An Ethnography: The ‘Talking Head’ Video as a Form of Text

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An Ethnography: The ‘Talking Head’ Video as a Form of Text

This paper builds upon my last paper for this class ‘My Experiment’ which took the form of a glog-and-video combination that tested out how my own personal learning as well as the learning of my audience is affected by the medium through which I presented my paper. Conversations were sparked after I published this paper to the class’ Serendip site and this paper is part, my own ‘lived experience’ and observations of user behaviours and part analysis of processing and learning from the ‘talking head’ videos that have grown in popularity over the video-sharing website, YouTube.

I had initially thought that it would be appropriate to write this ‘paper’ in the form of different videos. I took inspiration from the experimental videobook, ‘Learning From Youtube’, published by Vectors and wanted to create a paper that was similar to it in form. However, my research and thoughts about the topic have led me to present this paper in the traditional form – typed up, double-spaced and with one-inch margins. I will explain this later.
1. The Video Genre and the Problems With Search Engines

It occurred to me that although I took it for granted that I knew what a talking head video was, most people have not encountered this term. In essence, a talking head video is one where the subject of the video stands in front of a camera and simply talks about their chosen subject. This type of video is seen all over YouTube as it is simple to create. An ‘author’ simply has to think of something to say, stand in front of a camera and talk about their subject. Uploading this video to YouTube is simple and that is why talking head videos have spread out all over the site.

What is not simple about this type of video is the fact that there is no way on YouTube to find them when you search for them. In fact, I tried typing the words ‘talking head videos’ into the YouTube search bar. The hits that I got were not at all what I was looking for. For this paper, it was problematic which was why I resorted to using the videos that I used. This revealed a problem with indexing all the different types of videos – unlike a traditional library where the books are organized by a system that is recognized throughout the globe, YouTube videos do not seem to have any sort of organization to them. The only things that they seem to have in order to organize them are the tags that the user assigns to them. This method is unreliable as it entirely subjective and dependent on the users themselves. There is no universal method and thus, frustrating when you want to find a particular type of video.  The videos that I have chosen for this paper are a reflection of this. Given the difficulties in finding talking head videos, I have had to settle for the ones that I have managed to find.

However, that is not to say that it is an entirely lost cause. We have to remember that the systems that we have in place now to universally organize say, non-fiction books through the Dewey system, have taken a long time to establish. Given that YouTube has only been around since 2005, there really hasn’t been the opportunity to find concrete methods to organize things. However, there are some ways in which this is happening such as the different ‘labels’ such as music, shows, movies etc. on the YouTube homepage but these are not particularly effective because the categories themselves have not been firmly established.

2. Gaining Knowledge From Videos and the Video Reply Function
In the Phaedrus, Plato made the claim that ‘Knowledge only exists in human interaction’ and from my own personal frame of reference, this holds true. Though Plato used this argument in relation to written texts and its impact on human interactions, I still feel that it is essential to have conversations about what you have read in order to fully understand the information that has been passed down. This is why we have class discussions about readings, we sit down and talk about the news articles and the like together and we are compelled to just talk to each other, be it face-to-face or through a new form of technology. My question in relation to Plato’s claim is whether or not the talking head video can act as a form of human interaction.

On YouTube, there is the option of creating a ‘video reply’, which allows a user to upload a video in response to another. In a sense, this creates the opportunity for dialogue – any user can respond to any video they happen to watch. I set out to find an example of this to use for my research and discovered many problems with calling ‘video replies’ a form of interaction. I managed to find a talking head video through the browse option on the top of the webpage and clicked on the video with the screenshot that looked most like the genre of YouTube video that I was thinking of looking at. (More on the genre and indexicality of this type of video later.) The video was called ‘Texting Etiquette’ by the user, LuanLegacy, who is described by as ‘The sassiest motherfucking, gay YouTube personality under 18’. ‘Texting Etiquette’ revealed LuanLegacy’s irritations with certain types of text messages that he received and how texters should be more considerate and thoughtful about what they typed into their phones. In response to this video, another user, Unknown605 posted a video response, ‘How To: Comeback ‘K’’ where he does the same thing but looks primarily at the text messages he receives that only contain the letter ‘k’. As I watched these videos, I attempted to find out whether or not dialogue was formed by the two participants in this ‘video exchange’.

