I’ve been thinking about the people who write on the web for fun. Blogs, podcasts, Medium posts—at least the ones that are there because the author has something to say, not just caressing their personal brand.1
After all, one of the things that attracted me to the web was the publishing platform. I’d spent my teenage years writing fiction and my twenties making feature films.
To get a novel to someone, I’d have to print 150 pages, stick it in a binder and carry it to them. To show someone a short film, I had to burn a DVD, and maybe print some art for it. Scaling or making it look professional was usually out of our budgets.
In 2010, the publishers were all psyched about iPads. This was going to be the magic machine that people would use to “consume so much content” and turn publishing on its head.
I was an iPad skeptic. And I was wrong and I was right. They never did take over the world. Phones became what tablets were supposed to be.
But the content didn’t. The publishers envisioned themselves as the kings of this brave new world. That wouldn’t come to pass.
And the indie people got we wanted: you can put feature film on Vimeo (or sell it on Vimeo on Demand), export a novel to epub, and stick links on your social networks so anyone you know can download it at their leisure. Distances doesn’t matter. If you can make it you can deliver it.
And yet, while I’ve read a few books can came from CreateSpace, could recommend a few self-distributed films2, and many bands running through BandCamp, the moonlight artists don’t command much of your attention either.
Instead, for all the hours per day people sink into modern media, most of it doesn’t go into anything that reflects any effort on the part of the author.
Most of it goes to, to use the native 2016 internet jargon, 💩.
What exactly do I mean by 💩?
💩 is a picture of your face, eating a taco, transformed to look like a cat. It’s 5 steps to become a mindful happy woke AF millionaire, and you won’t believe what happens next. It’s a series of memes that make you lol silently, click Like, and keep scrolling.
It’s not a blog post that someone spent an a few hours thinking about before writing. It’s not a video that had both and pre and post-production phase. It’s not a joke or even a short note that has any purpose at all.
It’s the stuff that takes no real effort, thought, or creativity to create, and that would be fine—we shouldn’t be offended by the existence of pointless things—except for this: 💩 is winning the zero-sum game for our attention.
All of this has happened before. Socrates opposed written words because it would destroy peoples’ memories. Early horror and noir comic books were accused of corrupting the youths. There was a moral panic in England about novels, in America about television… it never ends.
Yet, all of the things I just listed tell stories. They can be about nothing. They can be about the human condition. Film can be art. It can also be crap. The medium is friendly to many messages.
We could trace a similar thread in music.
As I write this, I wonder, am I just being a snob? Is this just another instance of the age-old argument about high and low culture?
Yet, there does seem to be a distinction. Memes, selfies, and cat gifs do not tell stories. They are not deeply personal. A short film or television episode can challenge you. Have you ever seen a gif that challenges you?
I can’t think of—OMG baby elephant!
With the flick of his tail, the elephant whipped you out of whatever state of mind you were in and made you happy for a fraction of a second.
On the other hand, if I were to drop one of the many concert videos I have laying around—Metric’s “Blindness”, for example—I don’t think I could achieve the same effect. It has artistic merit coming out the wazoo but it doesn’t snatch your attention out of the air in the same way. It asks you to focus while it delivers its awesomeness. The elephant, well, you get that instantly whether you asked for it or not.
You didn’t even click that, did you? And if you did, did you watch the whole thing?
This is the elephant’s competitive advantage. It doesn’t need to ask for permission, it just needs to show up, and be followed by another, and another. And you scroll and somebody gets engagement points.
There’s ample evidence that people like substance. They’ll binge-watch hour-long dramas. They’ll finish 25,000 word magazine features. They’ll listen to a whole podcast season in a weekend. But that takes focus. It needs you to sit down spend time on it. It’s not going to steal those in-between minutes.
So it’s a no brainer that apps whose primary measure of success are engagement points are completely dominated by 💩. If you’re standing in line for coffee, you’re not in a place to stop and listen to music or read a book, but you can definitely spare 5 seconds for 💩. So the platforms find what they’re looking for: minutes engaged.
My question for the room is this: what do you get out of it?
I recognize this thinking. It’s the same ideas that got me to ditch Twitter, shut off all the notifications, and delete a few dozen accounts.
But ultimately, this is just gnawing at the edges. I can reduce the 💩 in my life by limiting time on any social media. There’s no shortage of people doing this—there’s apps that block Facebook for you and an entire Life Improvement Industrial Complex telling people to disable notifications or delete their accounts entirely.
It’s not enough.
15 years ago I read a Timothy Zahn book that involved pilots who used a full-sensory VR type technology. When flying, they’d be immersed in colors, smells, and textures to immerse them with information about their machines and their environment. Copperheads, they were called, after the implant that made it possible.
It’s easy to see our phones in the same light, tiny extensions of ourselves that use color and sound and vibrations to flood us with constant new information.
In Zahn’s world, the Copperheads suffered severe psychological side effects. They became addicted to these experiences. The real world was dull by comparison.
And seemingly out of nowhere, there’s a slew of journalists and technologists talking about smartphones in the the exact same way. Their diagnoses vary but the common target of their criticisms is the infinite scrolling feed and the notifications that draw you into it.
Some of them are connecting smartphones to depression, anxiety, and suicide. By comparison my narrow critique of content feels trite. Perhaps it is, but the problems feel connected. I don’t know much about mental health, but I’ve never felt empty inside after spending two hours reading a book.
And yet I am a hypocrite. I recently got so sick of political news dominating Facebook, I joined the Dogspotting group to flood it with dogs instead.
Dogs are great. But have no illusions: an endless steam of puppy photos presented for your micro-amusement is indeed 🐶💩.
Could anything change? Until very recently, I didn’t think so. Too many business models are so tightly coupled to engagement points. While they’ll pay lip service to journalism and art and community every few years, the status quo works well.
And yet, a little backlash seems to be brewing all over the place. It has a name—“brain hacking”—and the scent of a full-fledged moral panic. “Social media is the new smoking,” or something like that.
Of course, you can’t just throw all the smart phones in the river and call it a day. Luddites never win. If you want results, you need to make a v2 that meets your goal. Imagine a phone that works a little slower, with fewer notifications and no infinite scrolling feeds. Imagine it having plenty of media, but mostly stuff you actually want to sit down and experience.
You’d use it a lot less, but that’s the whole point:
Save the elephants, save humanity, stop 💩.