The great social media consolidation
In 2016 if you wanted to go viral you had to repurpose your content for every platform. In 2023 you can use the same short form vertical video and go viral on Tik Tok, YouTube Shorts, Instagram, Facebook, and reach over 4 billion social media users. The low budget video you shot with your smartphone could reach half of the earth’s population.
In a recent interview Mr. Beast said: “This is the first time in the history of social media that one form of content can go viral across every single platform”.
The short form vertical video has become the widest reaching mass communication medium ever.
Mobile and vertical video: a match made in heaven
But before vertical video could rule the internet mobile phones had to carve the path. It wasn’t until the mass adoption of smartphones that most people started to consume media using a vertical screen.
Everything has become mobile-first, not only first thing in the morning but right before bed, and in between. The average person spends 4.8 hours on their mobile, in 2022 81% of Facebook users use it exclusively on their mobiles. People can’t take their hands off their phones, even while watching something on a big screen. According to Nielsen 73% of respondents claim to use their phones at least sometimes. We don’t need Nielsen to fish these stats for us. Just observe a group of Gen Zers watching Netflix; they will watch for like 10 minutes before whipping out their phones. Seems like Gen Z is more interested in Netflix and scroll than Netflix and chill.
How did vertical video take over the internet?
2013 was an important year in creating the internet as we know it today. If you are in your 20s or 30s you probably remember (in my case, without nostalgia) the heyday of Vine, the silly video platform that launched Logan Paul to stardom.
That same year Snapchat launched stories. A real-time and spontaneous alternative to the more polished content that prevailed until then. As the founder Evan Spiegel said: “Snapchat isn’t about capturing the traditional Kodak moment. It’s about communicating with the full range of human emotion — not just what appears to be pretty or perfect.” This became the essence of short form video.
In August 2016 Facebook employees finally convinced Mark Zuckerberg to launch Instagram stories to rival Snapchat’s dominance of the format. But just a month later, a new platform emerged, rivaling the American hegemony of social media and betting everything on vertical video… a bet that paid off immensely. By 2020 Chinese TikTok surpassed 2 billion downloads. That same year Instagram launched its replica, reels. In 2021 Google jumped on the hype train and launched YouTube Shorts — it’s the internet after all, when something becomes a trend there’s no escaping.
And this is how all the major social media platforms were consolidated.
Why are vertical videos so sticky?
Vertical videos irresistible. They fulfill the two most important requirements for online content — they are easy to produce and easy to consume.
For creators, short videos are a Godsend. High production value is not necessary, it’s not even preferable for this format, where you just need a smartphone – which you have anyway – a cheap ring light, a free version of CapCut for text overlay and something interesting to say (or not). The brevity, fast cuts, big text overlays, catchy music, universal appeal, and their casual tone make short videos incredibly digestible.
Arquimedes said, “Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world. “In 2023 he would say: “Give me the Wi-Fi password and with a smartphone I will move the whole world.” There is no better time to be a creator. Chamath Palihapitiya who helped Facebook grow to 1B users said this about the future of social media: “I would focus on the content creation side of things because I believe that’s where the puck is going.”
And the massive reach of vertical video is what’s swinging the puck into the net. Today, creators can become viral much faster. As Mr. Beast put it: ” I can post something on Tik Tok, get 100 million views, then post it on shorts, and I’ll get 200 million views and then post it on Instagram and get 50 million views…And that just wasn’t the thing three years ago.”
Finally, advertisers have do do less work
Advertisers also have less work. A few years ago, you needed a horizontal video for YouTube, a short-form video for Tik Tok, an image for Instagram, and a text-heavier post for Facebook. You needed more resources and perhaps even a media production crew. Now creative agencies are shooting videos with iPhones. Short videos also make it easier to test out new ideas and iterate faster. And as anyone who has worked in advertising will confirm, testing is everything.
Another plus is that video lives natively in social media. To read this article you need to click on a link, open it, and scroll through the article. This sounds like child’s play, but on the Internet every extra step can make users lose interest. Amazon loses 1.6 billion for every second that the site doesn’t load. It’s mind-blowing how much of what we do on the internet is by impulse — not only clicking on ads but larger decisions like purchasing or sharing something we later regret.
Is vertical video dumbing down the world?
The proliferation of short form content also has its disadvantages. A low barrier to entry results in lots of bizarre, absurd, misleading, and just plain stupid content. We are consuming more content than ever, and to put it bluntly, it’s dumber than ever. This means we are becoming dumber? It’s hard to prove, but being bombarded by nugget sized videos that require the least amount of effort is unlikely to be edifying for our brains.
I recently listened to an interview by Coffezilla about how he, an avid reader and Chemistry graduate, struggles to read for long periods of time. If someone who is smart and driven is struggling, imagine the average Gen Zer. As Blaise Pascal put it: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” I hope he was wrong. Or somewhat wrong at least. There are far too many people who are unable to sit still in a room right now.
Finally, breaking down ideas into mini bites leaves out nuance and oversimplifies public discourse, prioritizing emotion and memorability rather than substance and veracity. Short form video content is like a summer fling, short and exciting. But usually leaves us empty afterward.
What should you do with vertical videos?
We could argue about the negatives and positives, but it is undeniable that there are immense opportunities for those who are willing to put themselves out there.
And vertical videos are still growing. “Reels is now the fastest-growing format across Facebook’s family of apps and services…there are now more than 140 billion Reels played across Facebook and Instagram each day. That’s a 50 per cent increase from six months ago (Q3 2022).”
Even YouTube, traditionally a long-form channel, has changed. As of July 2022, videos that are under 60 seconds made up 57% of YouTube views, compared to just 11% two years ago. By June 2022, YouTube Shorts topped 5 billion monthly active users and TikTok reached a whopping 3.5 billion downloads in 2023.
Without a doubt, if you want to spread a message to one billion people, the highest likelihood to reach them would be using a vertical video. It’s hard to predict what direction vertical video will take, but it’s too early to talk about the future. Now it’s the moment of the short vertical video.