My observations revealed that the ‘video reply’ did not really form a sense of dialogism despite the involvement of two participants. In fact, I was confused as to how Unknown605’s video was supposed to be a ‘response’ to LuanLegacy’s. The ‘conversation’ that the video reply could hypothetically facilitate was not really happening as neither of the participants in the exchange truly answered each other’s questions or commented on each other’s points. Each video seemed one sided with each participant expressing only his own thoughts and not taking into account the points of the other person. The human interaction that Plato speaks about is not like this at all. Rather, the interaction should be interactive with all participants within the conversation feeding off each other’s responses. I wondered whether or not this was the case for all video responses.  

I then looked at the music video for Lady Gaga’s official music video for ‘Born This Way’ to look for responses that could potentially show the ‘video response’ function of YouTube in a way that revealed a sense of conversation. However, all I found were people creating parodies of the video or just random and completely irrelevant videos that were guised as a ‘reply’. Looking through the videos, it occurred to me that the reason why these videos were being pegged as ‘replies’ ‘Born This Way’ is because of the exposure that these videos would gain by being associated with such a popular video with millions of hits. Thus, this revealed that the opportunities to create dialogues and in turn, gain knowledge through the ‘video reply’ function are not being fully used and instead, the ‘reply’ function was being used instead to market and popularize other videos.

But what if the potential to create dialogue through videos was used? What if Anne Dalke had replied to my glog-and-video paper on Serendip through a video? I still doubt the potential to create a conversation here. To reply to a talking head video, one has to create an entirely new video and then explain their thoughts. The ‘conversation’ would not be a ‘conversation’ at all – it would be a series of monologues in which the participants talked at each other. Rather boring, in my opinion, and therefore not conducive to understanding and gaining knowledge.

An interesting factor to consider though is the possibility of adding comments to YouTube videos in order to gain more information.  Though these comments do not necessarily take the form of a video, I think of them as akin to the marginal space that is provided in written texts to facilitate dialogue between the text and the reader. I wondered whether the comment section of YouTube videos revealed interactions that were evidence of gaining knowledge in Plato’s terms.

Looking back to LuanLegacy’s ‘Texting Etiquette’, I found that the comments, while relevant to the video, did nothing to further discussion of the points raised in the video. Instead, the comments were a mix of direct quotes from the video, personal experiences that aligned with LuanLegacy’s and short, personal opinions such as ‘lmao’ (laughing my ass off). Again, though the comment space on talking head videos have the potential to spark conversations, they do not happen because users don’t use the space in this fashion.
Talking head videos seem to allow for dialogues to form and knowledge to be gained but as my exploration of YouTube has revealed, this is not necessarily the case. However, as I have pointed out, there is the potential for them to be more dialogic – users just need to know how to make this happen. Given that this technology is new, there is the potential that dialogism between different users could happen in the future once they realize that comments such as ‘lmao’ are irrelevant and not particularly helpful.
3. Non-Indexing and Attention in Talking Head Videos

An interesting point that Anne Dalke made in response to my glog-and-video paper was that the video, as a text, had the limitation of lacking the ability to be indexed and was non-browsable.  Unlike written text, a user cannot jump through the text to find relevant points and finding certain points as well as marking them in a video is difficult. In response to this, Ann Dixon, Serendip’s webmaster, replied that perhaps this non-browsability and non-indexicality demanded the full attention of the audience. However, I do not feel as if this is the case.

In her essay, “How We Read”, Katherine Hayles argues that the way in which we currently read is changing. At this particular point in time, the frequency of users that hyper read text is increasing and this poses a challenge to the talking head video as a form of text. As it is difficult to index videos, viewers who hyper read will find it impossible to concentrate on just the video that is playing in front of them and thus, they will not be able to retain as much information as they could if it was in the written text form. Additionally, there are difficulties in watching talking head videos on the Internet as usually, any given user has multiple open windows at any given time. Though this allows a user to read across several texts, the attention given to and the information that acquired from the talking head video is again, diminished.

