Video clips killed the cable news star

Video clips are rapidly transforming the way political and cultural commentary is generated and circulated. Statements and actions by prominent figures that might have otherwise gone unnoticed and unremarked upon after being aired just once or twice on cable television are now increasingly being identified, surfaced, commented on, and spread around online.

This new phenomenon of video clip-based online journalism and commentary is bootstrapping a new kind of scaffolding better suitable for our more rapidly responsive public discourse. Video clips shared on social media are enabling a richer and more accessible many-to-many conversation about today’s most pressing issues of social concern that goes well beyond what the one-to-many medium of cable television can facilitate.

Graham Lampa at the Atlantic Council

In the seemingly ever-increasing pace of the modern world, the question is not only whether trusted media outlets can keep up but also whether their audiences even have the time and attention necessary to keep themselves broadly informed as citizens. Combine this with users’ growing expectations for interactivity and having their own say and conditions are ripe for a video clip-powered revolution in how people inform themselves—and one another—about the world around them.

Online media pioneer John Battelle has noted that linear cable television seems intent on keeping eyeballs glued to the screen all day long. His new venture, Recount Media, seeks to give people the information they need and to give them back their time.

“What you can’t do,” Battelle said in a recent interview with Paul Blanchard on the Media Masters podcast, “is set out to waste your audiences’ time, which is exactly what video journalism does both online—think YouTube—and offline in linear television.”

“Without the ability to quickly assess, with your own eyes, using the most powerful medium we’ve come up with—which is digital video—the national dialogue is suffering,” Battelle says. “What you have instead are these sort of endless yell fests on television… they tend to push people into confirmation bias bubbles or worse.” Recount Media, he says, was founded in part to reimagine the “manufacturing process for video journalism” and employs short video clips to quickly provide its audiences the news and context they need, at the time of their choosing, and in the places they tend to gather.

A key platform for such short-form video journalism is Twitter and one of the most prominent leaders in this space is journalist Aaron Rupar, a close friend. Rupar has helped establish the “Twitter video clip thread” as an entirely new and uniquely impactful form of media content while simultaneously helping him to grow his Twitter audience to over 600,000 followers. Rupar takes a clip, contextualizes it from a sharp political perspective, and sends it out into the world.

The video clip thread fundamentally transforms its source material—often hours and hours of cable television coverage of political speeches—into an entirely new product that is quickly scannable, watchable, and shareable. Bite-sized pieces of easily consumable video content come packaged with incisive commentary that situates the source material within a broader political and cultural context.

Video clips are not only highly consumable, they are now also highly producible. The relatively recent availability of easy-to-use online tools like SnapStream helps make working with video content more like editing text than editing video. Neither Rupar nor I anticipated our mutual adoption of video as a primary medium for our work—when he and I first met over 15 years ago, I was the editor of our college newspaper and he was preparing himself for a career in print journalism. SnapStream allows us word-oriented content creators to easily and quickly produce video-based content en masse. For example, almost half of Rupar’s more than 12,000 tweets in 2020 contained video content, up from just 8% in 2017.

At my own organization, the Atlantic Council (a Washington, DC-headquartered, non-profit, non-partisan think tank with significant international reach), I have similarly led an effort to derive greater value from our own most plentiful resource—hours and hours of traditional think tank panels—by distilling these often highly academic, niche policy conversations into more engaging Twitter video threads. Since going fully remote in March this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council has hosted some 370 public online events.

My very first application of Rupar’s SnapStream-powered technique (a Twitter video thread covering HR McMaster’s final speech as National Security Advisor, hosted at the Atlantic Council in April 2018) went viral and smashed all existing engagement records for Twitter at my organization. The Atlantic Council has since adopted this method to better publicize its own events and the ideas they generate, clipping and tweeting the statements of speakers live as they are happening. The McMaster thread generated over a half million impressions through more than 300 retweets. This was the most Twitter engagement the Council had generated on any given day—five times the daily peak for impressions in the preceding three months. User retweets of our thread distributed our exclusive video content beyond our own audiences and also helped spark additional media interest in the speech amongst the traditional media. The speech was mentioned in roughly 1,000 media hits within the first 48 hours, including top-tier media outlets such as the Washington Post, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.

The Atlantic Council’s use of live video clips shared to Twitter builds value because it leans into the organization’s greatest strength—being able to convene prominent world leaders in highly-produced public events. By generating organic engagement around our content on Twitter, the organization can regularly boost our own events’ hashtags into the trending list on Twitter, giving our content much greater visibility. On average and consistently over time, our tweets containing video clips generate more than two times the engagement of tweets without video clips.

One of the most successful single clips the Atlantic Council has ever tweeted featured Canadian Prime Justin Trudeau speaking about youth leaders. This one video clip—served up as a standalone tweet that received over 1,300 likes and 400 retweets—delivered on a key policy goal for the event in a way that no research paper, study, or panel discussion could. We reached our actual target audience of young people living in Europe and North America where they congregate (on social media), captured their attention, and delivered our message that, in the words of Trudeau, “young people must actively shape the future by the things they do today.” The clip also helped make our #NATOEngages hashtag trend locally in London, where we hosted the event in December 2019, helping leverage popular appeal to focus greater attention on the often inscrutable topics of international affairs and alliances.

Why is this content format so uniquely engaging? Three main factors make the Twitter video thread uniquely impactful on the news consumer and the online media ecosystem.

First, the combination of textual commentary layered on top of the original source video simultaneously provides a kind of self-reinforcing justification of newsworthiness. Don’t believe the journalist’s commentary? Watch the video. Don’t understand why the video matters? Read the commentary for more context.

Second, when any given tweet from a video clip thread is shared on by any given user, the entire thread of content is discoverable by their followers—not only the video clip tweet that caught the original user’s interest. Each additional user may find an entirely different clip that they find worthy of sharing on, contributing to the strongly viral nature of such content. While the Atlantic Council doesn’t post the enormous engagement numbers that my friend Aaron Rupar does, the Atlantic Council’s “McMaster moment” demonstrates that even a wonky think tank playing it down the middle can also punch above its weight online by effectively leveraging video threads to advance its impact as an organization.

Third, and perhaps most vitally, Twitter’s “quote tweet” feature allows the recirculation of the underlying source content with each additional user’s commentary layered on top and spread yet further. For example, Rupar’s video tweets have been quote tweeted, on average, 15 times more than his non-video tweets. In 2017 when Rupar first began using SnapStream, his video tweets outperformed non-video tweets in quote tweets by 40 times, helping him build his following early on). This new video clipped scaffolding for public discourse is being built quote tweet by quote tweet.

Why does all of this matter? Although social media is often (and rightfully) blamed for creating information bubbles, I would argue that the self-evident nature of video—combined with layers upon layers of political and cultural commentary—is actually contributing to a greater circulation of ideas and viewpoints across and among political constituencies. People don’t only react to video clips by liking or retweeting them—they’re engaging in conversation themselves by using these clips as the basis for their own political and cultural commentary.

For journalists, media outlets, and other organizations seeking broad audiences for their content, video is a uniquely powerful way to connect with end users. Tools like SnapStream make it possible to produce short-form video content at the scale necessary to “feed the beast” and keep audiences coming back from more.