take place, an outline should be established to materialize the jumbled flow of ideas and map them into a cohesive narrative. One should have a performative approach to outlining video essays because, unlike written essays, the work must be spoken aloud accompanied by other visual effects. Süleyman Kıvanç Türkgeldi (2021), an Assistant Professor specializing in Communication and Performance and Visual Arts at Cukurova University, calls video essays themselves performative research:

These forms of expression belong to a plane that cannot be expressed with numerical data but transmitted through symbolic data (moving / still image, sound, and music forms, etc.) outside the boundaries of language (p. 821).

Thus, a divergence in how to approach a traditional and video essay becomes clearer, and the advantages of video essays are shifting how people entertainingly receive information.

Figure 2: Media Temple 2. Vogel, J. 2020.

One major advantage of video essays is that their multimodality draws in larger audiences. There is more opportunity for creative expression in the way the author presents research. Samantha Hines, a head librarian at Missoula College at the University of Montana, wrote an article on multimodal literacy and accepted the following definition offered by Sean Cordes: “Multimodal literacy can be said to have a cultural literacy component that goes beyond the established information literacy standards” (as cited in Hines, 2014, p. 14). The prefix “multi” already predisposes the multitude of ways or “modes” of information and distribution and how it contributes to the literacy skills of the audience. Those who struggle to conceptualize and comprehend traditional text greatly benefit from other modalities such as pictures, audio, and video effects.

In addition to the medium, one cannot discount the power of the creator in video essays and the relationship with the viewer. Hines (2014) highlights social media’s role in instantly distributing video essays at a faster rate than traditional ones: “Users need to focus on more than who created content, but also who passed it along and how they interacted with or perhaps even altered it” (p. 14). An audience of a video essay may come across a video essay it through YouTube recommendations or online communities that share that video. The influence of their video essays is perpetuated by a coalesced community surrounding a video essayist because of a seemingly closer relationship that the viewers have with the author. There is a direct dialogue with an audience via comment sections and forums that traditional essays do not have. J. Degenhard, an analyst covering key market indicators for Statista, reported that in 2021 approximately 2,240.03 million users spent time on YouTube (2021). While not every video will hit an algorithm that spreads it to millions of these users, the accessibility and ease of sharing make content much more promising.

Figure 3: UOL TAB. Silveira, E. 2019.

Equally important, the added visual aids and moving motions of the video essay have long appealed to the human need for expression through pictures. The earliest depictions of written language were through pictographs. Additionally, Ruth M. Van Dyk (2006), a professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, recalls another example of visual media in archeology:

In archeology, as in any discipline, visual representations are integral to the production of knowledge and scholarly authority. The map, for example, is perhaps the most singularly useful item in any site report (p. 370).

It could be said that essays are a kind of map that directs the reader through the author, director, or presenter’s inner thoughts and arguments. In congruence with communities surrounding a particular creator of video essays, one can make quite a significant impact on the audience's own perception or education of an issue or topic through video essays. Jacquelyn S. Kibbey (2011), a professor at UNY Oswego Graduate Studies, argued visual literacy continues to be a desirable way to educate people in our increasingly multimedia world:

Visual literacy teaches us how to see, communicate, and understand through visual means. Advertisers and marketers understand how to reach their audience far better than educators. Why shouldn’t teachers enlist those same methods? (p. 51).
Figure 4: Wifi Society. Hamazaki, K. 2018.

Online essayists on social media can have quite an influence. Thus, educators and those who are knowledgeable in certain areas should not underestimate the sway of video essays.

Furthermore, the ways of expression consistently change within new technologies. Writers learning other ways to adapt their craft to suit other performance mediums has existed as long as humans performed plays and gave public speeches. Therefore, writers learning how to hone their craft and adapt it to other media is not new. In Sarah Levine and Johanna (Jones) Franzel’s (2015) discussions on teaching how to write scripts for radio is explored. In fact, they state that:

When radio audiences tune in to listen to a story, they have no pictures to look at and no written text to track. So when students write for radio, they must create specific, concrete images to paint a picture, strong verbs to communicate action … because they are speaking their ideas aloud, they must attend more carefully to whether their words actually make sense (p. 21).