My own personal experience reflects this. In an attempt to look at media literacy, I found a video of Henry Jenkins (not the one I used in my last paper) entitled ‘Henry Jenkins Interview Short’. The video was 9 minutes and 55 seconds long and shot in one simple take. Jenkins is pictured surrounded by shelves of books and videos as he talks about media convergence, mass collaboration and participatory culture. I’ll be honest and say that I personally did not sit through the entire video as it was simply too boring. It wasn’t boring in terms of the subject material but it was boring visually. A talking head video is simply what its name implies – there is nothing there but a head that talks. This isn’t particularly engaging and therefore, a user, such as myself, is easily bored and distracted. Additionally, as Hayles suggested in her piece, I had a number of different windows open at the time. As the video progressed, I was more inclined to check out the other windows and tabs that were open at the same time as I was watching the video. Unless I had closed all my other windows before watching this video, the chances of shifting my attention entirely to Henry Jenkins were close to nil. In fact, even if I had closed my other windows, I highly doubt that I would have been able to fully concentrate on the video as it did not demand enough of my attention.

In addition to the distraction that other open windows provide, there are distractions in the form of other links on the webpage that the video is being played on. In most of my observations of people who watched YouTube videos, a majority did not chose the full screen option and instead, watched the video in the smaller form. A particular example comes to mind. I observed a group of Bryn Mawr students watching another one of LuanLegacy’s videos, ‘You Don’t Need a Boyfriend to Feel Good’ as they waited for another friend to come over. They did not use the ‘full screen’ function as ‘…it will take forever to load!’. By watching the video in this smaller format, they were exposed to the possibility of clicking other links on the YouTube page such as the other videos listed in ‘Suggestions’ or ‘Video Responses’ among countless other links on the page.

In an article published in Wired magazine, Nicholas Carr describes the Internet as an ‘interruption system’ because it throws the audience countless different kinds of media simultaneously and this does not allow for users to fully engage with what is appearing on their screen. Watching a talking head video is a firm example of this lack of engagement.  A reader is not able to divide up their attention between the video, the different links that exist on the page of the video and the number of different windows that they have open.

4. Visual Information and the Difficulty of Creating a Persona
Talking head videos also contain visual information that the reader both subconsciously and consciously picks up on. Appearance is of great importance in these types of videos as the audience’s attention is firmly rooted in what they see on screen. In LuanLegacy’s videos, the audience is aware of his gender presentation, sexual orientation, ethnicity and the country that he is from through the way he dresses, his accent and way of speech and his actions. This limits his audience, as viewers will judge his appearance before he even talks.

In the video that the Bryn Mawr students were watching, LuanLegacy talks about why it isn’t important for girls to feel as though they need boyfriends. I asked one of the girls about her opinion and she said ‘He makes some really good points… I just don’t think that I can take him seriously though because he’s just so funny… I love gay men!”. Her response reveals that LuanLegacy can make some insightful points but given the way he presents himself, these points fall flat on his viewers as their focus is turned to his appearance. Furthermore, his presentation of himself adds to the stereotype of gay men as being ‘fun’ and almost pet-like. This is not representative of the gay community yet this is what my informant pictures in her head when asked to think of what a gay man is like.

I feel that this is an interesting spin on the primary assumption of most that the Internet provides a space where you can alter your identity very easily. While this is the case in chatrooms, the talking head video form makes this difficult and even resists the possibility of altering the creator of the text’s identity. This falls in line with Ann Dixon’s claims that the talking head video forces the creator to take on the first person narrative and that the text is grounded in an embodied voice and image. It is difficult for someone creating a talking head video to change their appearance to an extent that they are completely different from who they appear to be online.

This is not to say that the creators of talking head videos do not have the ability to form a persona through which they can convey whatever it is they are trying to show in their video. In my case, I put on a blazer and decent shirt in order to film the video for my last paper. This is a persona that I created because I wanted my viewers to take me seriously. I could have easily done the video in my pajamas. What I could not have changed though, is my gender presentation or my ethnicity. These markers remain constant regardless of the type of video that I create or the clothes I chose to wear.

What is even more interesting is that the authors of written text can easily disguise the aspects of their own personalities that talking head videos do not allow for through narrative personas and other literary devices. An example of this is Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’. When it was originally published, Plath used the pen name Victoria Lucas to hide her own identity. Furthermore, the protagonist’s struggle with mental illness is said to be a reflection of Plath’s own though the names have been changed and factual nature of certain events is questionable. The persona that is created in the novel has been fashioned, in part, by imagination and Plath has managed to get away with it. Talking head videos are grounded by the physical appearance of the speaker and even if what the speaker is saying could potentially be false or even imagined, their physical presence is still seen. Moreover, if LuanLegacy was to produce a video under another username (like Plath published under Victoria Lucas), no one who knew him from his previous videos would be convinced that it wasn’t him unless he did something to drastically (I’m thinking plastic surgery) altered his appearance.

