How Subtitles Are Changing the Way We Watch 

“You Won’t Finish Reading This Article” is a column focused on YOU and the device you are holding in your hand right now. This piece of Glass (see what we did there?) has changed the world, and it may have changed the way we think.  

This edition is about how subtitles are changing the way we consume content.

If you opened up Netflix right now and played anything, chances are the subtitles are already on. If you scrolled through TikTok right now, you’ll notice that most videos have subtitles on as well. But why are they on in the first place? And why do we keep them on?  

Now, let’s get this out of the way — subtitles are objectively a good thing, it makes content more accessible, especially for those with hearing impairments, and helps content cross language barriers. But if you understand the language and you can hear things clearly, that still raises the question:  

Why do we keep subtitles on?  

The way we watch content has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, but even more so in the last two years. COVID-19, the infamous invisible war we fought just yesteryear, has rapidly accelerated a shift in the way we watch content in two fundamental ways.   

People used to go to the movies to, well… watch movies. You could watch it at home, but the experience was arguably much worse. But with the convenience of streaming services, and the fact that we now have incredible displays on our phones and in our living rooms, the rules have changed. A train journey is the perfect time to binge a TV show, and a nice bench in a busy park is a perfect place to finish that movie. With a phone, a pair of headphones and subtitles on, the busy world fades away.  

At the same time, the rise of short-form video apps like TikTok, Instagram Reels and even YouTube Shorts, have kept us glued to our screens for even longer. Each burst of video contains everything from fast dialogue, snappy editing, and constant subtitles. This powerful combination ensures we keep watching for longer, while tuning out the world.   

The use of subtitles in these two vastly different types of content might seem perfectly normal, but it’s a subtle sign of how much information we need to stay focused.   

If you ask yourself why people go watch movies in theatres, most people will say it’s to watch it on the best and largest screen, with the best audio, and before any pesky spoilers are floating around your social feeds. While all this is true, another reason is to escape and be fully immersed in a story, an experience, while in a dark room, where the outside world doesn’t matter. This provides something, that frankly, most people don’t have the energy or even opportunity to do themselves. By silencing your notifications and finding a quiet space, your watching experience is vastly improved. 

So that’s all well and true, but you might be asking yourself what this has to do with subtitles. Good question. Subtitles for a lot of people today are the extra little stimulation the brain needs to keep the viewer hooked. It forces your brain to analyse the visual, listen to the dialogue and read at the same time. This extra work is what keeps a lot of people hooked on their screens, especially if there are outside interferences like other people talking, loud noises, and notifications. It even helps to simply fight the feeling of being bored. It almost puts your brain into a trance, where it must absorb the content.   

This is currently an active area of research in the fields of media psychology and educational psychology. Numerous studies, such as one by Jan-Louis Kruger and Faans Steyn in 2014, have looked into how the presence of subtitles may increase comprehension of the video material by simply providing more redundant information for the brain to process.   

This understanding is used in short-form content, like TikTok, too. Creators are consciously adding flashy subtitles in their videos to engage the viewer and keep them hooked. Constantly moving words and ridiculously fast captions are simple editing tricks that might keep the viewer watching for a second longer. It’s such a common practice in these highly competitive platforms, that the platforms themselves are also using this opportunity to improve their technologies to create more accurate auto-captions.   

Fear of missing out is a real feeling, and people will often unconsciously make choices to avoid this emotion. For a lot of people, subtitles provide that mental stimulation we need to tune out of the world, while feeling like they aren’t missing a thing. 

Abishai Sujith (he/him) is a QUT student (Bachelor of Urban Development) and a content creator. With a keen eye for the intersection of technology and everyday life, he delves into the impact of emerging technologies. Abishai is driven by a passion to understand how our daily lives are shaped by design, construction and technology.

Abishai Sujith
Abishai Sujith
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