Video essays have the advantage of video and pictures, whereas radio does not. However, a solid narration is still essential for most video essays, whether it’s a voice-over or the creators film themselves physically. Nevertheless, writers must compose a script that will sound intelligent but is not afraid to deviate from an academic tone and use humor and colloquialisms instead. Users on social media desire information and education, but many users also appreciate some personal examples from the essayist or offhanded remarks on the content before returning to the main point.

Moreover, video essays produced on YouTube not only bring a unique method of expressing ideas, but the topics can cover a variety of relevant, pop-culture topics that one may not see in traditional academia. While some video essays may provide analysis of highly academic subjects, most video essays can also cover recent national or international news and trending discourse in niche communities on social platforms. These examples are then analyzed or commented on through critical lenses related to economics, history, race, sociology, gender, and more. Patricia G. Lange (2019), an anthropologist and associate professor of critical studies at the California College of the Arts, describes the participative atmosphere of YouTube: “Revisions to the scholarly record show that people engaging with mass media did not simply absorb media messages without active interpretations” (p. 37). And this engagement is a good thing because even participation in seemingly silly topics can motivate everyone to critically analyze the information they receive. YouTube’s accessibility allows anyone to produce a video essay, including those without any higher education background. Even professionals in various fields now utilize the platform to produce intriguing content.

Figure 5: Microsoft x Surface. Franchi, M. 2020.

In the end, video essays are another method of performance, and can offer quite insightful perspectives in an entertaining method. Ric Allsopp (1999), a current guest Professor in the MA SODA program at the Inter-University Centre for Dance, identified digital media’s influence on performance art:

Whatever the ambivalent indications of digital media, writing will certainly continue to develop as a technological medium, and as such, as performance-performance (in whatever form) will continue to be an increasingly complex interaction of signifying systems (p.76).

In other words, writing shapes the performance, and technology grants diverse manners in which to perform. The video essay, as stated previously by Süleyman Kıvanç Türkgeldi, is the performance of research, brought to life not only through visual effects but even through the persona put forth by the digital essayist.

Bibliographical References

Allsopp, R. (1999). Performance Writing. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 21(1), 76–80.

Degenhard, J. (2021). Youtube users in the World 2017–2025. Statista.

Hines, S. (2014). Multimodal literacy and why it matters: a brief overview. Against the Grain, 26(4), 14–16.

Kibbey, J. S. (2011). Chapter four: media literacy and social justice in a visual world. Counterpoints, 403, 50–61.

Lange, P. G. (2019). Youtube initiation: participating through a camera. in thanks for watching: an anthropological study of video sharing on youtube (pp. 32–68). University Press of Colorado.

Levine, S., & Franzel, J. (Jones). (2015). Teaching Writing with Radio. The English Journal, 104(5), 21–29.

Specht, D. (2019). Writing: getting started. In The Media and Communications Study Skills Student Guide (pp. 69–88). University of Westminster Press.

Türkgeldi̇, S. (2021). Thinking of video essays as a performative research with a new concept: transimage. SineFilozofi, 812–825.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2022). narrative.,style%20the%20novel’s%20narrative%20structure

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2022b). story.

Van Dyke, R. M. (2006). Seeing the past: visual media in archaeology. American Anthropologist, 108(2), 370–375.

Visual References

Figure 1: Silveira, E. (2019). UOL TAB [Illustration]. Behance.

Figure 2: Vogel, J. (2020). Media Temple 2 [Illustration]. Behance.

Figure 3: Silveira, E. (2019). UOL TAB [Illustration]. Behance.

Figure 4: Hamazaki, K. (2018). Wifi Society [Illustration]. Behance.

Figure 5: Franchi, M. (2020). Microsoft x Surface [Illustration]. Behance.


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