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Facebook is predicting the end of the written word on its platform. And perhaps suggesting that words more broadly are doomed.

“The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video,” said Nicola Mendelsohn, who leads Facebook’s operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “It conveys so much more information in a much quicker period. So actually the trend helps us to digest much more information.”

In five years’ time, she added, Facebook “will be definitely mobile, it will be probably all video.” Stats show that the written word is becoming obsolete, replaced by hipper, accessible images and video.

She did throw writers a bone: Words are disappearing—save for the fact “you’ll have to write for video.”

Did you catch that? “have to.”

Have.

To.

Our words are like the last triceratops wandering an increasingly balmy earth. In search of a book group. Or a direct mail meetup. Or whatever local bar might serve a prehistoric tipple in which to sink their sorrows.

Or so Facebook suggests.

I get it. In a Trump-vs.-Hillary political climate, polarizing sells.

But is that really… responsible? Or is it even true?

I’d say nope. Actually, I’d serve up a triple-scoop Nope-cone (h/t to Rob Zaleski for coining that one).

I debated whether to comment on this issue, because I don’t want to be defensive. I wrote a bestselling book about writing. And I do happen to believe that we are all writers.

So just to check my biases at the door to the internet: Is my reaction to this merely self-preservation?

Are we writers actually Neanderthals wearing shaggy animal hides, charring a bison thigh over the fire? (Fire we invented, thank you very much.)

Meanwhile, the smell of plank-roasted salmon with baby bok choy wafts over from the next camp.

Is it that we had a good run… but now it’s time to go?

Let’s scoop up that Nope-cone.

Scoop 1 of the Nope-cone: Binary (either/or) thinking usually occurs when someone is selling a specific worldview or agenda.

Have you noticed a massive number of video posts in your Facebook feed of late? That’s likely because Facebook has been algorithmically favoring video posts. The company says user preferences are driving the shift away from text.

OK… maybe.

But consider that Facebook is all-in on its live video service, Facebook Live.

And consider that Facebook Live is content that is hosted and consumed via Facebook—rather than YouTube, for example.

Not to mention all that money coming from Facebook video ads.

And then you draw your own conclusions.

Scoop 2 of the Nope-cone: Long-form content is still a thing.

The truth is that we do read long-form content. Long-form news articles get roughly the same number of mobile visitors as short-form articles, but they garner twice as much engaged time, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center.

Scoop 3 of the Nope-cone: Sometimes you want sprinkles. Sometimes you don’t.

Liraz Margalit, a web psychologist at ClickTale, wrote that watching video and reading writing are different “cognitive functions.”

Reading demands one’s cognitive system do more heavy lifting and requires committed engagement, she said. Watching video is largely passive and is quicker to make an emotional connection, added Phil Rosenthal, writing in the Chicago Tribune.

The bottom line: Our world supports both kinds of content for different purposes.

Video is useful for some tasks and appeals to some people. Writing is suited to some efforts and appeals to other kinds of people.

Great video gives life and a pulse a story. It conveys how products live in the real world. It conveys anger disguised as edgy humor. Videos are powerful.

Great writing gives life and a pulse to a story. It helps you differentiate. It forces a deeper clarity of thinking. Great writing is powerful (and hilarious).

One is not inherently superior to the other as a storytelling medium.

Both have strengths. And both are flawed.

Writing can be augmented with killer video, and video is strengthened by stronger writing.

And not just because we “have to” write. (That one still chaps my khakis.)

Bonus Scoop of the Nope-cone: Live video can be tedious.

You can’t skim video. You can’t skip the boring part at the beginning when that friend in your Facebook feed takes a running start rather than getting right to the point. (Update: Scott Monty points out that you actually can skip to the good parts.)

Sometimes I find myself in the midst of a meandering video, and I’ll wish I could just scroll down a bit to the next paragraph right then and there.

Because I’m busy. I’ve got stuff to do.

Like groom my shaggy animal hide.


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93 Responses to Calling BS on Facebook’s Edict That Writing Is Dead

  1. S Graves says:

    Ann, you are so right! I prefer to skim rather than watch a video. It’s so much quicker.

  2. stephen "steve" q shannon says:

    What

  3. Stan Dubin says:

    I just read Ann’s entire post here. I should probably go off and watch a couple of videos now to balance out my life.

    Kidding aside, FB has been known to favor a buck over transparency.

  4. stephen "steve" q shannon says:

    What if you “scripted” your reply in a video to ensure Facebook might pay better attention to your posit. LOL Presumption-itis is what Facebook culture/folklore is all about. Change the world? Limited or no text is not grown-up thinking.

