Monday, January 20, 2014

Our Insatiable Needs For Content, Or, What Does A Surfer Want?

Lucius Fox checks his screens

Here is a true thing about me: put me in front of a TV set with a remote control, and I will flip channels. I will flip channels even if there is something good on. I will flip channels way past the point of being bored and antsy. I will choose to flip through the channels sequentially, making sure I check out even the channels like ESPN where the odds of my being interested trend toward zero.

My propensity for flipping is a major reason I don't have a TV. Sure, "there are some good things on TV," as people always say. But you know who isn't watching them? Channel flippers. Also, while it's one thing to waste your life watching bad TV, it's a whole other thing entirely to waste your life flipping channels, and failing to actually watch anything. Talk about pathological.

I might be unusual in my extreme inability to watch actual shows. But I think the roots of my problem are widely shared, and typically manifest themselves in an inordinate preference for "what's on," "what's happening now," and "what's new."

If we're talking about "news," it makes sense: you want today's news. But much of the content people enjoy isn't news at all. It's entertainment, or art, or opinions, or whatever. For most of the websites I enjoy looking at, you could stumble on a post from a year ago and if it was dated "today" and you hadn't seen it before you'd never know.

And yet: if their favorite site doesn't update, are people like "Oh, no problem, I'll read something old"? No: it's like, "Where's My Today Thing?! I need Today's Thing, the Thing for Today!"

Even when it comes to something like the New York Times crossword puzzle -- where, honestly, how is there a reason to prefer "today's" puzzle to any other puzzle you haven't yet done -- one from last year, say? There isn't any. And yet, prefer today's puzzle I do, by a gulf as wide as the difference between doing a puzzle and chucking the whole project for some less challenging one like looking at cats on the internet.

Recently on his WTF podcast Marc Maron mentioned our insatiable needs for content -- the way no matter how much an entertainer produces, the next day there's a clamor for more. What you got now? Got something now? Is that a twitter fight you're having! Yay, twitter fight! You got some new comedy for us now? How about now?

I got thinking that in one way it is odd: the amount of available content is vast, beyond anyone's wildest imagination, whoever your favorite entertainer or comedian is, I'm there there are immense reserves of youtube videos and other things that are by people similar enough that you would be entertained. But that's not what people want, I think. They don't want generic "content." They want something else -- not just something they haven't seen, but something that is "what's happening now."

I really have no idea what the deal is, but here are two theories -- one warm and fuzzy, the other depressing and awful.

The warm and fuzzy theory is that people want what's "happening now" because that's actually a way of connecting, indirectly, to other people, and we humans -- well, we're nothing if not beings who want to stay in touch. One pleasing thing about doing "today's puzzle" is that everyone else is doing "today's puzzle." Even if you never talk to those people about it, you can know that across the world, people are shaking their heads at "gam" as the answer to "bit of cheesecake" (Monday, January 6, 2014).

When you're watching "what's on," lots of other people are too. You're having a shared experience, even if you never see or engage with those people and even if you would be annoyed and irritated at actually talking to them about anything. When you watch what's on, the world watches with you. It's nice.

The depressing and awful theory is that people want what's new because they are, way more than they even realize, deeply dissatisfied with what's available, and want something completely different, and the new -- well, the new has not YET proven itself to be dissatisfying.

This, I think, explains the endless channel flipping, the people who stay up late to surf the internet even though they're actually bored, and the people dying for Marc Maron to get into a twitter feud. Even if we don't realize it consciously, what we're really after is something else. What we want is: NOT THIS.

The depressing theory explains the addictive nature of so many content habits. If what you want is something different, and what you get is more of the same, it's no mystery why you're still sitting there, flipping, clicking, surfing, poking around, trying to find the thing that will give you the feeling you want, a feeling you're never going to have anyway.

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