The Future of Online Video Is Social

Apr 21, 2016

When I was in high school in the early 2000s, YouTube didn't exist yet. What did exist was this site known as Albino Black Sheep. And my high school friends and I loved it. Our parents thought it was a bad influence because the site hosted many videos with swear words and sexual overtones. But none of that ended up sticking with me all these years later. Instead, all I can remember are a few select videos like "End of Ze World" and "Schfifty Five," which made their way around my school so quickly I knew that at my 10-year reunion, I'd be able to quote a line from one of them and everyone would burst into laughter.

Those Albino Black Sheep clips were my earliest exposure to viral videos. For as long as I've been enjoying online video, I've noticed its intimate connection to virality. Whether it's "Charlie Bit My Finger," "The Sneezing Panda Baby," or "Gangnam Style," humans simply can't resist showing a great clip to their loved ones. But in reality, the driving power behind all those viral videos being spread around the world isn't some magic formula for becoming popular. What really makes videos viral is the people recommending them through good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Online, we call this social sharing.

In this sense, online video has, and always will be, an inherently social form of entertainment. This makes sense if you think about it; for decades, people have been congregating in churches, town halls, theaters, and now their own homes to watch moving pictures (better known as movies). Granted, we movie-goers don't tend to interact with each other during films. But the very fact that many of us are willing to go out in public--or sit down with friends and family in our own homes--to watch films says something about the way we prefer to enjoy the movie-watching experience.

The ironic thing is most people don't think about online video as being very social. For the most part, we watch YouTube videos on our own, usually when we're taking our lunch breaks, running errands, or just plain looking for something to keep us from being bored. Yet it'd be nearly impossible to find one internet user who regularly watches videos and who also hasn't recommended a clip to a friend. In addition to social sharing habits, video viewers also tend to leave comments on their favorite clips, which can result in other people responding to them and back and forth. And let's not forget the massive (though sometimes temporary) impact some videos have had on shaping modern cultural trends and phenomenons. Remember the "Harlem Shake?" Yeah, I thought so.

Online video, then, cannot be separated from its social nature. For this reason, many companies have started paying more attention to the way internet users like to experience online video. The video network Fullscreen, for example, is planning to heavily integrate social features into its upcoming subscription service. On that platform, users will be able to chat with other fans about their favorite content, make GIFs and screencaps, and more. These subscribers will even be able to share their self-created content onto other social networks, like Facebook or Pinterest.

While Fullscreen is one of the more well-known companies working to connect the dots between social and video, it's certainly not the first one to do so. Online video startup hasn't been around very long, but since its inception, the company has used A.I. technology to track the way internet users respond to online video. For example, Unreel knows if a video viewer leaves a comment on a YouTube clip about how much they love the shirt the vlogger was wearing at the 2:13 mark. This means loads of potential for content creators, brands, networks, and agencies who can use this social data to create content and merchandise their audiences want. As such, Unreel recently launched the video distribution platform to equip creators with powerful social data and content delivery options. (Full disclaimer: I work as a freelance PR and communications consultant for Unreel.)

Fullscreen and Unreel both see the certain link between online video and social sharing, and have accordingly acted on that opportunity to enhance their brands. Soon, other companies will start to take notice, and we'll end up with even more ways to interact with videos, share them, and even affect their production. "Social video" will no longer be defined simply as clips which are uploaded to social media platforms. And at that point, I'll look back on my Albino-Black-Sheep-watching days as the beginning of a long, intricate relationship between video and social, which will only continue to grow for years to come.

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