As a bit of a prelude, I do recognise the distinct irony in writing a mini-essay about content saturation on a public blog. But it’s unfortunately also the only way for me to express this as I’m not writing a book (yet) so alas, we go on.
“Here’s a question for you guys. Um… Is it… is it necessary? Is it necessary that every single person on this planet um, expresses every single opinion that they have on every single thing that occurs all at the same time? Is that… is that necessary?” ~ Inside by Bo Burnham
Back in the day
Cast your mind back 10 years. The year is 2012. You open up the popular app known as Facebook on your iPhone 4S. Your friends are updating their status almost daily and this thing called a 'news feed' shows you what everyone’s up to with their silly selfies in pixellated quality. After a few minutes, you reach the end of your feed and don’t have anything else to do. Darn it! Time for another app.
Time for Twitter. Tweets are shown in reverse chronological order and you follow some cool celebs you’ve heard of. There’s a lot of hashtags going on which seem a little baffling, it makes the tweets somewhat difficult to read. You decide to tweet and don’t know how you’re meant to fit everything you have to say into just 140 characters. This place seems civil enough.
Some younger people are talking about a new app called Instagram you can only get on your phone. The icon is this odd vintage logo and you can put a wide variety of filters on your photos into a square format but that seems to be the only feature? Seems a bit limited and nothing Facebook can’t already do.
YouTube’s pretty cool - you can watch some funny cat montages on that from your Subscriptions page. There’s been two irritating new music videos this year that have unusually made their way to the TV and radio too - one called Call Me Maybe and another called Gangnam Style. Both videos start without ads when you go to watch them.
TikTok did someone say? You mean the 2008 classic banger from Ke$ha? Great song.
This Tumblr thing as well sounds like it’s some kind of blogging site. You try that one and see your friend Jennifer has written some erotic made-up story about Edward and Bella from Twilight meeting Harry Styles from One Direction. Enough of that.
The really cool kids also mention this Snapchat app as well but it sounds like that’s just for sending time-limited pictures. Other than hearing stories of people sending their private parts, you don’t see the point. Moving on.
Twenty minutes of changing between the different apps, you get bored and know there’ll be very little else on them for the rest of the day.
You return to trying to open up Fruit Ninja with this new 'Siri' feature.
That is obviously a slight dramatisation of reality but interesting reminder of what 10 years ago on your phone looks like, hey?
Fast forward 10 years
Well, I think we all know what it’s like now…
You see maybe a photo from one aunt you’d forgotten about on Facebook. You're hounded with the same advert for a new pair of jeans that you’ve seen for the past month when you went on the ASOS website once. Every other post is an absolutely damning headline about how Greta Thunberg’s somehow brought about world poverty or how Elon Musk’s declared war on snowflakes. Both have 5.7K comments holding angry, poorly spelled, badly reasoned arguments. Despite this, you wonder how the 'Haha' face is somehow the top reaction.
I won’t go through this for every platform but you get the picture. They all have their issues, but the commonalities throughout all of them are algorithm, monetary, and misinformation-oriented.
And so what do these four things have in common? Content saturation.
Do you remember when the term 'content' became a norm for anything uploaded to social media or websites? One day it stopped being statuses, photos, videos, blog posts, GIFs or other more personal terms, and just became condensed into a very corporate buzzword of 'content'. There was a time where the notion of a 'content calendar' sounded quite foreign indeed.
You may have heard the phrase 'the currency of the internet is your attention' be batted around which couldn’t be more true, and which seems to have reached a new level of relevance recently compared to a decade ago.
We’re constantly being bombarded by, quite frankly, some absolute shit. And we give mere seconds, if that, to look and process it before moving onto the next item. Why? Well, simply because we can and we keep looking out for that next bit of content that might be of even more interest to us. Get that dopamine hit in - woohoo! Feels good, doesn’t it?
'Yeah cool thanks for the sarcasm Alex, but why exactly is this problematic?' might be your next logical question. 'I’m having a great time reading these headlines and enjoying TikToks, and can understand things a lot faster and simpler now than I EVER could have before' you argue.
Absolutely, and to some extent I can see the point. It is good to have some information dialled down to a more concise context for digestion. But the sheer bombardment of all this information all the time, means in a way… we don’t take any of it in. You know that quote from The Incredibles when Syndrome sneers 'And when everyone’s super….<evil laugh>… no one will be', it’s a bit like that but with content and knowledge.
But good grief, does it cause a lot of hidden issues, most of which unfortunately aren’t that apparent on the surface.
Using the algorithm
The 'algorithm' (a term most certainly not familiar ten years ago) is containing us within these boxes of our own reality, hiding visibility from all other opinions or interests. For instance, I’m not really that into watching sports, which subsequently means I barely see anything about it.
But that’s not to say I want to be completely cut off from it! I’m still interested in when the Olympics and World Cups are on, and like to know what’s happening in AFL so I can at least try and get into the sport, understand it and join in on conversations about it.
