Bandwidth Wants to Be Used

Along with “information wants to be free”, the phrase, “higher bandwidth wants to be used” should enter the popular lexicon. Over the last several years I’ve noticed an increasing prevalence of video and audio tutorials that would probably be much better and more succinct if they were text, with illustrations or pictures.

This growth is definitely not in my imagination. Dan Frommer published a chart that graphically demonstrates this shift, probably because it made other headlines around the same time. This was made possible by widespread access to broadband and the popularity of video services in North America[1].

I read normally for enjoyment at about 700 words a minute[2], but upwards of 1,000 wpm when I’m skimming to extract information. Complex text might slow me down to a bit under my pleasure-reading speed for some sections, but my overall average for informational reading is about the same as my normal reading speed since I speed up between those sections. I know I’m an outlier, but even an average reading speed of 250–300 wpm is faster than audio/visual presentation since it is not limited to linear access.

Narrative speech is about 150–160 wpm. Presentation-style speech is typically slower, about 100–130 wpm, to allow the audience to process denser material and parse any visually presented information. I listen to, at present, 20 different podcasts for both entertainment and informational purposes. Depending on the type of podcast and the speaker, I listen at 1.7 to 2x speed.

Speech is processed differently from written material. While I can read really quickly, I can’t comfortably listen to and comprehend speech faster than double-speed most of the time, which means that the fastest I can get information from audio is less than half of my “leisurely” normal reading speed, much less my fast reading speed.

I have become frustrated with learning many things online, since nearly any project seems to turn up a page of videos, and only a handful of written articles — and most of those are multi-page slideshows. I find it hard to believe that I’m the only person who would prefer to read than view a video, but I guess usage and popularity statistics prove me to be a vanishingly small minority.

I will admit that there are some things that video is much better suited for teaching. When I wanted to use some left-over leather, that I’d bought for a costume, in a more extensive project, I looked at videos by Ian Atkinson and Nigel Armitage to learn how to sew a saddle stitch by hand, and a few minutes of demonstration was more helpful than the several descriptions and handful of drawings I’d managed to find elsewhere.

The actual sewing demonstrations in those videos is only a few minutes of the total. While most of that extra time is not “wasted” — Atkinson talks about many other related topics and organizes them well, and Armitage talks about common problems while demonstrating proper technique — many amateur videographers are not so conscientious.

It’s now easy and cheap to record video, but it has always been much more difficult to edit, and even more difficult to edit well. In an age of more restricted bandwidth, or more expensive recording equipment and storage mediums, the extra effort was worth it even for an amateur, but now anyone can throw the whole video up on YouTube and put the burden of finding the best bits on the viewer.


  1. As this article in The Verge explains, streaming video isn’t a thing in Japan, so while nearly half of all bandwidth in the US is chewed up by YouTube and Netflix, internet video is barely getting started here, and may be acquired into an early death by hidebound incumbents.  ↩

  2. I don’t use speed-reading techniques; I’m a naturally fast reader. In fact, I audited a speed-reading presentation at university and found that some of what they were teaching actually slowed me down since I was thinking about the process instead of just getting a visual info-dump into my head, the way normal reading felt to me. I never thought I was “fast” as a kid because my grandmother read ridiculously fast, like Reid in Criminal Minds fast. When I asked her to proofread school assignments, she’d find mistakes at the bottom of the page seconds after I handed the paper to her.  ↩