The Bitter End of "Content"
The video, shot on a cellphone from a first-person view, takes place in a bathroom. Embedded at the bottom are the words “what every teenager hides from their parents.” The person holding the phone takes a golf ball and briefly runs it under water from the sink. They then rub the golf ball against a roll of toilet paper, leaving a light impression of moisture. And that’s it; the video ends and starts over again, an infinite empty loop. If you’re wondering what exactly it is that “every teenager hides from their parents,” the answer is nothing. The video is nonsensical, not in some avant garde way but to fulfill its economic purpose. Leaving the viewer confused as to what exactly is being conveyed is a feature, not a bug - the more people are baffled by the video, the more they’ll comment on it to register their confusion, the more times they’ll send it to friends to try and figure out that which cannot be figured out. It is “content,” to use that wretched term, that is devoid of content, a human centipede of virality, monetizing fleeting interest. It’s the inevitable outcome of every bad incentive we’ve created online.
For reasons that are known only to God, for a couple weeks I reflexively watched Facebook Reels videos. It’s something like the bottom of the barrel for internet video, attached to a notoriously uncool social network that has devolved for almost everyone into a never-ending stream of spam, memes, viral bilge, and people that you don’t remotely know. Facebook still boasts a vast user base, but the level of engagement of those users is disputed and the network has become famously unattractive to the youth. Billions use it, including me, but it feels like the dying Rust Belt city of the internet. Facebook makes me feel the way I feel when I’m in a hospital.
The Reels service does do what these platforms are supposed to do in the most basic sense, though - provide brief videos for momentary distraction. I mostly watch shark videos, so it gives me a lot of shark videos. And, in the way of these things, it also serves me videos of crocodiles and orcas, as well as a discouraging amount of ordinary fishing videos. These are of less interest to me than the shark videos, but this is the nature of automated recommendations online. There’s also a lot of unfunny comedy videos, some boring video game clips, videos of animals fighting that sadden me, and of course a lot of hot girl videos, given that this is the internet. There are also many videos that satisfy a particular genre’s conventions, but only just. For example, there’s a mini-genre of big hits from football games (typically captioned “want to see a dead body?”), except that many of the Reels feature perfectly ordinary tackles that no one could mistake for a big hit. But all of these videos attempt, at least, to offer some coherent value proposition, so they aren’t the kinds of videos I’m talking about.
No, the videos I’m talking about here are those that drive people to click and, crucially, to linger through the video until it finishes through confusion and unsatisfied expectations. I’m not talking about bad videos or stupid videos or poorly made videos or videos that I generally find unworthy of being watched; low-quality online content is just the nature of the beast. I’m talking about videos in which the purpose is to drive “engagement” through a given clip’s lack of sense and meaning and nothing else. They’ve taken the monetization of attention to a certain logical endpoint: their creators understand that there are few things people like less than the feeling of being confused, and that most of us will seek help to understand something we can’t figure out on our own. Seeking that help by sharing or commenting gooses the algorithm.
About a decade ago I used to post to a message board a lot, a typical meme and argument repository. A very common prank was to post this one picture of a lizard and say “when you see it!” And tons of people who were in the know would post stuff like “took me forever, but WOW when I found it!” Meanwhile newcomers would be driving themselves absolutely crazy looking for something that wasn’t there, sometimes even confidently announcing that they had found the answer without saying what it was. It was a very effective prank, no matter how many times it was pulled, because we hate, hate, hate “not getting it.” Now some evil geniuses out there have begun to exploit this feeling in pursuit of virality and money. Versions of these tactics have been around forever, but these videos are an immaculately pure form. It’s true, for example, that the “curiosity gap” headline is quite old now. But while curiosity gap headlines at places like Upworthy could be manipulative and misleading, there were actual articles attached to the headlines. These videos are only the headlines, the enticement to click with nothing on the other side.
There are some tropes in the genre. A big one, for reasons I can’t divine, is to post anodyne footage of a beach setting, footage in which nothing scandalous happens, and attach some leading language - “I can’t believe you can get away with this on a beach!” “Her parents let her do that on the beach???” “I don’t know why the lifeguard didn’t say anything!” But nothing happens. Supposed secrets about hotel rooms are another big one. “ALWAYS do this when you sleep in a hotel room!” And then typically there will be totally inscrutable and pointless behaviors like tapping on the headboard or peering under the closet door or rubbing the key on the wall or doing just about anything in a hotel room that doesn’t actually constitute a useful tip for doing anything. In one of the videos I linked to, some meaningless letters are scrawled on a toilet handle. Why? Because that confusing behavior compels people to comment, or even better, to share the video with others in an effort to find meaning in that meaninglessness. That’s the whole game.
