Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Rhetorical Techniques for Video Content, part 1

I need to start with a confession: I watch a lot of YouTube. At least 4 hours a week. I have watched over 5000 hours over the last five years. I recently have taken steps to watching less, however: I pared down my subscriptions from over 200 to a mere 131 with the content most interesting to me. Among those are many channels that make persuasive arguments or exemplify amazing collaboration. So, I hand-picked some 50 videos to analyze for our class and in general to give us ideas for creating informational and/or persuasive content. Since that makes a really long blog post, I will cover only a few different categories of videos with lots of examples this time, and will give more later. I, naturally, will save the best for last, so mash that "read more" link below and slowly scroll to the bottom, soaking in the categories as you go.

There are also two specific examples that I feel everybody interested in spreading ideas collaboratively should watch that will be at the bottom, so please go check those out.

As a teaser, here's a satirical look at rhetorical techniques in TED talks:
General Notes
There are a few broad generalities that I notice from these videos:
  • There are a lot of mini-arguments in the title of the videos. Often, they will ask questions like What is Something, or How Much Does Meat Actually Cost, which makes the viewer want to know the answer, so they watch the video. Titles also often have claims in them, like This Video Will Make You Angry or Why Mario is Mental (part 1). Titles like these invite you to argue with their claim, and to see why they think the way they do. Either way, the title already begins a discussion in the viewers' minds, leading to them watching the video.
  • YouTube in general is a very personal platform. The content creators work on personal relationships with the viewers, which is the main reason they keep coming back. Look at Jake Roper, the main guy from VSauce3, who posts multiple videos of very candid reactions to his cancer and subsequent treatments and even asks his viewers for advise about his channel. I have multiple other examples, but this deep, almost intimate relationship with the viewers is what constantly brings them back to their content, and what gives their content such weight.
Now, on to different rhetorical categories.

