How Do We Keep Great Work Alive in the Age of "Content"?


#1

Whether it’s on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or anything, really, if you’re using the internet, there is no shortage of media to consume. While I’m not a social media expert, from what I’ve heard and seen, my understanding is that video has occupied a sort of throne right now. Videos are often on autoplay as you scroll through your social media feed; it’s expected that you want to start watching. “Lean-back” media like videos and podcasts seem often preferred over a written article. Some of the most popular YouTubers are vloggers. In the gaming community, streaming and Let’s Plays have exploded beyond precedent.

I don’t want to dismiss anyone’s labor, and I won’t act like it’s easy to make a living streaming or anything. But what I do feel okay commenting on is the time put into the media we consume. Very literally speaking, the ratio between time spent in production and time spent in consumption for something like a Twitch stream is around one-to-one. This extends to vlogs, too, though to a lesser extent. That’s not an inherently bad thing, of course, but this also seems to be the pre-eminent kind of thing being produced. Thanks to the almighty algorithms, a culture was fostered on YouTube the valued frequency and volume of “content” over quality. Weekly, even daily uploads seemed commonplace on channels. This is outside of spheres like YouTube. Podcasts (something I enjoy a lot in my life) are sometimes produced with startling frequency. Games are sometimes measured by the amount of “content” they have, rather than the quality of those contents. Television shows often seem written less with the intent of telling a cohesive narrative, and more in setting up an ever-extending serialized set of serialized stories. It’s media produced to be consumed, and lead to more consumption. And I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels a lot of these don’t feel particularly enriching.

I could pontificate on why I think this kind of content has become so popular, and complain like an old jerk, but I’d rather focus on the inverse of this phenomenon. What’s going to happen to work that takes more time and effort to produce? A lot of great work takes a lot of time to produce, whether that be research or time spent refining the main components of it. But is this a sustainable source of attention when it’s easier and in fact more appreciated when you put out things that require less work? When “content” is king, what happens to art?

So far, I’ve been vague, so let me be more concrete with something with which most of us should be familiar: Waypoint. Austin Walker, Editor-in-Chief at Waypoint, spoke to the kind of traffic Waypoint’s stories receive in a conversation after a lecture he gave at the NYU Game Center. This is a great lecture and conversation, and I recommend watching the whole thing, but the moments I’m pointing to in particular are here and here. In this first clip, Frank Lantz, director at the NYU Game Center, expresses feeling optimistic after seeing Waypoint’s series on prison and games, called “At Play in the Carceral State.” Here’s how Austin Walker responds:

I mean, full transparency: I think the difference between you and me here is [that] I know how many people read those articles. Right? Like, I know how many people we reached with that, versus the other stories we ran that week. I know which ones of those did well and, like… I look at something like Duncan Fyfe’s piece on Police Quest, which is, I think, the best piece we’ve run in a year. That did well. But it didn’t do as well as a story we ran like a week before on something Nintendo does. And that’s… so, so concerning. Because we reached more people with that Fyfe story than most of our other stories. But it’s still nowhere near what you need to move hearts.

Now, this discussion was framed by discussion about encouraging knowledge and interest about games production, systems literacy, and political awareness, but I think both that conversation, as well as just the basic gist of what Austin Walker is saying here, factor into what I’m getting at. I think about some of the amazing articles and short documentaries waypoint has put out, and to think that those don’t have the kind of attention to allow Waypoint to continue producing them… that sucks. I’m not going to theorize how Waypoint decides to produce the work they produce. But it’s hard not to notice that, when the public is privy to basic performance statistics (i.e. views on YouTube and Facebook), a lot of the great work that comes out of Waypoint (like the seemingly defunct Guide to Games and the video reviews, or the less frequent freelance work) seems to struggle to gain attention. Again: I don’t know everything that goes on at Waypoint. But the notion that Waypoint is putting out some genuinely incredible pieces that are going largely unnoticed… that really bums me out.

However, this is how Frank Lantz responded to what Austin Walker said:

But is it possible, Austin, that your gamer brain, right… Looking at the metrics, looking at this quantitatively, is missing the importance, that it’s not about the numbers. It’s not just which of these articles reaches the biggest audience, but it’s the fact that you’re creating a space in which these articles can live side by side.

Maybe Frank Lantz is right. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether something is “popular” or not. Maybe it’s more important that this work is being done, and that there is a community that is being served. And maybe I’m being overly pessimistic. Lots of great video essays are garnering a lot of attention, and the people producing those show no sign of slowing down. Patreon and other crowd-sourcing services are offering venues for people who put a lot of time into their work to get compensated in ways other than ad revenue, and the result has been a lot of great artists and producers finding a way to make the work they believe in. Sure, the algorithms won’t save us, but maybe there are ways to save ourselves. At least for now.

So I’ve rambled, and I’ve been known to do that. But what do you think? Do you think I’m being overly pessimistic (even paranoid?), or is there a real concern over supporting great work? And what about workarounds, ways to support art in this paradigm? Are sharing and word-of-mouth helpful? Do you think crowd-sourcing is enough to support these artists?


#2

I feel like that there are so many points of intersection to try to fix the issue of making great work more sustainable that it is hard to know what to do. Personally, I feel that one reason that people didn’t read the ‘At Play in the Carceral State’ piece is that people (living in the United States, at least) are not taught critical thinking skills and aren’t taught the value of critical thinking skills. For example, my parents rented ‘There Will Be Blood’ from Blockbuster when it came out on DVD. My parents are fairly normal hard working folks. I watched that movie with them, and my father had no clue what that movie was about. I have a feeling that most people who saw that movie didn’t understand it either. Now imagine asking people to go through something even more complicated than that movie.


#3

I think At Play in the Carceral State is still the best thing Waypoint has ever done, followed closely by the week on gun violence. I honestly don’t know the path forward into a healthier support for intellectual curiosity. Until we do, all such pursuits are beholden to people who (perhaps foolishly) throw money at this type of work for its own sake, or else employ the free labor of the passionate.


#4

I think all content producers have to engage in a balancing act concerning what type of work to create (this has probably been true for as long as people have created media for others to consume). The thing a creator wants to communicate to an audience must also at some level be something the audience is interested in listening to for it to become a “popular” creation.

The comparison in traffic between Duncan Fyfe’s piece and “something Nintendo did” is to me a good example of Waypoint as a site engaging in this balancing act on a macro level. They are creating a work that they truly think is important and balancing it with “something Nintendo did”. In a way writing that story about Nintendo, and others like it, is what allows them to do stuff like “At Play in the Carceral State.” And having to make that compromise is not great in the idealistic sense but to be able to create important works of critique within a capitalist system it is a compromise you often need to make.

Also I think one of Frank Lantz’s points in the paragraph you cited is spot on, it’s not about the numbers. When we talk about “keeping great work alive”, I think, the longevity of a few deep impressions that might influence future works by other creators far outweighs thousands of “clicks” on a news story that will be forgotten in a week.