5. Potential Changes to the Talking Head Video
Though I have written a lot about the limitations of the talking head video format as a form of text, I do believe that it can become a viable means of conveying information and allowing a reader to gain knowledge. Firstly, the videos themselves could become much more dialogic. While I wrote about how the videos seemed one-sided (i.e. one user would create a video and another would ‘reply’ and create a response), I feel as though the conversation can continue and more videos could be made. Though it may seem as though each person is still doing a monologue, the multiple responses could potentially create ‘interaction’ at deeper levels.

The talking head videos could also be shown on blank web pages where there are no extraneous links to distract the audience. This will keep at least a little bit more attention on the video itself. It is impossible to keep track of how many windows a person has open at any given time but by removing other links, the attention that is given to a video is maximized.

The actual format of the video can be changed as well. With the emergence of editing software that makes it much easier to create videos, creators of talking head videos should be able to edit out irrelevant parts in their videos as well as play around with the visual aspect of them as well. Potential ways they could do this are changing the camera angle, including other media (such as pictures or even videos to further explain their points) etc. This would drastically change the talking head genre but would allow for these videos to capture more attention from their viewers.

Lastly, I feel as though there are ways in which these videos can be indexed. As I have mentioned before, YouTube has already started to create categories and allowed for users to ‘tag’ their videos. The next step here is to further refine their definitions of categories as well as potentially create a unified method of ‘tagging’. (Quite like our methods of citation). With these processes in place, indexing thousands of videos and retrieving them would be a much easier task. Furthermore, in terms of the video itself, we tend to think of it as this one, giant chunk of information. In reality, the videos have time codes. These time codes, in addition to tagging, could  potentially be a method to make these types of videos more browseable and additionally, more easily indexed.

6. Why A Traditional Paper?
The question of why I wrote a traditional paper rather than create a ‘multi-media’ event is still unanswered. My answer is simple: written text is still, in my opinion, the best way to convey information in an organized, indexable manner through which my readers are able to read in a way that is comfortable to them. Additionally, by writing text, I am able to keep my identity ‘hidden’ and my audience’s opinions of my paper are limited to what they read and not dependent on my appearance. The last reason is also a practical one. I have a throat infection and could have possibly spoken the equivalent of 12 - page paper without hacking out a lung. Therefore, this was the best way that I could present information in a way that would be coherent.

However, I’m not quite sure that this will be the case in the next few years. With my suggestions, the talking head video could potentially be able to fulfill the requirements that I had that led me to write a traditional paper. Additionally, with increased media literacy, users will be more comfortable with the text and therefore, will have the skills in order to obtain information from them in the most effective way. So will the talking head video ever manage to become a viable way of obtaining information and as a result, knowledge? Only time can tell.

References Used:
Hayles, K. How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine. Essay from upcoming book.
Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by Paul Wooruff. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company Inc.
WEBSITES - ‘The Bell Jar’ Quotes, Sylvia Plath’s Famously Controversial Novel. (Lombardi, E).
(Accessed 9 May 2011)
Urban Dictionary -“Luan Legacy”.  August 27 2010.
(Accessed 9 May 2011)
Wired Magazine - Author Nicholas Carr: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brain. (Carr, N.) May 24 2010.
(Accessed 9 May 2011)
YouTube -“Texting Etiquette” (LuanLegacy). May 7 2011.
(Accessed 8 May 2011)
YouTube. -“How To: Comeback ‘k’. (With a little EpicMealTime)”. (Unknown605). May 5 2011.
(Accessed 9 May 2011)
YouTube. “Lady Gaga – Born This Way”. (LadyGagaVevo). February 27 2011.
(Accessed 9 May 2011)
YouTube -“French This Way”. (PetitMonstre78). May 8 2011.
(Accessed 9 May 2011)
YouTube -“Henry Jenkins Interview Short”. (ZakOneTwoThree). July 1 2011.
(Accessed 9 May 2011)
YouTube -“You Don’t Need A Boyfriend To Feel Good”. (LuanLegacy). January 9 2011.
(Accessed 9 May 2011)



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