Expert Discussions
Brady Haran runs multiple youtube channels that all exemplify the category of expert discussion. He has channels like Sixty Symbols, where he talks with professors from the University of Nottingham about various physics topics, and they explain them. Since Brady is not a physics professor, he is able to ask the questions that the typical viewer would, keeping technical jargon to a minimum, and the discussion understandable and very conversational. A few videos in particular that I'd like to analyze for you:
  • The Mathematics of Crime and Terrorism, on his Numberphile channel, discusses  the math that's being applied, and is somewhat argumentative in that it affirms that math can predict crime. The person telling us about this has published multiple papers about the topic, so, as stated by Brady early in the video, "This is [her] area of expertise." She continues to site authoritative figures behind the math, the historical validity of the concepts, and solidifies her authority by showing how those concepts have evolved over time. And while they show the actual equations used to predict crime, the discussion is kept well in the realm of understandablility for the common person.
  • Burning Ping Pong Balls, on his Periodic Videos channel, is more an an informational piece, but they make it something more. The chemistry professor (who has been knighted for his work) describes a gift they received, and how they decided to burn it. They link to previous videos they have done that add a great deal to the current discussion, then quickly summarize what they need from that video to make sense now and move on. The have great visuals, good explanations, and they end with something very interesting. A clear call that we take a step back from hard science and really appreciate the beauty of what we're doing. He discusses all the science in the video, yes, but he also exemplifies his call before he makes it and notes the beauty of the burning balls. This rhetorical device is effective because he is only asking that we do what he just did (and frequently does in his videos, which you know if you watch many of them and have that personal connection with him).
  • Why Asimov's Laws of Robotics Don't Work, from his Computerphile channel. This video explains something commonly believed (that the so called "Laws of Robots" are a valid way to solve the super-intelligent AI problem), even quoting these "laws", and then proceeds to tear them down logically, using multiple very clear examples easy for the viewer to follow.
The Learning/Discussion Videos
These videos are often essentially news syndication channels that discuss science or events authoritatively, but not usually as experts themselves. These are usually meant to inform, so if you have an informative piece without much of a call to action in itself, these are good examples to follow.
  • DNews is a channel sponsored by the Discovery Channel to discuss science news and answer science questions. Their videos all follow the "clickbait" title formats described above, and all start with some sort of 5-30 second hook--some short question, some amusing anecdote, or a strange or contradictory sentence that makes the viewer want to stick around to hear more. After the intro card, they then connect what they said to the more serious topic, usually references some authority (a recent study, a paper, etc), and explain the topic in a way that's easy to follow. They end each segment with a direct endorsement of another video, usually on their own channel, that builds on or expands the current video's topic. Examples you can watch include Did Horses Evolve to Read Human Emotions?, How PTSD Can Alter Your Brain Forever, and What Could NASA Do with Double the Budget?
  • SciShow, SciShow Space, and SciShow Kids are all related channels run by the same group. They all have a hook (though sometimes much longer than DNews), then explain something to the viewer. They make elegant use of visuals, and, most pertinent to our project, they often will reference other videos within their own. Take, for example, Is the universe expanding, where at 0:15, 0:22, and 3:05 they use the same visual to make references to previous videos on their channels. They actually do this almost once per episode of late, linking between their three channels and occasionally linking out of their channels. All of the channels use the same visual, so that no matter which one you're one, you know that animation means "cross-reference video". I'd like to see something like this through our project, including calls to sources outside of our class. Also, I tend to like the way SciShow presents material and treats its audience better than DNews--it feels more professional.
  • Brit Lab is affiliated with the BBC, and BrainCraft with PBS. Both of these channels pose a question, then discuss it using visuals. Brit Lab employs more live footage, exciting visuals, trips to locations, experimentation, and collaboration to demonstrate what they're talking about. BrainCraft uses more drawings and animations, personal experiences (her reason for picking the misconceptions that she did) and discussion of the results of experiments to make their points. Both attempt to be conversational, though Brit Lab is made-for-TV while BrainCraft feels like a friend just chatting with us. Yet both come off as equally authoritative (at least to me).
The Experimenters/Learners
These channels feature people who are essentially like you or me, learning as they go, and sharing what they learn. Sometimes they teach about results of experiments they tried, sometimes they go somewhere to learn something and take us along for the ride, and sometimes they are explaining something that they looked up that they were interested in. These, to me, are the most rhetorically potent, as they don't usually try to come off as the expert, but rather are learning with us. I can relate to them, and give enormous weight to their findings because I trust that they researched it like I would have, and often they list their sources so that we can look it up ourselves if we so choose.
  • Smarter Every Day does this better than any other channel on YouTube. Destin, the guy who runs the channel, investigates things on his own, and then shoots videos that cause deep contemplation, forever alter your world view, deeply touch you, or deepen your understanding of something you thought you understood. He conducts his own experiments or explores new horizons with people who would know about it, and has made several discoveries while doing so. His videos usually explain the background of what he'll talk about, discusses what he knows about that thing, then expands his own mind on that topic and shares what he's learned with you. If there was ever a channel that I would recommend, it's this one. He's so likable, that it makes all his content more desirable, and he consistently puts out very high-quality work.
    Rhetorically, his authority comes from the fact that he is just like us--a normal person who is blown away by what he discovers, and who is curious about the world. He uses footage (seeing is believing) and personal experience to build credibility, and makes his videos very conversational, helping the viewer to feel like they're with him while he's learning these things, rather than being taught.
  • Applied Science is a guy (Ben) who just makes things. Amazing things. Like a scanning electron microscope imagers. Ben really knows his stuff. His authority comes from the fact that he can explain the circuit schematics, raw signals, and physics behind what he'd doing, and that his experiments work when he films them. He will sometimes just explain how he came to understand some topic, like those anti-theft tags, or will conduct experiments and ask for viewer help in where to go next.
    I wanted to showcase him because his rhetorical approach is very simple. He is just talking over the video, but frequently uses the objects he's talking about as visuals or will draw on a piece of paper a graph or diagram that he then points to and explains. He doesn't have a lot of fancy visuals, but I rarely doubt that he knows much more about a topic than I do by the end of his videos.
  • Tom Scott is a guy who travels a lot, and shares interesting tid-bits for the viewer to consider. Things like What Counts as the World's Largest Clock and the role that automated decisions have (and will have) in our lives. He usually doesn't tell you what to think about a topic, but will give you several viewpoints to consider, and leaves you with a prompt to consider the matter further. He's actually really good at this, and it makes his content very compelling.
  • Veritasium is run by Derek, a teacher who wanted to get more deeply involved in his subject matter. He uses a lot of experimentation, often set up by himself, to verify assertions made by other sources. He makes a lot of references to authoritative material (like broadcasting standards or footage of some effect happening) to convince the viewer of the truth of what he's talking about. He does a lot of quality content, and leaves me convinced almost every time. A few good ones to watch are The Specious Present, which will convince you that you think in time chunks, not in instants, and Surprising Applications of the Magnus Effect, which should make you rethink what you expect in sail boats and airplanes.
  • I Like To Make Stuff is a channel I wanted to mention because he is just making things, explaining how he did what he did and why. He makes mistakes, or comments on what he would do better if he did it again, keeping his videos at a level that help you feel like you can do it, too. Here's one example of him making a Spinning 3D Printer Workstation.
Next time, I'll discuss some more specific strategies and give examples for making arguments. For now, here are two videos that I think are important for making a collaborative project with a purpose, such as ours.

The Essential Examples
Here are some extremely useful videos, with some analysis of rhetoric.
  1. This Video Will Make You Angry, by CGP Grey. Why essential: because it discusses how "though germs" spread through the internet, or, in other words, how you can help your thoughts spread via the internet.

    Rhetorically, it makes a pretty bold claim up front with the title, gives background for the analogy he'll be using, the backs it up logically, using several easy-to-understand metaphors to illustrate his point. He directly addresses the viewer multiple times, drawing you more deeply into his video. Finally, he uses relatively few, fairly simple visuals throughout the video, making slight modifications to emphasize his point and make it very easy to follow his train of thought.
  2. The Truth About Toilet Swirl, a collaboration between Veritasium and Smarter Every Day. Why essential: because this is one of the most incredible examples of collaborative, informative argument on the internet, and something to aspire to. There are two videos that are to be played together, which are somewhat capable of standing alone, but really work well together to make their point.
    They begin by describing the argument (that toilets flush in opposite directions on different parts of the world), and immediately show examples where that is not the case at all, attributing swirl direction to other (rather obvious) reasons. The cool thing is that they then set up an experiment to prove that the hemisphere does influence swirl directly, and each conducts their experiment. When they explain the science behind it, they both separately explain essentially the same thing, using their local vernacular. This separate explanation allows the videos to be independent, but the way it was filmed makes them much more powerful when combined. Lastly, they each strongly endorse each other, lending their argumentative weight to the other, strengthening the authority of the message even more.

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