How the internet is changing cultural content

Welcome to your weekly subscriber update. The theme this week is new forms of cultural content in the digital era. I’m not just talking about the obvious changes: from CDs to streaming, paper to screen, etc. Today I’m looking at how the content itself has changed.

We all know music is most commonly streamed now, but do artists and consumers still care about albums? Do people really want to watch interactive movies, or are they just a gimmick? Do people still read novels? How is news media different in the TikTok era? These are all questions I’ll look at today.

  1. The atomisation of music & what’s next

Writing in The Irish Times, Hugh Linehan argues that the “atomisation” of music caused by digital technology (and streaming in particular) has led to a more “personal and intimate” kind of music:

All around us, traditional media are being replaced by individually tailored niches. It’s surely no coincidence that, in audio, this atomisation is accompanied by a surge in the popularity of headphones. The individual listening experience becomes more personal and intimate, and that in turn has an effect on what’s most popular. At the moment, at least, people seem to prefer podcasts and music that make them feel as if they’re alone in the room with the performers. And that in turn has an appreciable effect on the kind of music and talk that’s produced.

My take: Certainly the atomisation Linehan refers to has led to the prevalence of personal playlists, and also to automated playlists that Spotify and other streaming companies are increasingly feeding us. This in turn has meant less people listen to whole albums than in the analogue era. But I think there are a couple of other digital trends worth noting.

One is the increasing use of social media feeds to try and hook people into new music. Music Business Worldwide ran an article this week about Facebook’s music strategy. MBW wrote:

Rather than launching an audio streaming player to rival the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, FB has instead introduced a numbers of features which consumers can use to decorate their content with licensed music, and which artists can use to better communicate with their audience – and better promote their wares.

Examples of this are licensed music clip soundtracks (via ‘Stickers’) that people can add to their Instagram and Facebook ‘Stories’, and on the artist side Mark Ronson’s interactive music video posted (and re-posted multiple times) as an Instagram Story. What I like about this strategy is that it can help fans of a certain artist (like Ronson for example) socialize together. Perhaps Facebook should focus more on this type of feature than on dominating the news business.

The second internet era trend is, I think, a more worrying one: AI music. This is music produced by a computer that, in its current usage, is typically designed to complement an activity. For example a playlist of machine music that helps you exercise. But as I’ve said before, AI-created music will never usurp human-created music. For many of us, music is about a (human) connection with our favourite artists, the meaning and inspiration we glean from their art, and community with fellow fans.

  1. Interactive movies and online video; maybe stick to scripted shows.

This week Variety reported on a YouTube “interactive special” that has 31 possible endings:

YouTube is diving into interactive entertainment with a new special featuring popular gaming creator Markiplier as a black-clad super-criminal who tries to steal a priceless artifact from the world’s most secure museum.

Along the lines of Netflix’s “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” viewers will control the outcome of the interactive movie, “A Heist With Markiplier.” The first-person branching narrative storyline has 31 possible endings in all, with the entire production encompassing 61 videos. It’s slated to premiere Oct. 30 and will be free to all users.

My take: The inspiration for most tv and movie interactive shows is gaming. What the creators of these shows are usually trying to do is make an amalgam of Hollywood and Fortnite. Or in this case, an amalgam of YouTube star and Fortnite. But this always seems to miss the point of both forms of entertainment: tv shows and movies are best enjoyed as a ‘lean back’ experience (the story is told to you), whereas gaming is about leaning into the character you’re playing (you fully inhabit a story, via a game character).

Likewise I’m dubious of movies promoted as being “immersive,” like one called “Indirect Actions” that is being described as “the world’s first immersive documentary feature film.” The trouble is, it’s not VR – which is the only truly immersive digital technology. Rather, the Indirect Actions movie is designed for “360° viewing in a dome-shaped screening venue.” That sounds fun, but it’s more of a gimmick than a revolution in movies.

  1. Does the novel matter in the digital age?

Irish novelist Eimear McBride writes in The New Statesman about the current state of the novel:

This may sound like a gratuitously personal plea for the importance of the novel. But the experience of a novel is always personal first. The analysis of its literary, linguistic, sociological, political and historical value only ever comes into play after that. This is the secret power of the novel. No matter how the internet and social media attempt to make reading a team sport, with endless polls and rating systems, blogs and forums for attack and defence, ultimately the writer alone does the writing and the reader, alone, does the reading. As a result, the novel becomes the conduit for an intimate act of communication between them and no matter how fraught, that pact is binding.

My take: I liked this article because it connects to the two trends I wrote about above: atomised music and interactive movies. The best novels, just like the best music and the best movies, are crafted by artists. That’s the true value of cultural content; regardless of whether it’s digital or paper, scripted or interactive. In all cases, a (human) creator imparts their personal vision. Whether it’s a novel or an interactive game like Fortnite, it’s all about how the creator’s vision communicates to its audience.

A final quote from McBride that sums things up nicely, I believe, for a novel as well as the most modern of interactive VR experiences:

A work’s success or failure is a purely private matter which takes place in the transaction between the writer and reader.

  1. How news media are using TikTok

In the world of 21st century news media, every year brings another social media platform to try and conquer. First it was Facebook and Twitter, then it was Instagram and Snapchat, and now it’s TikTok. Each time, the content seemingly must get ever shorter and more ‘interactive’ for it to capture that elusive metric of “engagement.”

Folio’s Steve Smith admits he’s not in TikTok’s demographic, but he seems to capture something of this new-fangled platform regardless:

Clearly there is something going on in TikTok that is of cultural importance. The reuse of popular culture, the proximity of people to that culture, the role of the platform in lightly shaping the content are all things which are suggestive of things to come in media.

Whether TikTok will be central to that future is anyone’s guess. But there may be important new disciplines for media companies to learn here when it comes to taking on the roles of curator, instigator and content provider. TikTok demonstrates that a next generation of media re-users are seeking a different relationship to their celebrities, their music, their media sources and to themselves as participants and spectators.

My take: As a Web 2.0 guy, it’s interesting for me to see the “remix culture” of TikTok become popular with today’s teenagers. Despite being a catchphrase during Web 2.0, remixing never really took off in that era. That’s because legacy cultural companies were quick to crack down on copyright infringing; Napster incited this, but the lawsuits multiplied when Google acquired YouTube in 2006. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in creators owning the rights to their works. But I also enjoy seeing how new platforms like TikTok encourage re-purposing of content – in this case mostly music, since TikTok started as kind of a digital karaoke app.

Also as Smith pointed out, TikTok is leading to new ways for creators / artists to connect with their audience – and vice versa. I still couldn’t tell you what TikTok content is exactly, but whatever it is…it clearly encourages social interaction amongst its (mostly young) users.

Data Points 📊

  • Piper Jaffray: YouTube has surpassed Netflix to become the video platform where teens spend the most time on a daily basis.

  • MBW: Spotify hits 113m subscribers, up 5m in three months

  • Marketing Charts: US Digital Video Advertising Growth, H1 2017 – H1 2019

  • Superdata: September saw Fortnite post 43% month-over-month sales decline as worldwide digital game spending slipped.

  • Limelight Networks: viewers spent 6.8 hours per week watching online video, up 0.7% from 6.75 hours in 2018.

Tweet of the week 🐦

This tweet by science fiction author Eliot Peper reminds us that technology can often be a beneficial thing for artists and creators, and lead to new forms of cultural content.

That’s the latest subscriber newsletter in the new, refreshed format. Do let me know what you think. Thanks for your support, it’s much appreciated. 🙏