    No script, written plan, words, for me, means, banality.

    Finally, where are the predictors of the demise of radio when B&W TV emerged.

    I know, Ann, you are not worried about this. Delighted, though, you took time out to share your big person’s view.

    Thank you. Your advocate!

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thank you. Scripting would def. help. Or even talking points. Again, writing improves video, and vice-versa (quite often).

      • Owen Blevins says:

        A great video starts it’s life out on paper. I’ve done a lot of video and have found that my best ones are scripted out, storyboarded and edited two or three times Ann. My worst videos are ones that I thought I could get away without and written process.
        All my best Ann!

  5. Dee says:

    This:
    “You can’t skim video. You can’t skip the boring part at the beginning when that friend in your Facebook feed takes a running start rather than getting right to the point.”

    I watch very few videos because I simply do not have the time.Watching video is an investment, and I just can’t believe that I am the only person who is busy! (In fact, I know I’m not.) I can skim an article, a post, whatever quickly and determine if I need to read more closely, save it, or if that’s all I need. I cannot do that with a video and I’ll generally not watch at all.

    If Facebook becomes all video, bully for them. It will save me a lot of time when I delete the app.

  6. When I tweeted the article from Quartz about this news I said, “Oh come on! I protest. I want to #read.” Facebook is too powerful. Too controlling. And it’s manipulating the behavior of content marketers. I hate watching video on social media. It’s cumbersome. I want to read. I fear that this algorithmic “trend” is pushing a “TV couch potato” “idiocracy” mentality. Ann, you called it. This is BS. Long live the written word!

  7. Joella says:

    Ann – you’re good when you’re pissed. Actually, you are always good. It’s just fun to see you pissed and also right!

  8. Mike Allton says:

    “On rainy, Sunday mornings, I just like to curl up with a hot cup of coffee and nice feed of Facebook videos.” Said no one ever.

    There’s no doubt that video has risen to the forefront of content demand, but there’s also no doubt that statement from Mendelsohn was ridiculous. Good call, Ann.

  9. Kev Anderson says:

    Ann. Just when I think I can’t love you any more you come out with this. Amen sister. Amen.

    The written word is dead? Utterly ridiculous statement to make. Communication will continually evolve, and while I am embracing video at the moment, nothing. NOTHING – beats the process of writing for me. In five years time, I’ll still be writing natively on FB. And, like you say, much of that writing will be long form.

    Great article. Thanks for not keeping these thoughts to yourself.

    • Ann Handley says:

      I knew you and I would align on this issue, Kev. Your videos are great — and I love seeing you and other friends. But you’re totally right. Nothing beats writing… for a few reasons. I didn’t even get into the whole writing-is-thinking argument…

  10. Scott Monty says:

    Brava, Ann! I smelled a stinker when I read that news too. I’ll actually add one more point: the majority of people simply aren’t adept at nor comfortable with creating video. That will ensure the existence of print communication for a long time.

    Oh, and there actually *is* a way to skip through the boring parts of video: https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/23/facebook-live-video-engagement-graph/

  11. B.L. Ochman says:

    Facebook is about money…pay for play.

    It’s pushing Live, and 99 out of 100 of the live streams are BORING. And long. And badly lit, with lousy sound.

    I love video. I produce it for clients. But it’s an adjunct to writing, not a substitute.

    You eloquently make the case, as always. Write on Ann!

  12. Love this!!
    Very, very rarely watch video – even ones I’ve paid for as part of a course – I always skip to the transcript.
    Reason? Speed.
    We can read in 30 secs what might take a pontificating presenter 3 minutes to actually finish explaining …
    But maybe we are the great unwashed of media consumers … because we have things to do with our lives other than consume ….

    • Ann Handley says:

      Julia: I sometimes have wondered if it’s me — because I find the pace of the spoken word excrutiating at times. I listen to podcasts in a speedier mode, too. Good to know I’m not alone!

      • Kelly Grace says:

        May I jump on this bandwagon with you and Julia? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every speaker spoke the way Seth Godin writes for his blog? That would mean being insightful, logical, and succinct.

        Re: FB & video, I can’t use my yellow highlighter on video. That’s a deal-breaker for me.

    • Barbara Reed says:

      I love your response, Ann! And the others, too. I see this as a highly self-serving article, but the sad part will be those who take it at face value and believe that the written word is dead.

      The key to communication, whether done professionally or not, is to know your audience and to tailor the message and the medium to ensure your message is understood…written word, video or hieroglyphics on cave walls!

