On Internet Inanity

Online culture requires and creates an avalanche. The stuff of that avalanche has been given the ungainly title of ‘content’. The funniest tweet, the most brilliantly edited video, the most life-affirming podcast, and the greatest piece of online journalism – all are content, all are grist for the endlessly turning mill.

This sounds ugly but it need not be ugly. Once ‘book’ was a useful word because the words within one could only exist in that form. Now, in an age of e-writing, and of listening to recorded words spoken clearly, that no longer makes sense. Consumers follow a new pattern of phrasing which is almost academic: they consume content, they consult texts.

So far, so palatable. Content is a general term and it can be generally applied. Videos, music, books. All of them available – more than ever before. And all of them monetised.

But the rewards for content’s provision means it’s overprovided. And a great deal of that overprovision is simple rubbish.

This is hardly new. In the development of print and the proliferation of reading, very little good could be guaranteed. A history of crime writing – say the sections of the (bestselling) Suspicions of Mr Whicher – contains broadsides and ballads of dubious quality. Magazines and newspapers filled with nonsense. Serial fiction not of genius, but rather of dubious merit.

A good deal of this sold quite well or it would not have been written. Most hack writers were not like Scots poet William McGonagall, artists hamstrung by the sheer fact of their lack of talent. They were hacks, and hacks who begat potboilers and broadsides and pamphlets of disputed quality but certain financial value.

Let us return to our own age.

Have you ever really looked at the front page of YouTube? Looked closely, I mean, before clicking on something specific, or clicking away; looked at the things you are expected to see and like and care about?

Give it a look, if all this is new to you. Even a fresh visitor to the site, unencumbered by a profile and a history, what you see is not appealing.

If you visit often and the things you are recommended are accurate, it’s a warped reflection not only into what the Google mind believes makes up your mind, but also a cracked assessment of what we are all meant to like, and to be like.

The trending tab contains a few points liable to arouse offense. A few names crop up all too much not to make an observer suspicious. Clips from sporting events or TV talent shows – which have their own dedicated broadcasts elsewhere in the ecosystem – appear entirely too often.

And there is a feeble, US late night TV imitation in directing users to see celebrities acting quirkily or appearing on chat show sofas, dressed well, their make-up done, looking great, loving life, being funny.  Or, separately, doing normal things in an unreal way where the strings are visible and the stage manager barely out of frame.

All want to be involved in the YouTube millions. And YouTubers themselves, formerly ordinary people with strange ideas for little clips, have quietly become the best-paid and most numerous cadre of entertainers on the planet.

Where once a typical YouTube video that got numbers was three minutes of a good idea, badly shot; now an average million-view banger is a fifteen minute long production of real quality, with flashy editing and tasteful lighting hiding the joins and obscuring the vacuity present in the whole enterprise.

All this comes at a cost, of course. Those engaged in the high stakes game of getting numbers know they are dancing on the lip of a volcano. They know human attention is finite, and easily bored, and that views melt away.

Hence odd witch-doctor tendencies among video-makers, many of them attempting to divine and capture ‘the algorithm’, which they believe propels views to videos almost at random. They pull odd faces in thumbnails and include misleading text in order to bait a click or two from the watching masses.

A few of them even took to bordering their images with red because a rumour did the rounds that doing so paid out.

But the strangest measure of all this – and the most obviously inane – is the proliferation of videos not just based on a popular personality reading things off Reddit (YouTube’s most subscribed individual, Pewdiepie, before he briefly stopped uploading videos last month, used to do so with some success); instead, the video itself is simply a series of answers to a question posed on Reddit, forced through a passionless text-to-speech engine.

In these videos, for channels called things like ‘Sir Reddit’ or ‘Updoot [upvote] Reddit’, an expressionless voice relays dull details of others lives. When they found a penny on the pavement, or a bad first date they overheard at another table in a restaurant. Many of these channels have a strange obsession with relaying things that went on at school.

This is not only soulless theft of others’ posts on forums; it also appears to be easy money. Taking in these channels, big and small, seems to yield hundreds of thousands of views per video, more or less guaranteed. While others prostrate themselves before the algorithm, this low-effort, zero energy alternative appears to pave a golden path to the bank.

I have watched a number of these videos in researching this piece. They are simply strange. The stories themselves are not especially interesting. Most of the wisdom contained is common enough not to need further elaboration. Many of the freak occurrences are not rare, or not interesting. The humour and even the cadence of these responses are insular, full of irritating references and in jokes and shared diction.

But eventually, the tidal wave of content works its magic. The text-to-speech voice powers on, its emotionless effect working. The content avalanche takes in yet more snow and keeps tumbling, the tide of inanity drawing attention in, and leaving wasted time in its wake.

This essay originally appeared on Medium.

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