Why the Fast Forward Button is the YouTube Viewer’s Best Friend
Life comes at you fast, especially when you have 500 hours of video to watch every minute
One recent Sunday, I watched an eclectic mix of YouTube videos that arguably had nothing at all in common. I watched an American man review a microwaved fried chicken and mashed potato meal; an artist paint a watercolour based on the 100th page of a book; a young woman unbox a Disney-themed subscription box; and Gordon Ramsay try The WORST Ever Dishes on Kitchen Nightmares.
Yet while my content choice was varied, my viewing experience wasn’t. Before each clip began, I tapped the cog at the bottom right hand corner of the YouTube video, and set the playback speed to double-quick time.
There are no exact figures that reveal how many people — like me — double the speed of the YouTube videos they watch. (YouTube declined to provide information and context on the record for this story.) Still, it’s a popular pastime.
“I literally can’t watch YouTube videos unless they’re on 2x speed, it’s becoming a problem,” YouTuber Angelika Oles tweeted in June. “I watch every YouTube video in 2x speed because then I can watch twice as much,” reads another YouTuber’s tweet. Both have thousands of likes. We’re racing through videos at a great rate of knots. Why?
YouTube first implemented playback speed options in 2010, but in the years prior, viewers used third party applications to speed up or slow down videos. Rudy Muñoz is a 22-year-old student from California who first began speeding up videos when watching “boring movies” on his brother’s PlayStation 3. He now speeds up every YouTube video that isn’t music.
“It helps me consume more content a lot faster,” Muñoz says. He admits to watching a “time consuming” amount of online video — every morning he queues up between “seven and 20 videos” from his subscriptions box, ranging from Bon Appétit cooking clips to WWE highlights. He began watching videos on 1.25x speed in 2016, before graduating to 1.5x and finally 2x speed now. But that’s not always enough. “Sometimes I watch videos at 2x speed and it feels so slow for me. I wish it was possible to speed up at 2.5x or even 3x,” he says.
In YouTube’s early years, any video longer than three or four minutes seemed extreme. For the first five years of the site’s existence, videos created by non-partners were capped at 10 minutes to discourage pirated content being shared. In July 2010, the platform extended the cap to 15 minutes, and then, in December that year, began allowing “selected users with a history of complying with the YouTube Community Guidelines” to upload longer videos.
Today, users can upload videos that are hours long — and frequently do. “It’s now common to see vlogs and other content on YouTube that is half an hour or longer,” says Zoë Glatt, who is studying for a PhD on YouTube at London School of Economics.
Glatt explains that “increasingly lengthy content” has become the norm because of various YouTube algorithm changes. In 2012, the site began recommending videos based on watch time, and in 2016, the platform’s most popular creator, PewDiePie, revealed that videos over 10-minutes long earned more advertising revenue on the site. “If you want to make it on YouTube these days, just make long ass videos, fuck any type of pacing, quality, none of that,” the most-subscribed YouTuber said.
It’s in response to the pursuit of length over quality that many users have taken to the fast-forward button. John Munro, a 41-year-old software developer from Atlanta who speeds up videos, says he is frustrated that creators make tutorial videos longer than they need to be in order to earn ad revenue. “I usually have a specific question that I’m looking for an answer to, and it’s frustrating that instead of posting a simple answer the person has chosen to post a long, slow video of them walking through it,” he says.
Speeding up educational videos makes sense, but what about videos designed to entertain? I speed up nearly every video I watch — from hair transformations to vlogs to skits to movie reviews (the only thing I have never, ever sped up, and savour every second of, is Claire Saffitz’s Gourmet Makes). Glatt believes that the tendency to watch videos at 1.5x or 2x speed “suggests that audiences are taking a more means-to-an-end approach to content” by ensuring they can keep up with their favourite creators. “After all, if you follow even 10 channels religiously and each channel is now producing a 30-minute video per week, this is much more of a time commitment than it used to be.”
But is this trend at all worrying? Sometimes, it seems as if I can feel my brain rotting in my skull when I speed up tea videos or clickbait about THE WORST MAKE-UP ARTIST IN MY CITY. David Shenk, a filmmaker and author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, says that until the mid-20th century, humans were “basically in an information drought”, and now we can get “a lifetime’s worth” of knowledge in seconds.
“It’s like calories — until the 20th century, most of humanity was undernourished and really had to work hard to get enough calories just to get through a day. And now, with calories and information, almost in a blink of an eye, it’s flipped,” he says.
Shenk advises that we need to be judicious with how we consume information — he argues that the election of Donald Trump and the push for Brexit can be seen as a consequence of our desire to consume and spread more information in a less thoughtful way. When it comes to sped-up YouTube videos, on the one hand, Shenk notes it’s a positive thing that people are using tools to get information more quickly. On the other, he argues that it’s troubling that we now need to remain constantly titillated.
“Videos were meant to be consumed at a certain speed for a reason,” he says. “If I’m a filmmaker, I could’ve made my movie faster, I could’ve made it shorter, but if it’s a quality piece of media, there’s a reason it’s unfolding at the speed it’s unfolding.”
Stefan Michalak, a family vlogger with 278,000 subscribers, says he would be “lowkey devastated” if he found out people were speeding up his videos. “I guess it’s the same way a musician wouldn’t want people listening to their songs at an increased tempo,” he says. “Film should be presented as a kind of frequency — a frequency with a rhythm that’s created by setting a pace and manipulating time. How long you hang a shot, a pause in a sentence, establish a location: timing is everything.”
It’s not just online videos that face the speed treatment — Aadhil Ismail, a 22-year-old student from Sri Lanka, tells me increases the playback speed in Audible as well as on YouTube. “I’ve noticed that actual real life lectures and speeches have become too slow for me,” he says. Fellow student Muñoz finds himself wishing he could speed up films and TV shows on Netflix, Hulu, and HBO — perhaps, one day, the option will be on offer. But there’s one button Muñoz will never get. “To be honest,” he admits, “I wish I could speed people in person when they’re talking so slow.”