  13. Katra Farah says:

    Well said Ann and I don’t get it why algorithmic users aren’t proud of their smarts to just say this is what we’re doing and viewers are consuming it.

    I, for one enjoy skimming and reading.

  14. Writing isn’t going away – there are too many people that enjoy the written word over video. I am one of them.

    I don’t deny that there are certain messages a video may make more sense to use to communicate your message.

    Love your writing Ann! 🙂

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks, Candace.

      As I said… I love video as much as anyone. But I also love great writing. Both have strengths. Both are flawed. What I bristle at is the idea that one — or the other — is “dead.”

  15. Keith Sims says:

    Perhaps my age has something to do with it, but I far prefer reading to watching a video. I learned speed reading many years ago and though I am no Evelyn Wood, I have always been able to read far faster than what I can see in a spoken presentation, which is naturally slower due the the physical limits of speech.

    If my understanding of brain function is correct, a strict diet of video content would eventually reduce our ability to think and reason. Perhaps, the movie “Idiocracy” wasn’t that far off the mark. It will be interesting to see how this trend pans out.

  16. Brian Clark says:

    Can someone get me a teleprompter for Christmas so I can read my writing on camera? Thanks in advance. 🙂

  17. Amen!!! I, for one, don’t have the attention span for video. I consume content much easier in written format — I process the information faster, remember it better, and feel less compelled to multitask. That’s just the way my brain works. And I can’t possibly be the only one!

  18. I read it all. Just saying….

  19. Tom Cunniff says:

    Great stuff. More way words beat video:

    1) Words are easy to search within the page. Command-F rockets you to what’s relevant.

    2) Words are easy to cut-paste-and-quote. When there’s a great point made in a video, you have to replay and transcribe it, if you want it to be accurate.

    3) Words — if the writer is any good — compress complex ideas into simple phrases. Videos — especially if it is a discussion format (which is cheap and easy to produce) nearly always ramble.

    I am not anti-video. I am pro-simplicity and usability.

  20. Tom Bentley says:

    Ann, all video, all the time? That’s a clickbaity kind of article (and smells of bait too). Though I can be swept into a clever, visually engaging, well-edited video, and would never deny that video can deliver effective messages with emotional impact, words are heavier hitters for me.

    Words have uncanny flexibility, power, subtlety and seduction. They can be dainty cakes or threatening spikes or beckoning hands. On the right potter’s wheel, words become oracles. Video, for sure, totally bitchin’. But words, manna.

  21. George Gonzo says:

    Since I am “more mature” than many of the videophiles (some would just call me older)…I prefer “more mature, but to the point:
    One of the things that great writing can do…that video has difficulty doing, is to engage what we used to call “Theatre of the Mind.”
    Back in the “Golden Days of Radio,” the superb writing and performance by the “radio actors” on the “old radio shows” took you, visually in your mind, to places that even many of today’s big screen videos have difficulty matching (in terms of engagement of our human feelings.}
    So the point is….while the majority of videos on social are poorly done (and less than engaging,) the same can be said of the thousands of books published every year.
    When it comes to the debate of which is better, It’s always about “quality” regardless of the medium..
    Anne is right on the money with her post.
    So those who suggest that great writing is going to become obsolete, should rent the movie that would appeal to that mind-set…”Dumb and Dumber.”.

  22. Jeff Julian says:

    I love a good mix of video, audio, and written word with my content. Like a delicious meal, several ingredients are used to serve up the whole experience.

    Also, is it weird that graphic ads (boosted post) on Facebook can’t have more than 20% text, but video, go for it! Love your first point on what are you trying to sell?

  23. Ann Druce says:

    And let’s not forget about focus. Much easier to check your emails during a video than while you’re reading something. (Which also relates to speed.)

  24. CJ Schepers says:

    So glad you wrote this, Ann! That’s a ridiculous, self-serving statement for FB execs to make. In my news reporting days, the sage veterans always told me, “If you want to know the truth of any story, just follow the money.”

  25. This commet ways written oozing seary. Eye dictated it you sing only my voice. Eye agree width the are tickle that the written ward ease dead. Why type wards when video oar giraffe icks ore knot Thai ping at all – like hear – works grate!

  26. Amy Tobin says:

    I am SO glad you wrote this. Video can be powerful, but it’s also time-consuming and NOISY. It has to be consumed all at once to make sense. And, SO many people absolutely suck at it.

    The end of the written word. Just think about how stupid that is.

  27. This is remarkably well argued.

    Agree their hyperbole and hidden agenda are eye rollers.

