Early web videos, eye contact, and anti-attention

20.43, Monday 22 Jun 2020

I’ve been watching web videos from the early 2000s, and all I can think of is the eyes. It’s incredible.

So the Flagpole Sitta Lip Dub was posted in 2007. It’s the first video in Andy Baio’s lip dup cultural history. Watch it again, it launched a thousand copycats and it’s still magical - a lip sync music video which is so well done, but also so clearly “real” and not professional.

And it opens with Amandalyn Ferri looking right through the screen, straight down the barrel.

(Web videos were new at the time. YouTube was founded in 2005. It was acquired by Google in 2006.)

Then there’s Ze Frank’s video project The Show: ‘the show with zefrank’ was a short video program produced Monday through Friday for one year (March 17, 2006 - March 17, 2007).

As an example, here’s The Show from 14 July 2006. I think it was originally on his site as a made-for-iPod show? But now the video is on YouTube. (This one is my favourite episode because it’s a defence of ugliness as the democratisation of design.)

If you take a look at the video, you’ll notice two things:

  • it’s short! 3 minutes 13 seconds. None of this rambling, begging for subscribers thing that vloggers do now (remember “vlogger”? Holy shit what a word hahaha)
  • THE EYES. Quick edits, face full frame, and THE EYES.

Ze doesn’t blink.

He’s basically inventing the form for personal web videos here (it’s 2006 don’t forget), and already he’s messing with the idiom by using this crazy jitter of quick cuts to not blink.

From a really solid long read about the “poetics” of web video: The poetics of any artistic medium studies the finished work as the result of a process of construction.

Beginning in April, 2006, Frank stops blinking onscreen. His eyes are always open wide in an exaggeration of an attentive stare. In an interview he has said that not blinking is a product of his intense concentration but in the episode on 23 October 2006, he advises would-be vloggers not to blink because when you blink, “that’s one less connection made” with viewers.

I remember reading that the ideal amount of time for mutual eye contact is 3.2 seconds and longer than that feels weird (read: threatening or arousing, depending on the situation I guess).

But Ze is 3 minutes!

And on Zoom calls it’s 30 minutes to an hour! No wonder video calling can be so exhausting.

See also: Apple’s FaceTime Attention Correction feature (in which your pupils were artificially manipulated in video calls to look right into the camera) which fortunately did not launch.

And just think about this: the idiom of web video didn’t necessarily have to be straight to camera. It could have been, like TV, modelled on theatre: a performance on a little stage in a little box, with everyone studiously pretending there is no audience.

There’s a ton online about how to hold a person’s gaze for just one beat longer in order to

  • sell them something
  • seduce them
  • beat them in a negotiation
  • etc.

Which is a hella creepy.

I wonder… what would anti-attention features be like?

How about a pair of augmented reality glasses with an app to manipulate everything I see, ensuring that no-one, no matter how charismatic, could hold my gaze for longer than 3.2 seconds?

Would this let me assess an argument better, if I could wear a software inoculation against enchantment?

And - continuing on this line - what if our politicians were made to wear such A.R. specs, so they couldn’t be wooed by charismatic leaders, and our TVs had filters built in, so we could shield ourselves from being drawn into any hypnotic gaze?

Human interaction firewalls.

Charisma shades.

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