Culture  /  Comparison

The Silent Film Returns—on Social Media

Though we may still pop headphones in to watch a YouTube rant, social media has cultivated its own mute visual culture.

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The summer’s hottest destination for video entertainment is a U.K.-based social media brand called LADbible. In July alone, the viral clips that churn out of its Facebook page were viewed more than 3 billion times. Though the site is nominally branded around young British men, its offerings hold an oddly universal appeal. On a recent afternoon, it served up videos of a guy accidentally hitting himself in the head with a baseball bat; a pizza being made out of French fries; a dog bathing in a Jacuzzi; a woodworker crafting a salad bowl; a tourist riding a slide down the Great Wall of China and a manatee kissing a snorkeler.

The videos are curated from disparate sources, filmed on smartphones and GoPros around the world, but they all have one thing in common: They’re best watched silently. If they even have sound, it’s completely beside the point.

We are living in the golden age of the silent video. Though we may still pop headphones in to watch a YouTube rant, social media has cultivated its own mute visual culture. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are designed to encourage endless scrolling, and that boosts videos that are made to catch the viewer’s eye without offending her ear with grating bursts of noise.

The clips that spread the furthest online are the ones that can be consumed anywhere without disruption: on the subway, the sidewalk or in the doctor’s office; next to a partner in bed, behind the counter at work or under the desk in class. They’re the ones that allow for private experiences in the most public of places. And in the internet’s global marketplace, they’re the ones that transcend language barriers, instantly legible to viewers in Peoria or Paris.

Tubular Labs, the online video analytics company that placed LADbible at the top of its rankings, has found that of videos posted to Facebook by media companies, 46 percent of views go to videos that are completely silent or just accompanied by music. And in practice, an even higher proportion of social videos are watched silently. The advertising agency BBDO Worldwide says that more than 85 percent of its clients’ Facebook videos are viewed with the sound off.