I love watching instructional videos on YouTube. Last weekend, I used one to figure out how to replace the back tire on my bike. YouTube is fantastic for explainers where you really need to see something, and where a textual explanation isn’t as useful.
Indeed, the ease of shooting video — and distributing it — to share everyday knowledge is one of the finest parts of living, as we do, in the future. When I was a kid in the ‘80s, if you wanted to learn a new skill, you mostly were stuck trying to find a book. This often sucked. I taught myself to play harmonica and guitar from books, but it was a grind. Text is a dreadful medium in which to explain subtly kinesthetic things like embouchure shape or fretboard technique. Video would have been far, far superior.
So the fact that everyday people now use the moving image to share and encode knowledge is a huge boon to humanity!
There’s only one problem:
On YouTube — wow, people talk slowly.
They talk so…
Drumming my fingers while I watch videos
I can’t remember the first time I noticed how much this bothered me. Probably a few years ago. I’d start watching an explainer, and within a few seconds find myself drumming my fingers in impatience. The video creator would be loping along, chatting at a leisurely, it’s-all-good-bruh pace, and after a few seconds I’d be like omg please please get to the point. I haven’t got all day here.
I’m not going to link to specific videos; I’ve no desire to point a finger at individual creators who are working hard to share their ideas and knowledge. They might well think I’m nuts.
I may well be! Truthfully, public speakers are frequently advised to do precisely what these YouTubers are doing. They’re encouraged to speak at a deliberate pace, since it usually aids comprehension and avoids alienating audience members. So YouTube explainers are attempting to be considerate of the viewer, which is laudable.
Unfortunately, I’m the opposite: I’m a very fast talker (and fast listener!), much more comfortable in conversations and presentations that run at gatling-gun tempo. So with YouTube, I’m swimming against the current. I get so itchy at the sleepy tempo of videos that it literally breaks my concentration; I can’t stay focused. It’s the same reason I can rarely listen to NPR. Despite the fact that the hosts are smart and thoughtful and the material is deeply researched, the delivery is so achingly lugubrious that I want to hurl my radio out the window.
“Dost thou love life?” as Benjamin Franklin once wrote. “Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.” That’s sort of how I feel about slow-paced video. Life’s short, people! Let’s pick up the pace!
The joy of “Video Speed Controller”
For years, I’d developed neurotic habits to cope with my mania for speed.
I’d open a YouTube video and immediately mash the speed-up key-command (shift + >) to accelerate to 2x — the fastest that YouTube’s interface will let you go. I could usually still understand speech, though I’d turn on the subtitles too. If I found a moment I wanted to linger on, I’d shift back to 1x.
This worked pretty well.
Except… eventually I found that even 2x wasn’t fast enough. That’s how much damn slower people talk than the pace I’d prefer. I wanted faster faster faster faster.
So I started hunting around, figuring that someone must have made a tool catered specifically for freaks like me. And indeed they had!
It’s Video Speed Controller, a Chrome plug-in by Ilya Grigorik. It lets you use key commands to accelerate a YouTube video to much, much faster than 2x. Indeed, I’m not exactly sure if there is an upper limit. I’ve experimentally jacked it up as high as 8x, and the plug-in responded just fine.
After trying out a few settings, I’ve found that the speed I prefer most for instructional video is 3x or 4x. That seems to satisfy my craving to plough through the material at a blinding clip, yet still “get” all the content.
In fact, if I leave the subtitles on, I find that a video at 3x or 4x turns into what is essentially a textual slide show — I’m reading as much as (or more than) I’m listening, yet I’m also benefiting from tracking the visual info.
There are some clever customization features, too: You can set a “preferred speed” and then have a single key command that zooms you immediately up to that level. If you find a moment you need to linger on, there’s another hotkey that brings you back to 1x.
Why are video-watching tools stuck in 1979?
After I fell in love with this plug-in, I emailed Grigorik to find out why he made it. It turns out he’d had an experience similar to mine — he wanted to go faster than YouTube’s native controls would let him:
As with most things open-source, it was made in anger. The <video> elements provides native support for controlling playback speed but very few players (a) exposed controls for it in their UI, (b) provided granular enough settings to be useful. I had a series of snippets that I used to run manually on various sites to “fix” this, which finally got annoying enough… and so I made an extension.
I’m pleasantly surprised by the amount of traction it got.
He made another interesting point, one that I’ve often thought about myself: The world of video-watching technology is surprisingly under-explored.
We’re using video more and more, but we have shockingly few tools for parsing and skimming and making sense of it. Most video players give you merely the same controls that you’d have found on a VCR from 1979: play, stop, pause, rewind, fast-forward, etc. There’s been surprisingly little innovation here.
As Grigorik wrote to me…
I think this space is woefully underexplored by the research & developer community. If you read the refs in the readme, those provide great context on what I’m referring to. For me personally: I consume a lot of technical talks through YouTube and related sites. Depending on my familiarity with the subject, my speed varies from 1.5 and all the way to 2.7, and I frequently change it throughout the talk — that’s the critical part that all of the existing players miss, they assume it’s a fixed toggle. In reality, you need 0.1 or lower increments which you can toggle through quickly. Hence the shortcuts on the extension: S+D to increase/decrease, Z+X to forward and rewind — all customizable. I’m frequently doing a “SSS…. Z+R… G”: faster, faster faster, .. oh interesting, rewind and go to 1x, ok got it, now back to my default speed”. Your mileage will vary! :-)
“Your mileage will vary”: This is precisely the point. People’s watching habits — their preferred speeds, and the rhythms with which they zip back and forth between skimming and lingering — are likely to be as varied as people themselves, and as varied as our styles of reading are.
Yet our video tools mostly don’t accommodate these varied needs. It’s time they did. Chrome extensions like Video Speed Controller are a great first step. It is, quite straightforwardly, a time-saver.
(Oh, BTW: It’s open source; the code is here on Grigorik’s GitHub account.)
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and Smithsonian magazines, and a regular contributor to Mother Jones. He’s the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. He’s @pomeranian99 on Twitter and Instagram.