Features and Columns · Movies

How “Mute By Default” Social Media Videos Affect Our Viewing Experience

In one of the great paradoxes of cinema history, thanks to social media apps, we’ve returned to silent cinema.
The Sound Of Music Muted
By  · Published on September 8th, 2021

SomWelcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay on auto-muted videos and the frightening power of silence in our viewing experiences.

If you have social media, you may have noticed in your idle scrolling that videos are muted by default. This holds true for the unholy trinity, a.k..a. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You may also have noticed that video ads are increasingly shown with subtitles not (necessarily) to accommodate language barriers or accessibility concerns, but because most folks encounter video content on social media in total silence.

As Mike Mashon, Head of the Moving Image Section at the Library of Congress, notes: “Silent films were never silent.” When exhibited, films in the Silent era were paired with musical accompaniment, which sometimes included live “special effects” sounds from a percussionist. But today, with auto-muted videos on social media, a truly “silent” form of viewing has materialized. Paradoxically, the absence of sound has once again proved how intrusive noise truly is. You notice a similar effect when you switch the sound off on a horror film. Muting grisly scenes is often a far more effective way of keeping disturbing images at a distance than shutting your eyes.

Sound brings the images of cinema closer to us, making them more visceral, inescapable, and less abstract. But as the video essay below notes, silence too has a sinister edge. Social media’s mute-by-default strategy seems to be an attempt to shield us from the intrusive presence of noise. But a few quick examples from cinema history underline that soundless images can hold an unnerving punch-packing power of their own.

Watch “Practices of Viewing: Muted”:

Who made this?

This video essay on muted videos and the cinematic experience is by Dr. Johannes Binotto. Dr. Binotto is a researcher and film scholar, presently teaching at the Lucerne School of Art and Design and the University of Zurich. You can check out more of Dr. Binotto’s work on his personal website and you can follow him on Vimeo here.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.