This is similar with politics and unfortunately why it’s become such a sour point for the internet. The articles online are always horrifically clickbait and misinformed (more on that in a second).
But if you’re a more liberally-minded individual for instance, and want to understand a conservative viewpoint, you’re only ever exposed to liberally-focussed news and those who think the exact same way as you (often with a dash more extremism thrown in there for good measure).
I do think this is a major contributing factor of why the 'left and right' (terms I don’t really like as they’re an oversimplification) seem to be stretching further apart and people becoming more intolerant of one another.
Money, money, money
Corporate-wise, I think what many forget is that it’s now become the job of marketing departments and agencies to craft biased content (blogs and social posts) that favour/promote a particular product, service or opinion. They often do this to rank better in SEO (search engine optimisation) results but that can be shared to socials too.
So when you Google '10 best places to go in Bali', even the results for this now have been meticulously crafted towards a holiday destination that’s paid for it.
There’s also paid content from companies to news and media companies. This is posted on the news company's website and socials which isn’t always that obvious to your average user.
Influencers is the other blatant place for this hidden incentive of content. Obviously, there’s been a monumental movement towards this from a decade ago. Ridiculous numbers of people can now make a full-time living by promoting businesses and/or sponsoring products that they frankly, don’t give much of a toss about. It’s extremely difficult to weed out the genuine from the con artists here sometimes as well.
I recall the days when I could watch a YouTuber give genuine advice about some productivity applications because they found them genuinely helpful. There was never any doubt to what they said, they just wanted to give out advice and help others. Now… it feels like everytime someone promotes a specific brand, you have to question their true intentions, regardless of whether they declare a partnership or not.
Putting the misinformed into misinformation
That leads me nicely to my final point in content saturation, misinformation. Influencers and media corps can be the absolute worst for this because of the financial incentive for them. Spreading information, products or services that are either blatantly untrue, heavily biased or taken out of context is extremely dangerous.
Remember it’s very much in their interest to gather as many clicks, views, subscriptions etc. from you so they can be more enticing to prospective advertisers. This means media companies are willing to do whatever to get this and to not really question the science behind it.
Ten years ago, that was barely apparent. Nowadays every headline is clickbait, every video thumbnail is some kind of eye-catching misdirect, or some hot take which is either just novel (and occasionally valid) or trying to be deliberately controversial.
If I look on my YouTube feed just now for instance, a mere 3-minute video can apparently tell me “why you can’t find a partner” (oversimplification), or “why the MCU has turned into a JOKE” (hot take alert of being deliberately controversial).
When you see things online, you then start to reach an understanding of thinking what you’ve seen/read is correct despite all this misinformation. This then has a flow-on effect to you spreading misinformation via word of mouth. Word of mouth, by the way, is still the most trusted referral medium in terms of marketing. Others may then be more likely to believe the horseshit and spread it themselves. And so the cycle continues.
Looking to the future
So, where does all this lead us to going forwards?
Honestly, the most pessimistic side of me says we really will be in for a true full-on mental health crisis at some point in our (Gen Z/millennial) lifetimes. I wouldn’t be surprised if unrealistic expectations of reality lead to widespread depression or even wilder attempts to show everyone how 'amazing' your life is beyond heavily exaggerated Instagram posts.
I could also potentially foresee poorer attention spans (and probable growing case numbers of ADHD) developing, due to this constant feeding of visual and/or audio stimuli, and not taking the time to process long-term memory functions.
And as I say, it makes me somewhat uncomfortable what the political implications may be in terms of dividing people further and having more extreme ideologies. Whilst there will always be some people like this, thinning out the middle ground and removing room for compromise doesn’t seem to me like it’s going to advance society particularly well.
I’m obviously no predictionist nor sightseer, so I’m purely speculating here. But it doesn’t seem to be completely out the range of possibility, does it?
What can be done
Look, realistically, we're not going back to 2012 internet. We're well beyond that and I'm not suggesting we even should.
But some actionable steps that can actually make a difference:
Question the 'facts' that people tell you.
Where did they get their info from?
Do they understand the full context, or does it sound like they've read a headline?
Limit your own content consumption.
Do you really need to know who'll own the Queen's corgis now she's passed?
What value do certain articles add to your life?
Discuss with others about their own content consumption habits.
Ask them what their phone screen time is per day/week. If they become defensive, that says something in and of itself.
Don't believe everything you read or watch. Think critically.
If you’re somehow still reading this, congratulations! You’re one of the few who have managed to defy the long-form content attention span. Hopefully you got some kind of value from it.
I’ll leave you with another golden quote from Inside (seriously, watch it) to ponder:
“Maybe the flattening of the entire subjective human experience into a… lifeless exchange of value that benefits nobody, except for, um, you know, a handful of bug-eyed salamanders in Silicon Valley… maybe that as a way of life forever, maybe that’s um, not good.”