“You're enjoying your cruise, but then THIS happens!” Nothing happens. “Focus on the phone, and tell me what you SEE!” There’s nothing to see. “When I FIGURED IT OUT!” There’s nothing to figure out. Again and again. Observe.
“Someone is losing their job for this!” An amusement park ride operates as normal. Nothing happens.
“My crush works here but didn’t serve me!” A customer gives an abnormally large tip. The math is wrong on purpose, to goad comments. There is no earthly connection to a crush at all. They’re writing the tip on the customer copy.
“This is why you always slow down on ice.” Hashtag #ohno, hashtag #waitforit. There is nothing to wait for. A car drives down a clear street in winter. It breaks slowly. There’s nothing to make you go “oh no!” because there is nothing to see.
“Customer asked ‘If the price tag is missing, is it free?’” The caption reads “don’t you hate it when customers say stupid things like this?” In the video, someone removes a piece of clear plastic film from a display on a piece of server equipment. There is no customer. Nothing is for sale.
“I got detention for writing this in cursive class.” A marker scrawls a perfectly inoffensive string of letters in cursive. 1,500 commenters debate why it could possibly result in discipline, which is why the video was made.
Bad math is a constant. Meaningless symbols are added to equations under the pretense of demonstrating a trick for solving math problems. Sometimes the answer is correct, just arrived at via nonsensical means, but usually the answer is intentionally wrong. Wrong answers goad people into commenting to complain that the answer is wrong, driving engagement.
Pointless “riddles” abound. The text has the cadence and format of a riddle, but the question posed has no answer. As in this linked video, they will often ask a question that’s typical of a riddle, but with none of the logic of a riddle, so that all answers are correct, and therefore none of them are. The video has 6,800 comments.
“OMG! Look who it is!” It’s no one. They aren’t famous and their face is mostly obscured. The purpose is to get people to argue in the comments about who it is.
“My mom showed me what the paper is for.” The caption reads “it comes with every undies.” A bit of thin cardboard is uselessly tapped onto a pair of underwear, achieving nothing. Such paper does not come with every pair of underwear. It’s not for anything.
“When that submarine comes out.” Would you believe that a submarine never comes out?
“Only people born before 1987 remember this.” This one’s something like the Platonic ideal of the form. (The appeal to a generational demographic is a nice touch.) Some sort of random plastic bracket has been wrapped in aluminum foil, for no reason. The aluminum foil is removed, also for no reason. Nothing is signified; no meaning is conveyed. There is nothing for anyone, born before 1987 or after, to remember.
To return to a theme around here - these videos are the product of incentives, and though they’re extreme manifestations of those incentives, they’re hardly unique in being shaped by them. One commonplace that’s found among Reels that have some purpose and some plausible entertainment value is the “wait for it” thing, artificially delaying the arrival of the actual point of the video. Why? Clearly, it’s because the algorithm or the monetization scheme or both reward videos where viewers watch to the end. So the first parts of these videos will often be filled with completely wasted space, sometimes including a literal countdown before you get to the good stuff. An entirely artificial incentive creates entirely useless wastes of time, effort, and server space. And those are videos that have at least some actual meaning, some content. The videos I’m talking about here, the attention trap videos, simply extend that emptiness and lack of value across their entire lengths. They’re the culmination of the same incentive structure that compels people to add dead air to their videos. Their “creators” are merely fulfilling the mandates of the algorithm. As are we all, in our own ways - some ways better, some worse, but all in thrall to the dictates of code that’s been assembled by corporations that only care about money.
All of this was eminently predictable based on the values that we baked into online life years ago. This road was always going to lead to nowhere. The internet is like a person you know who you think can’t possibly stoop any lower, and then manages to pull it off, over and over again. Years ago, the idea that online life would be dominantly funded by advertising coalesced into conventional wisdom, and we’ve been living with the consequences ever since. The utopian assumption that views and clicks would accrue to the highest-quality content failed to understand a basic lurking reality - that the monetization of attention leads inevitably to the weaponization of attention. You can get eyeballs on your work by having talent and working diligently. Or you can get eyeballs by exploiting the system. And the worst part is that the big players have no particular financial incentive to challenge that exploitation.
