The other day, Wall Street was captivated by talking bears.
There were two of them, blue and tan, ripping into the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. “Printing money is the last refuge of failed economic empires and banana republics,” declared the tan bear, who accused Fed officials of using jargon like “quantitative easing” to hide their true plans from the public. In computerized voices, the bears held forth in an ironic, rapid-fire Socratic dialogue, taking the Fed to task for everything from deflation strategy to its close relationships with investment banks. The odd six-minute cartoon was an instant hit on YouTube, racking up over two million views in its first week, and now topping 3.5 million overall. (By comparison, CNBC, the leader in televised financial news, draws under half a million viewers a day.) CNBC also broadcast the homemade video, cementing its legitimacy in financial circles. Soon, the bears’ audience included corporate elites like the CEO of one of the “biggest financial firms in the world,” according to business reporter Charlie Gasparino , and Fed Chair Ben Bernanke’s senior staff.
The cartoon, drolly titled “Quantitative Easing Explained,” was created in three hours by Omid Malekan, a former futures trader who now works in real estate. Cartoon policy videos have not yet supplanted op-eds, of course, but Malekan’s breakout hit is the kind of political content that could be very influential in a mediascape increasingly driven by video and social sharing.
“This is the wave of the future,” Malekan says, heralding the Internet’s power to share “democratized media-making.” He used Xtranormal , a free, simple website that enables users to turn text into videos. The site’s creators predict that movie-making “will be the most important communications process of the 21st century.”
“Monetary policy is dry and boring,” Malekan told me when I asked what inspired him to take an animated approach to financial commentary. “I wouldn’t expect someone to go home and read up for an hour on what Ben Bernanke said. An entertaining video makes it easier for them to tune in and keep up,” he explained.
The video clearly tapped into organic public interest in the Fed. Over a third of the video’s YouTube traffic came from direct peer-to-peer sharing, including people emailing the video to friends, rather than coverage by media gatekeepers. Its second highest source of traffic came from Facebook, which is another form of social recommendation. (Links from news sites like Huffington Post came further down the list.)
Matt Stoller, who was a prominent blogger for OpenLeft before becoming a policy adviser to Rep. Alan Grayson, says this kind of video breaks through online partly because the traditional media has left an information void.
“Mostly the media just doesn't explain stuff, instead receiving wisdom on high from experts,” Stoller said. “That video was entertaining, but it was also densely packed with explanatory content and a point of view that didn't take our elitist wise men seriously. It was grounded in how people experience the economy, as a scam by powerful people on them, instead of as a well-functioning technocratic paradise.” Stoller also pointed to a lengthy, “not funny” video of his former boss  discussing foreclosure fraud that also resonated, drawing over 100,000 views online.
Other Internet experts say this is just the beginning, predicting that video production will become a key skill for political advocacy and organizing in the future.
Andrew Rasiej, cofounder of the tech politics conference and website Personal Democracy Forum,* talks about “videracy” – a new literacy defined by the ability to produce videos that can express complex ideas.
He does not think the bears video, however, was a great example of communicating with moving images. It offered a “boring” animation of extensive text, Rasiej said, rather than “telling a story with anything more than words.” Still, even a rudimentary video can wield more impact than traditional grassroots media, thanks to its distribution prospects.
“Political opinion is primarily formed by people talking to each other,” Rasiej added, so the more that “networked people are talking about a political opinion, the more powerful it could be.”
As newspaper and traditional media audiences continue to contract, Americans are spending ever more time consuming online video. There isn’t a single traditional news publication among the 25 most popular websites in the U.S. right now, for example, while YouTube ranks fourth, stalking Google and Facebook. If you want facts, Wikipedia has risen to sixth and CNN is 18, but for print you have to drop to 27, where the New York Times clocks in.
Those trends show no signs of reversing. Videracy may become one of the only ways to reach all the people who consider literacy very 1.0.
* Full disclosure: I have previously been a paid contributor to the PDF website and an unpaid speaker at PDF conferences.