‘Signals: How Video Transformed the World’ is now on exhibition at the MoMA through Jul 8. I was excited to be at the preview this past weekend, revisiting works from some of my favorite artists like Nam June Paik, and especially getting access to Paik’s long-unavailable essays from the Smithsonian Art Museum’s NJP Archive and other international publications.
Overall, I can’t say I fully enjoyed the exhibition — let’s just say video and broadcasting as art is a little too advanced for me — but it was an intriguing history lesson about experiments on visual communication and what video/broadcasting could have looked like before it took its current form in our lives today.
My biggest takeaway was perhaps a more formal appreciation of video as a medium. In the world of consumer brands and marketing, conversations are mostly centered around video’s “function” (what can video do for brands), and hardly ever about video’s “form” (what about video enables it to be so impactful). While it might not concern the vast majority of people, I find it important to separate the two when possible, in the spirit of learning and figuring out how things work.
In the particular case of viral videos (in direct reference to meme culture and our current obsession over TikTok), marketers have correctly identified something fascinating about the function of visual storytelling: it’s relatable, and when done correctly, highly viral. I think it does this by creating a shared visual culture and language among a previously fragmented community that had no space for socialization, meaning a process through which a community discovers or creates a shared identity, often through shared space, whether physical or virtual.
As an example of this, I think about Subtle Asian Traits (not exclusively videos, but illustrates the point). For those of you who don’t know, it’s a Facebook group that grew rapidly in size over the past ~5 years or so, where Asian Americans gathered to share memes about the Asian American experience. Many sub-communities formed as a result of its popularity, most prominently Subtle Asian Dating, where many of my friends were “auctioned” (had a very public “sales pitch” created for them by friends) in a plea for love and romance.
Very broadly speaking, I would argue that the Asian American community prior to SAT had a relatively fragmented identity compared to some other ethnic minority groups in the US. There is hardly an Asian American canon in any of the arts, i.e. no music that everyone listened to growing up, no movies that everyone watched growing up, no literature that everyone read growing up, as it relates to the Asian American identity and the immigrant experience. But, that isn’t to say there aren’t similarities among the Asian American diaspora — just no space for conversations about these shared experiences to germinate in a diaspora-wide manner.
This was until SAT, and many other communities during this era came along and provided this space online. Given this context, you may relate to the fact that while humor and memes certainly contributed to its discovery and growth in its most viral moments, or helped in starting difficult conversations, it wasn’t the primary reason why people gravitated towards SAT. Neither was that the main reason for their success, in my opinion. It was, instead, the socialization of a fragmented community that brought to light certain experiences that many thought only existed in isolation to their upbringing, but were actually true to a community’s collective experience.
What I’ll conclude with is the thought that many brands sacrifice important opportunities for education and community building by trading depth of conversation for humor, in hopes of going viral quickly. On the niche corners of TikTok, you’ll find impressive thought leaders creating predominantly long-form content, with rapidly growing platforms. Some talk about art, or fashion, while others may be sharing about chronic conditions. Their content is more often than not serious topics and is perhaps closer to video essays or verbal letters to their community, more than they are silly and goofy. Yet, despite being seemingly counter-intuitive to the “short videos for genz’s short attention span” narrative, their videos still achieve virality, because of community.
Especially for brands embarking on more ambitious “culture shifts” and connecting previously underserved or fragmented communities, I would highly recommend exploring long-form content, diversifying content strategy to include a mixture of long and short-form content, and being intentional about socializing your community, meaning providing space to discover or create a shared identity.
I'm headed to Expo West! Let me know if you will be around and we can plan to meet up. Feel free to reply directly here, or DM me on Twitter.
Enjoy this newsletter?
- 💌 Forward to a friend, sharing is caring!
- 📥 Replies go straight to my inbox, send me feedback or say hello :)