There is a fallacy that seems to have worked its way into the shared psyche, a belief that the next generation (whichever one that might be) will not read text at all but will demand video for everything. This seems to have produced a kind of fatalism in some tech writers, a belief that video will conquer all despite its obvious unsuitability for many technical communication tasks.
Here is one expression of this, from a recent discussion on LinkedIn:
I agree that videos can be frustrating, particularly when you know most of the information and you only need help on a small area of a product. But customers like them and the upcoming generation will require them.
But why should customers like, or the next generation require, a form of information delivery generally acknowledged to be frustrating?
Most people do like videos for some things, of course. How-to videos are very popular on YouTube. I have watched a number of them and found them valuable for a certain kind of question, generally ones involving some complex physical process such as installing a headlight bulb or getting three stars on a particular level of Angry Birds. Videos are by far the easiest way to understand these kinds of actions.
In the past, these types of actions were usually described using diagrams or text because the cost of producing and the difficulty of delivering and viewing a video were prohibitive. Now that we all have easy access to decent quality video and sound recording tools and to Internet-connected devices capable of receiving and viewing videos, the reasons not to use videos for the things videos are best at have gone away.
This does not mean that there is any reason to use videos for things they are not good at. If videos were cheaper to make, distribute, and consume than text, there might be an economic motive to use video where text would be better, but cheap as videos now are, text is still cheaper, and can be viewed in more places and on more surfaces.
Nor is there any reason to believe that the next generation will lose the willingness or ability to read text. We are talking, after all, about a generation that has abandoned the phone call in favor of texting and can type 50 words a minute with one thumb. Unwilling to read text? They may generate and consume more text than ever before.
Do they watch a lot of videos and play a lot of video games? Sure. Do they do this instead of reading books? No. They do it instead of playing outside with their friends. Bookish childhoods have always been in the minority. And in any case, this is not about the consumption of literature. The reading that matters for purposes of everyday business and technical communications is business and technical reading. Not reading for pleasure, but reading for work. Reading is an essential part of most modern work, and most workers learn to do it well enough to get their work done, regardless of whether they read for pleasure. That is no different today than it was fifty years ago.
Because video has become cheaper to produce and easier to distribute, it is naturally being used more. Reducing the price of a commodity generally leads to increased consumption, driving the trend line upwards. This does not mean it will inevitably drive all other commodities out of the market. If you take a rising trend line at the right point and project it outwards, the projection will inevitably reach 100% share of any market. But that is not what happens to trends in real life.
This chart (data roughly copied from http://www.goodcarbadcar.net/2011/01/us-auto-market-size-2001-2010.html) shows the relative percentage of car and light truck sales in the US over the last decade. Project the trend line for trucks from 2001 to 2004 and you would conclude that car sales would be zero within a couple of decades. Project the trend line for cars from 2004 to 2009, and you would conclude that truck sales will be zero in a few years.
Neither of these things will come to pass, of course. Some people live in city apartments and will always want city cars. Some people live on farms or work in construction and will always want trucks. In between there are folks who might buy either depending on their income, their stage of live, government regulation, gas prices, and fashion trends. Some of these folks might prefer a truck but buy a car because it is cheaper. Some might prefer a car but buy a truck because they need it for work. A complex of economic, political, and demographic factors will drive the trend line in one direction for a while, and then in another direction. A simple rise or fall in interest rates, for instance, can profoundly change the trend line for things like home ownership or vehicle purchases.
But present trends don’t continue. Never have. Never will. What trends do, generally, is stay flat most of the time, and then, when conditions change in some significant way, the trend line ramps up or down quickly to reach its new natural level in the new environment and then goes flat again at that new level until the environment changes again.
Flat trend lines are not newsworthy, so we only notice them when they take one of their sudden upward or downward swings. Projecting the new trend line out to infinity is a good way to add some punch to the news story. But trend lines do not stay steep. Like water rising when a dam breaks, their rise can be spectacular and disruptive in the moment, but there is only so much water upstream. The water level will crest and find its new natural level.
Demand for video is increasing because prices are down and delivery and consumption are easy. This will reduce the demand for text for applications where video is a superior alternative. It will not reduce demand for text in applications where text is a superior alternative, though there may be a temporary crest of video usage before the new natural level is found and the trend line flattens out. Video will be used for the things it is good at. It will not be used for the things that text is better at. The next generation will not be illiterate morons. They will use text where text is best and video where video is best.
And that is what we should be striving to do in tech comm today. We should not be setting out to replace text with video wholesale across either a particular company, or across the industry generally. Nor should we dismiss video, by focusing only on the things it is not good at. Rather, we should be setting out to use video where video works best and is price competitive with text, and we should continue to use text for the things that text is best at.