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Who has time to watch a 4-hour YouTube video? Millions of us, it turns out

The timesinks, they are a changin’.<strong> </strong>Above, a woman checks alarm clocks in a London clock factory in 1946.
Eric Harlow
/
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The timesinks, they are a changin’. Above, a woman checks alarm clocks in a London clock factory in 1946.

This week, as YouTuber Jenny Nicholson’s review/eulogy for the shuttered Disney Star Wars hotel started making the rounds, I was curious. I’d of course heard about the “immersive experience” officially called Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, and here was someone who’d actually experienced the, um, experience. But then I saw the video’s running time – four hours and five minutes! – and I closed the tab faster than I do whenever the algorithm wants to show me some dumbass trying to pick up a cobra.

Who has the kind of time, I wondered, to sit around and watch YouTube for half the damn workday? In this, the era of TikTok? And Reels? And in what is, we have all been repeatedly assured, a time of shrinking attention spans?

In the case of Nicholson’s Starcruiser video, millions and millions of people have the time, it turns out. And she’s not alone: Over the past few years, you may have noticed YouTube suggesting videos to you so long they make Lawrence of Arabia seem downright punchy.

In my feed, most of these take the form of disquietingly deep – and often critical – dives into various aspects of nerdy pop culture. “That internet D&D show we all used to love sucks now, and here’s three hours worth of proof!” “That new movie that everyone loves sucks, and here’s 63 reasons why!” “Here’s a recap of that series no one but you and me is watching, and the 43 glaring errors in continuity it overlooked!”

It’s not hard to understand why this is happening. Nerds gonna nerd, after all. We love what we love, and we’re prepared to corner you at a party, maybe over by the onion dip, and talk to you (OK: at you) about our every concern with it. At considerable length. (Why, yes, we do notice you gazing imploringly over our shoulders for someone, anyone, to rescue you; we just don’t care, because the really interesting thing about Buffy Season 4 that most people overlook is …..) And of course the YouTube monetization model prizes every precious minute it gets to spend with those delicious eyeballs of yours. Passion + Profit-Seeking is a powerful motivator; these videos will keep coming.

Or, if you truly believe in the marketplace of ideas, maybe they won’t. After all, most of these long-haul grievance videos aren’t worth anywhere near the time commitment they demand, and spending so many hours watching such sustained negativity leaves you feeling coated in a kind of psychic grime, a residue of greasy cynicism. I should note that Nicholson’s Starcruiser video is a glaring exception – she’s passionate, yes, but admirably clear-eyed about that passion. She makes her points (her many, many, many points) with equanimity and humor, and she’s got the literal receipts. She’s also quick to praise those aspects of the experience worth praising, and smartly drills down on the question of value-for-money.

But there’s no denying that a shift is happening. TikTok itself – that online smithy wherein memes get forged and hammered – is launching longer videos, and Mr. Beast, arguably the quintessential YouTuber, recently started pumping out longer videos based, he says, on viewer demand.

Now, me? I’m so old I remember thinking a 13-minute music video was downright audacious. And I’ll admit, I didn’t actually watch the Starcruiser video, I listened to it while driving to and from the city for a movie screening. But I do watch several actual-play D&D YouTube shows, which sometimes stretch past the four-hour mark. And back in the early aughts I’d happily sink endless hours into reading smart, well-written TV recaps that might as well have been novellas. Is there any substantive difference?

But I choose to be heartened by the rise of long-form video. Or more specifically: By the willingness of people to watch a single video for hours on end. It suggests that quality of work continues to matter – you do, after all, still have to earn all those extra minutes of our attention. And in a culture so quick to blame a raft of societal ills on shrinking attention spans, it offers a surprising and intriguing counter-narrative to the experts who cite audience data to dictate precisely how long a YouTube video, or a web article, or a podcast episode “should” be.

Turns out the answer isn’t quantitative, but qualitative – not precise length, but personal value.

This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.