“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads… That sucks…”
− Facebook data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher
I want to follow up with my post last week about the state of documentary film and the methods people are using to monetize their content. I believe we are at a watershed moment, and about to experience a major paradigm shift.
When we look at the history of film, we see a gradual growth of content over the years. Of course, in the beginning, moving pictures were a novelty of sorts, and it wasn’t until the establishment of a “film industry” with distribution facilities, or theaters, that viewers or patrons of the cinema had any kind of a choice concerning what they wanted to watch. But as the technology progressed, more and more people had access to the tools of production (cameras, lights and so on), and more and more theaters popped up around the country, the means of production and distribution were consolidated around a couple of large companies known as the “Studios.” In the age of industrialization and the assembly−line factorization of industry, Hollywood was no different. Directors, writers and producers would work on staff for Paramount, Universal, MGM or Warner Brothers, and they would create content for “the factory.” But even after movie−going became rather popular all across the country (and the world), there still wasn’t all that much choice involved. I can remember stories from my parent’s generation about kids going to the Saturday matinée double feature. In the case of my father, there was only one theater in town anyway, so he and his friends simply saw whatever was playing that weekend. The same studios that created the movies also controlled the distribution, or the theaters, until they were broken up by the U.S. Government in an antitrust lawsuit, deeming them monopolies. This was perhaps the first movement in cinema history from monopolizing control of content to a more decentralized network of productions put in completion with each other for the attention of the audiences. As theaters proliferated, and competition grew, there we movies that were deemed “successful” and those that were “flops.”
With the advent of Television, a competition between mediums began to develop, since people suddenly had the choice between going out to a theater or staying home to watch television. Movie producers began to resort to gimmicks, or technological innovation to draw viewers out of their homes to theaters: Widescreen! VistaVision! Technicolor! 3D! Surround Sound! …And so on. Television, meanwhile developed a system of competition all it’s own, centered around “ratings,” or the total number of viewers at any given moment. In Television, rather than getting paid by the viewer, as when a patron pays a ticket to enter a theater, the stations were paid by advertisers for commercial time, based on the ratings of a given show.
It wasn’t long before new innovations began to inject even more competition into the marketplace, with new and innovative ways of monetizing content: cable TV! Home Video! Pay Per View! Satellite TV! Along with these new mediums came new kinds of programs: 24 Hour News! Infotainment! Reality TV! Late Night Skinflicks! With the advent of the internet, the content, viewing platforms, style of entertainment and monetizing options exploded. I’m not going to go through the long list of additional styles, entertainment genres, but today we have more competition than ever: more content, more distribution platforms, more things to watch in general.
Of course, as Neil Postman taught me years ago as a young communications major in undergrad reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” there are consequences to every technological innovation. What is the effect of all this competition on the content of what we watch? Well it’s probably twofold: on the one hand anyone can make a movie, a documentary, a YouTube show, a short film et cetera, but at the same time, that content has to be VERY popular if it is to make any money. Now, one of the unfortunate aspects of human psychology is that when faced with a title wave of content, only the extremes make impressions. We remember either that which we really, really like, or that which we really, really hate. I once worked for a little documentary company that sought to monetize online content, and quickly learned that controversial videos generated more clicks, and therefore attracted more advertising than nuanced or balanced content. We have stumbled into an environment where the distribution medium rewards the extremes. Being interested in documentaries, I have noticed a worrying trend, as I see people being rewarded for being divisive, while thoughtful reflections on our reality and lived experience are buried like a needle in the proverbial haystack. As the voices get more and more shrill, and the content more and more shocking, is there any hope for thoughtful content?
Well, I will say that this is not the end of the story. People thought that meaningful cinema was dead upon the widespread adoption of the television in the 1950’s, they thought meaningful television was dead upon the explosion of reality TV in the mid 2000’s, and now people are saying meaningful content of all types are dead as big data companies like Facebook and Google simply allow all of us to give them our content for free, while they either sell our data to those that want to get us to buy their products or get our viewers to click ads on their various subsidiary websites so they can get paid for that. If you are especially popular, they may give you a cut, but they and their shareholders keep the vast majority of that profit.
But as we saw when meaningful cinema did not die after the outbreak of television, and thoughtful television did not die with the explosion of reality TV, I do believe that thoughtful content will not die now that we have an explosion of click bate content pulling our attention every which way. We crave meaningful content. We need meaningful content. It’s just a matter of curation, and if we can find good, life changing, meaningful cinema, it will stand out from the morass of dribble out there.
In each of the aforementioned “crises of meaning” in cinema and then television mentioned above, there was one thing that saved us: peer−to−peer payment in lieu of advertising money. Let me explain:
When you pay for a ticket at the movie theater, you are paying FOR the movie itself. When you watch the Thursday night lineup on NBC, you are not paying for anything; rather, advertisers are paying the network for your attention. The dynamic is very different, and I would argue, detrimental to the filmmaker’s ability to create meaningful content. It’s not that advertising based mediums can’t generate meaning, it’s just more challenging to do so, since that’s not the focus. The focus is pleasing the advertisers. With the advent of cable TV, suddenly ad−free television was possible, and people were able to make decisions on what they wanted to pay to watch based on content. Someone could, for example, choose to carry HBO of some similar channel in his or her cable package because the shows deserved it. Once content was delivered directly to the viewer, rather than relying on advertising, substantive, nuanced, long−form shows began to be rewarded (Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad et cetera).
Similarly today, if clicks are the focus or goal, then it becomes that much harder to deliver something with substance and still make enough money to support what you are doing. Well, as I said last week, the crypto space offers just that kind of an opportunity. For example, the “Basic Attention Token,” or BAT purports to be a medium of exchange that flows from viewer to content−creator in an environment free of advertisements. In theory, people would be able to hold a stash of BAT tokens, and reward those that they felt deserved compensation with these tokens. It would allow for a mini−economy based on who you would like to give your attention, eliminating the data−mining companies like Facebook and Google, and advertisers. The profits in this scenario would go directly to the creators, rather than first to the parent company, with the possibility of the creator getting a small fraction.
Friends, if we can find a way to pull this off, to start valuing creativity, insightfulness, education, thoughtfulness, reflective and meditative content instead of sensationalism, controversy, lowbrow rhetoric and spectacle as a society, this will be a huge win for the quality of life for us all. As I said last week, the movement is in its infant stages, and like the development of anything new, the direction it takes in the beginning is critical.
I will keep following this stuff and keep you updated as things develop.