Are you a member of The Subtitle Club? That is, when you watch your favourite TV shows, films or even YouTube, do you automatically switch them on, even if you’re not deaf or hard of hearing? It seems that barely a month goes by without another piece of research telling us how reading has become an integral part of the viewing experience, but only if you’re young. And while it’s clear that the under 25s are using subtitles significantly more than any other generation, there’s a marked increase across other ages too.
To assume that this is simply another ‘Gen Z thing’ oversimplifies a really interesting phenomenon that seems to be a convergence of several adjacent happenings, rather than a general difference in taste of one set of people. And, as Canon Ambassador and cinematographer Elisa Iannacone points out, it’s not a ‘sudden’ shift. “Even when I was working in Newsweek's video team, back in 2013, we were subtitling everything because stats-wise, we knew that so many people were playing things on their phone without audio.” So, perhaps instead of looking specifically at the ‘who’, maybe we should be thinking about the ‘why’ and, most importantly, ‘what’ new problems are subtitles solving for viewers?
Are we trying to do ‘Everything Everywhere, All at Once’?
‘Kids have no attention spans these days!’ is a common lament. Is it just kids, though? A few years ago, Microsoft released the results of a study of 2000 people, which found that the average human attention span has decreased from twelve seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds in 2013. To put this into context: the attention span of a goldfish is reportedly nine seconds. Yikes. As you might expect, there does appear to be a correlation between this and the arrival of the ‘everywhere internet’. After all, our phones and their apps are designed to make tasks faster and more efficient, but has this also had a direct impact on our capacity for patience? How many of us have our phones to hand when we watch a movie? ‘Second screening’ and ‘sidebar conversations’ (chatting with friends on messaging apps, while doing something else) are commonplace, and subtitles offer a way to quickly catch up with key events happening on the first screen in a glance, while you can continue your groupchat or order a pizza.
But Elisa has noticed another surprising way that people are cramming more into less time – and this one is very much among young people. “On YouTube, you can speed up a video and I do notice younger people listening to things on double speed, which is really weird for me, but they're used to it.” Is speed the new subs? Are the demands of the digital world so great that we not only need to multitask constantly, but speed up how we multitask too?