Saturday, June 28th, 2008
After entertaining myself for a good half hour watching demos of the Digitech Harmonizer guitar pedal on YouTube, I started to wonder why I even bother with the site in the first place. Of course, suggesting YouTube is worthless is just about as inane as calling a fist pound a “Terrorist Fist Jab”, and furthermore I keep returning to the site, so there must be something there to attract me and millions of other visitors.
After examining my own behavior, the thing I’m drawn to is this:
Related videos. You’ve experienced it too, and it’s not unique to YouTube. Wikipedia is infamous for ensnaring people for hours as they open dozens of tabs by clicking on inline hyperlinks to related articles. I’m speaking from experience here. Hours.
There are a number of different terms for this state of endless, almost mindless browsing, but the term I like is “loop”. It’s easy to add a qualifier noun (YouTube loop, Wikipedia loop, Urban Dictionary loop), and the mental imagery is nice — not as fatalist as spiral, more circular than trip.
This process is seemingly self sustaining — only the realization that I really do have something more important to do will snap me out of it. The exact mechanics of how that process works boil down to two essentials:
- Delta between the current content and the potential next content
- Titillation factor of the potential next content
I think the first item, the delta, is pretty easy to spot and a lot of folks recognize it. The fact that YouTube related videos and Wikipedia inline links similar or at the very least related to what you’re current seeing is not only obvious, it’s the point.
But what about blogs? Many blogs and news sites have “related links” on them, but I rarely find myself spending hours on CNN reading old stories (“Man I started at how McCain’s chief strategist Charlie Black said that a terrorist attack on US soil would be “a big advantage” for McCain’s campagin and ended up at an AP photo set of the world’s ugliest dog competition. Five hours down the drain…”). Why? Why don’t people (or at least, why don’t I) feel compelled to click related stories links on blogs or news sites?
I think it’s point 2: How titillated am I by the hyperlink? Less is often (much, much) more. YouTube just shows a preview image, a cryptic title and some other metadata. Wikipedia merely gives you a word and the article title if you hover over the link. Urban Dictionary just gives you the word (“Sporn? What the…”).
In comparison, CNN and Wired.com give me full, descriptive article titles. On the above Charlie Black article, I see: “Obama, McCain prepare for race-based attacks,” “A battle of accused political ‘flip-flops’” and “Cindy McCain: Families of candidates not fair game”. Wired.com is even worse, with this article about Bill Gates leaving Microsoft giving my the boring “Wired 16.06: What We’ll Miss About Bill Gates — a Very Long Good-Bye” and “April 4, 1975: Bill Gates, Paul Allen Form a Little Partnership,” plus the utterly bonus snoozefest “The Many (Geeky) Faces of Bill Gates”.
I’m not sure what would do the trick. Perhaps manually providing an exciting excerpt or interesting quotation. Maybe you could even get away with omitting the title and giving a short, 10 word excerpt semi-randomly selected from the first 100 words with some dumb heuristics to avoid splitting sentences.