Facebook is an easy target; the general problem is far broader. Another of my little unhappy obsessions lies in the debunking of viral hacks. The “lifehack” genre is old and durable, but it’s taken on a vastly greater scale with the rise of TikTok. People are apparently voraciously hungry for clever new ways to do things that we already know how to do. That appetite, too, has been weaponized. This YouTuber, Ann Reardon, debunks hacks that have gone viral, usually on TikTok or YouTube. She has to debunk them because a stunning number of these hacks are completely faked. I don’t mean that they don’t have the best outcomes or aren’t efficient. I mean that they literally do not work at all, and the channels that post them are very well aware that they don’t work at all. They don't care because they get the clicks. There are many content farms that churn this stuff out endlessly.
For example, in the above video Reardon takes on a hack (which got tens of thousands of views) purporting to show how to create colorful, tasty candied popcorn. You just put some oil, some unpopped popcorn, and some Skittles in a covered pan, add heat, and you’ll get perfectly colored and delicious candy popcorn.
Except that it doesn’t work, at all. There’s no way to use this technique to achieve the advertised end product. You can’t do it better or worse; it can’t be done at all. The Skittles burn rather than melt. And even if they melted, there would be no mechanism through which the popcorn would get effectively covered in liquid candy, certainly not with each piece only getting covered in one color. What blew my mind as I made my way through her videos was, one, the audacity of the shops that pump this stuff out, and two, the sheer volume of these phony hacks. Again, leave hacks that don’t work very well or that aren’t better than the old-fashioned way of doing things aside. There are just so many that simply do not work at all.
The marketplace of attention was supposed to solve this problem; we were told that the good channels would be elevated by the platforms and that people would stop watching the bad channels. But the marketplace of attention cares only about attention. The assumption that low-quality or dishonest or dangerous content wouldn’t get clicked on was always entirely and obviously wrong. The videos are slickly made; the results look plausible. People try them, fail, and assume it’s their own fault. And since the videos get views and views make money, the platforms have no reason to do anything about them.
Occasionally, the stakes are higher than wasted time. As Reardon frequently points out, some of these faked cooking hacks are legitimately dangerous. She has tried at times to get YouTube to pull such videos, typically to no avail. The category of popular and dangerous hacks includes the one discussed here, which involves boiling pewter down on the stove and making a “USB plug” out of a mold, resulting in a plug-shaped piece of pewter, as if a USB plug (or any plug) was just solid metal. This is a “hack” that could burn your house down.
The big platforms could always tweak their algorithms. They could try to find ways to reward higher-quality content. And such tweaks could perhaps improve things, on the margins. But it’s essential to understand that something like this condition is inevitable. So long as advertising is the dominant funding source of the online world, any and every creative platform will be a race to the bottom. People will find ways to abuse the system to receive attention and money based on nothing more than manipulation.
There are alternatives, though. The problems with legacy media are many and have been exhaustively cataloged. There have always been problems with gatekeeping, particularly with biased and arbitrary decisions about who gets to create what. But at least in the professional production of media there’s some set of eyes that falls on a given work and can tell if it was a con. A movie that reaches theaters might not be good, but it won’t exist solely to manipulate our attention; so too with a professionally-published book. With crowdfunding, meanwhile, quality matters; it’s far from the only thing that matters, but fundamentally, people are not going to pay a creator who consistently lies to them. Patreon and Substack and Kickstarter suffer from audience capture and might result in bad creative work, but not in work that has no purpose but to deceive.
Unfortunately, advertising has been ingrained into the internet as the basic model for so long and to such an extent that it’s hard to envision online life without the systematic manipulation of attention and all its evils. So we’re bound to wind up here, at the bitter end of “content.” Which is a good excuse to withdraw deeper into books, movies, albums, and art, stuff that was created for a deeper purpose than mining fleeting bits of attention for fractions of a penny. The question is whether generations who have grown up immersed in these platforms can imagine life without them, and whether we're cursed to live with them ourselves.