    Worried though about the inference I see in so many comments above: “I prefer prose so their edict is false (and evil)”. Your preference isn’t a counter-example!

    Even taken together we Ann Fans — much less fans with the chutzpah to comment — are hardly a representative sample of Facebook users. (Ann addressed this when she pointed to the Pew research which IS representative; I’m responding to the pattern in this comment thread)

    Also, fellow commenters, let’s be charitable vs stating their position as weakly as possible.

    – FB has a mind-bendingly colossal data set.
    – FB has superb UX guys.
    – Those UX guys have made thousands of good calls about usability. (The fruits of which we mostly don’t notice because they’re good calls.)
    – All those good decisions are tied to seeking profit too.

    –> Sound data-driven decisions are consistent with profit motives. Maybe more often than not.

    Even their missteps show this. Take their infuriating opt-out policies. They deserved users’ fury and abandonment.

    And… because they seek to profit, they changed the policy and ate humble pie.

    Just saying: 1. I’m wary of ad hominems regarding motives. They can be so lame (looking at you Trump). And 2. We have a blind spot re the user data. A data set of Milky Way-proportions. 3. Actually a lot of UX calls they make are good and smart.

    Ok bracing for flaming retorts…

  28. Not seeing much on the way of “flaming retorts” are you, Ann?

    I love to write, and I love to read. Video (and audio, as in podcasts, by the way) has it’s place. But it’s place is not to re-place the written word.

    There are, quite simply, different objectives that are better served by either video, audio or writing. Just as there are different objectives better served by long-form or short-form content. The real winners will be those who take each medium and use its strengths most effectively to advance their purpose. Not those who declare one or the other dead.

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  31. Bravo Ann! I laughed, I cried.. 🙂 So well said. Just thank you, from a fellow word-nerd.

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  33. Mike colson says:

    Nice post Handly , i liked it very much , it was such a flawless post . Enjoyed it .

  34. Katybeth says:

    Facebook is not the boss of me, thank you very much. I’d choose read over watch any day. Facebook is spending too much time with the likes of the Kardashians, it needs better friends. Real People who read and skim. I like those kinds of people and I super like this post.

  35. It’s not that writing for “readers” is dead. It’s meeting a demand. Books and newspapers are not [completely] dead as some rather niche demos still read physical books/papers while the trend is going digital. I’m sure in 2020 some niche demos might still read blog posts.

    Is writing a blog post over creating a video the lazy way out? Maybe?

    http://swinterroth.com/video-over-written-content/

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks for the commentary, Scott. I don’t necessarily agree with you that writing a blog is easier than creating a video. But it’s an interesting twist on the assumption these days that the barrier to entry is lower for text.

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  37. Bob James says:

    No news here. It’s well known FB caters to nonverbal people (also known as “videots”).

  38. The FB spokesperson makes assumptions about people’s internet connection and bandwidth. 2.1M people still use dialup. Even in the USA not everyone has unlimited bandwidth. I’m a digital nomad. I live in an RV traveling the USA fulltime. I usually have 20GB/mo to budget. Video is a bandwidth suck – in addition to a time-suck. Give me text to scan at my pace any day.

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  42. Hugh Culver says:

    Thanks for beating the drum Ann. I don’t think it’s a generational thing or an evolution thing—video can never be compared to writing as a full substitute. But it is a scary thing when our education system seems to think it could be.

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  44. Love this. I thought it was just me that hated to watch videos online.. I put it down to being an old person…but good writing wins every time.

  45. Megan Wilson says:

    I don’t believe that writing is in its last stages, and this is not because
    I’m a writer. Videos are entertaining, but I read to relax, I
    enjoy the written word. I believe that a large population
    feels that way as well. Each side has their own camp, but
    writing is definitely not in its last stages, what will we do with
    all those leave a response surveys if writing goes away,
    nobody likes their picture taken let alone the time to do a
    video about something?

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  47. Doug Kessler says:

    The arrogance of Facebook to actually call time on WORDS is breathtaking.

    Having said that, your post would have been way better as an animated gif.
    With kittens.

  48. Frazer john says:

    Hi Ann how you doing ? I hope you are fine , Thanks a lot for sharing such a informative post i liked it very much its very interesting and i got lots of knowledge from your post .
    Keep sharing a post like this .

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  60. Jason R. says:

    I simply cant believe the end of the written word. I think that is the world according to facebook, and I really would not give that much credence. I personally enjoy writing very much, and feel that the written word a s facebook calls it will be around for a long time to come! http://www.goenterpriseseo.com

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