Engaging an Audience: A Media Theory Perspective

Video Script with some additions and sans some ad libbed parts:

Ever since I started making videos there’s one thing that has always bothered me. I’ve talked about this before, and that’s this graph of user retention. It shows that people tend to watch my videos till about 2-3 minutes in and there’s a steep decline in the number of people who watch my videos till the end.

I’ve been listening to the feedback that people have for me and I’ve been making changes in every video that I make, but there’s still that statistic, that low engagement with the video that sticks with me as something I need to improve on.

With that in mind, I began looking at the usual tips and tutorials online on how to be a more effective communicator, but that felt like I was just scratching the surface. So, I decided to read up about media theory. The first thing that came up was the well-known work of Marshall McLuhan who famously said “The medium is the message”.

What he meant was that the medium of communication shapes how the message is perceived, which in turn also shapes behaviors and has an effect on society as a whole. He divided history into four epochs: Oral, where information was communicated solely through the spoken word, then there was the literary epoch, with the invention of writing and the creation of manuscripts. The third was the print epoch which came to be after the invention of the printing press and movable type, and the fourth is the electronic epoch, which is today’s society.

As mankind moved through these epochs, the invention of new communication mediums changed how we thought and remembered things, and also changed how societies were structured.

I want to talk about an aspect of McLuhan’s theory, the concept of Hot versus Cool media. Contrary to what you’d expect, he described hot media as the one you passively accept, and cool media as the one you actively participate in. To explain further, hot media engages one sense in a high definition way and has a low level of audience participation. Radio or printed books are examples of this. Radio engages the auditory sense while books engage the visual. Cool media, on the other hand, involves the use of multiple senses at once and involves “filling in the gaps” with your own thinking and cognition. An example of cool media would be watching TV, where you have to absorb the visual as well as the auditory information at the same time, while also forming thoughts and opinions on what’s being talked about.

I looked at the two things I usually create- blog posts and videos- and tried looking at them through this lens of hot or cool media. I realized soon that this binary classification wasn’t quite enough to fully understand how people engage with these things. You could oversimplify and say that blogs are mainly text-based and more “hot” media and videos are more “cool” because of the audiovisual information. Here’s the thing though- blogs are not plain text like printed books, they are purely digital and you can add pictures and other forms of media into them. You can also allow people to comment and share them. Also, I make videos, but the platform I use for them is youtube, which has its own design features and caveats. When you think of a youtube video or a YouTuber, you think of a particular archetype of person, a particular style of delivery, and a particular set of calls to action (like share and subscribe!). Not to mention all sorts of other “tropes” that have emerged- making things appear organic and less “high production”, building a sense of community, and the often mentioned parasocial relationships… the list goes on. Link in the description for a playlist of the videos I watched, as well as some articles I read.

I remember when I started making youtube videos a lot of people told me I was softspoken- they sounded surprised about it like it was different from what they expected. It was as if there’s some unwritten rule about how you present yourself that says you have to be loud and boisterous and “always turned up to 11”. As if there are unwritten rules of how to engage with the audience on this platform. Again- youtube isn’t just a video viewing platform, it’s a video delivery platform: there’s an algorithm to suggest videos to you, a comments section, a whole bunch of communities and followings- it’s an ecosystem unto itself.

Another way the Hot/Cool dichotomy breaks down is to think about it from the perspective of a viewer. I watched a video where there’s a discussion of how what’s hot for one person may be cool for another person- just because of how they interact with or consume the media. For example, I may listen to a podcast attentively, or I may just have it on as some background ambient sound while I do something else. Also, people may “heat up” or “cool down” based on the media type, the platform they are on, and a whole bunch of other factors.

So when it comes to the original question of engagement, it looks like I’m back to square one. Not quite- I did learn a lot about media theory and this exploration got me thinking a lot about how people engage with media. The most important lesson was the true meaning behind the words “the medium is the message”.

This does raise a few questions though- should I start using these tropes? Should I start having a high energy boisterous presentation with the goal of forming a parasocial relationship with my currently unnamed “fanbase”? Or should I continue doing what I’m doing and hope that youtube’s algorithm decides to bless me one day? For now, it’s the latter. But I am open to suggestions and feedback, and who knows, maybe I’ll stumble upon something that both engages the audience and gives me creative fulfillment.

This is the end of the video, so I’d like to thank you all for watching, I’m very close to 100 subscribers which is a milestone (for me at least) and I’m very grateful for all the support. Be sure to like this video, subscribe and hit the bell icon if you want more of this content, let me know what you think about this video in the comments, and remember:

“Anyone who claims to know all the answers has lied to you once already.”

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