The scene: A shiny large-windowed office inside a big glass San Francisco high rise…
A man bursts into the room, carrying a stack of papers. “Mr. Richardson, sir! Our new indie division in our online game store is a hit!”
Mr. Richardson slowly turns around in his $1600 designer chair. He would straighten his tie at this point…if he were wearing one. “Good. Good! Come in Johnson, tell me about how it’s going.” Mr. Richardson says this without looking up from his phone.
Johnson nervously walks over, shuffling the papers in his hands. “I don’t know why I printed all this stuff out, had to run to the third floor…ah! Well, the low $99 barrier for publishing and our free development software mean we’re going to hit 12,000 games in just the first two months.”
“That’s amazing,” said Richardson, still not looking up from his phone. “How do our millions of consumers like it?”
“Oh they love it!,” said Johnson. “Almost 90 percent of them have at least clicked on it and…hmmm.”
Richardson felt dismay at having to look up from his text conversation from his business partner overseas. “What is it?”
“Well, it seems that there’s so much stuff that very few of our users are exploring the full catalog. We had our staff highlight the best games, and many of those are getting looked at, but some of the games haven’t even had a single page click even though we hand-built custom pages for them,” said Johnson, furrowing his brow.
Richardson scoffed. “Fire the curators, use computers instead!”
EVERYONE IS A “PUBLISHER”, NO ONE IS A PUBLISHER
Thanks to the proliferation of lower cost smartphones, laptops, and internet access, more folks on the planet have access to publishing platforms than ever before.
It’s relatively easy now to get online and publish stories, videos, songs, or even a fully produced video game. In the “old days” of just under two decades ago, you’d most likely have to go to school to even be able to learn how to do most of that, and you’d need to have access to significant money to get your own equipment.
If you wanted to be in the media, you had to be in the media. You had to get through the gates and score a job at a company that had the tools and the outreach you needed. Writers needed publishers, game developers needed studios, musicians needed record labels.
Now those traditional content gatekeepers have been replaced with a much more insidious one.
It’s called Random Chance.
Now more than ever, you’ve got to somehow beat everyone else in the pile who also has the same access you do. You’re not just up against the other publishing companies or the other movie companies…you’re up against millions of people.
Oh, and some algorithms.
WINNING THE LOTTERY
There’s so much content, you guys.
Articles, songs, tweets, blog posts, videos, indie games, small budget films…
The pile of content that an internet user has access to is simply gargantuan in size, and it’s only getting bigger every second.
In the olden days of yore, a human publisher would have sifted through this content, trying to help the best stuff rise to the top.
Some companies, like Apple, still have these people…but increasingly, it’s a job left to computer algorithms.
We’re told to follow our dreams. “Use that camera on your phone to make a vlog and become the next big Youtube sensation, you can do it!” There was a time when just doing it, and creating a piece of solid content, would have at least been enough to get your foot in the door, or start building a solid portfolio for a near-future door-footing.
Now that’s no longer the case.
Now you’re at the mercy of The Algorithms.
Algorithms are often deciding who “makes it” and who struggles against the proverbial boulder.
And because there’s more and more content made every day, and only so many pairs of eyes and hours with which to consume it…fewer and fewer people are getting to the top of that hill.
AUDIENCES CAN’T *EVER* CATCH UP
Don’t get me wrong. I love that more people get access to a creative, expressive outlet on a daily basis. I don’t want that to change.
But this means there’s a lot of garbage out there.
The thing is…some people might actually like that garbage, but the computers probably won’t ever show it to those people because it’s not popular.
Let’s go back to that video game scenario from the opening paragraph. Let’s say that 100 good small-budget indie games are due to hit that store this month…alongside thousands of terrible ones.
There’s also 3 big budget titles with full marketing campaigns.
Obviously the store is going to highlight the 3 big budget games, because they’ll get paid to do so by the publishers. Then, the one or two indie games that struck a chord with an audience either through social media engagement or online coverage will get smaller featured spots.
And then…98 games will just die on the vine. And their creators will face heavy and sudden financial struggle.
This same scenario repeats itself daily across every content industry.
It’s not for lack of trying by the audience. I don’t blame them. The audience for online content is growing every day just like the pile of content…but the pile is fast outpacing the hours required to view it. Audiences have to be choosy. They’re still throwing lots of money around, but percentage-wise, they’re throwing it a smaller overall amount of content just because there’s so much to pick from.
Even if I quit my job and never slept or looked at social media again, it’d be a struggle to play 100 games in a month. And then next month, another 100 quality games are coming…and books, and short films, and music, and…
TAKE BACK YOUR LIFE
Okay then, so what if I just focus on what I want and don’t try to worry about seeing everything?
That’s exactly what the corporations and the algorithms are counting on.
The alogrithms are exceptional at giving you more similar content. Even content creation itself is heavily influenced by this now.
Why do you think we get so many sequels?
You’re not really in control of your interests in a social media/app store/algorithm world. Oh sure, you get to express some input at the beginning, but after that…you’ll never see the entire breadth of the available content without significant digging and clicking.
Most users won’t do this.
GETTING OUT OF THE HOLE
I don’t think we’re doomed to live in this pile of content governed solely by algorithms forever. The significant backlash against the new Snapchat design and Facebook’s news feed shaping is proof of that. Netflix has figured out how to occasionally throw new stuff at viewers and has been eager to develop smaller projects just to keep the quality level high. And Steam has recently added much better options for Wishlist customization that are hopefully a sign of things to come.
We can do better.
More high quality content and more true user engagement are the only ways out of this mess, in my opinion. We need to get more humans involved again.
Algorithms are only as good as their creators and their users. They aren’t gods.
Also, creating good content is not as simple as just uploading something to the internet. There’s a reason that entire educational institutions exist around content creation. We should expect more from even small creators, and better reward those who try to create new, exciting things.
There aren’t any guarantees in the online content world, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Audiences need to remember to branch out once in a while…and creators need to try taking risks again instead of making the hundredth video in a popular hashtag.
And please, for the love of humanity, we should all try to do a better job than Logan Paul.