Media and content consumption trends of the 2010s: Part 4 of Tech That Reshaped our Lives in the Last Decade
The last decade also brought radical changes to the way we consume content. It even made the words ‘consume content’ make sense because it brought together watching TV, listening to music and reading books into the same category.
TV and music streaming subscriptions
The emergence of Spotify and Netflix as dominant forces in primary sources of music and TV was not exactly a surprise in the 2010s — in fact, it was what many people had been hoping for. But it had a profound impact on how we think about home entertainment.
First, it changed the notion of ownership — collections of CDs and/or DVDs used to be a significant feature of many homes. Borrowing music or videos from friends and family, giving discs as gifts, those are all things that have disappeared from many people’s lives by 2019. The idea of owning physical media was replaced by paying a subscription and accessing content. To be sure, this is by no means universal — many people have kept their discs and continue to buy more — and vinyl albums have even experienced a revival. But the default expectation has changed. A TV is more likely to be sold now with a built-in streaming option than a built-in DVD.
One technological consequence of this is that nobody is worried about what will replace the Blu-ray disc in the same way that the successor to the VHS and then the DVD was part of the public discourse. In fact, Blu-ray never even got a chance to properly replace DVD which is still the more common disc format for those who buy videos on physical media.
But the more interesting outcome is the significantly expanded access at a lower price for individual consumers. While people ‘own’ less music and fewer films or TV shows, they can access many more than ever before. Creating a decent CD and/or DVD collection could have cost thousands and would take up space in your home. But more than the cost and space, it would severely limit what you can listen to. Subscribing to Spotify and Netflix costs a fixed monthly fee but you can listen to almost any music ever released and watch hours and hours of TV and film without running out of choices.
Music and video differ in interesting ways here. Both Spotify and Netflix have many competitors but with Spotify, you only have to choose one or the other. There are some differences in what different music services offer but they are minor and music selection is rarely why people choose one over the other. With video streaming services, however, there is much less overlap. They all have their original programming and exclusive deals with other sources, so it is necessary to subscribe to them all to get the same access as in the days of over-the-air TV or cable TV packages. Also, streaming services did not take over the film and TV market to the same extent that they did the music market.
One final transformation was to the way music, film and TV were produced. People talk about the death of the album and changes to the way music is mixed to sound better over streaming but overall, the shape of music is still very much the same. Film, other than the usual trends and fashions — like the surge of the superhero movies, has also remained largely the same. TV, on the other hand, has experienced a more substantial transformation that started in 2013 when Netflix decided to release all the episodes of its original series at once. This gave rise to a new phrase and practice ‘binge watching’ but most importantly it allowed creators of TV shows to think much more freely about an overall storyline and episodes became much more like chapters in a book. This is more than a little reminiscent of the rise of the novel which was initially released in serial form until relatively recently.
The Rise of YouTube
If there is one platform that defined the 2010s and redefined cultural production, it is YouTube. Started in 2005 and bought by Google in 2006, it went from a popular video sharing site in 2010 to a global centre of cultural production. The 10s saw its first video reach 1 billion views and the first channel to reach 100 million subscribers. It has made millionaires of popular YouTube stars and becoming a ‘YouTuber’ is now as common a dream avocation as movie star once was for many a child.
The ecosystem that exists around YouTube is also worth noting. Events like VidCon and sites like Patreon serve to connect YouTubers with their fans, who can be mobilised into silly pranks as well as charitable activities. YouTube has branched into original programming but its strength still lies in amateur and semi-professional content. The most common types of content are music, gaming, beauty tips, comedy, vlogging but among the multi-million subscriber behemoths, there is ample space for individuals sharing videos with a few friends.
YouTube has also shaped the language of video as well as ways of consuming it. Video is now a mobile, personal thing — very much like reading. It is just as common seeing people watching YouTube videos on public transport as it is reading a book. We are much more used to seeing fast-paced, quick-changing videos with ‘jump cuts’ and humorous quotations and our expectations of what a video looks like are changing. But YouTube has also truly democratised video production — even though, there are certain styles and production values on the most popular channels are very high, it is still possible to reach an audience with a very basic approach. There are now over 30,000 channels with over a million subscribers and many of these are in languages other than English.
The place of video in our society is not the only thing that YouTube has changed. It has become a place of an unofficial public record. “Please don’t put that on YouTube” is a phrase (with many variations) that reflects that. Videos appearing on YouTube for good or ill are now an integral part of a story teller’s toolkit and have been part of many a plot of a film or TV show. Historical events (recent and distant), important cultural performances, intellectual discussions, political positions — all are now recorded on YouTube. The site OpenCulture.com records many of these.
It is not surprising that with millions of YouTube channels receiving hundreds of billions of views, YouTube has had its share of controversies. But the view from the inside is much more interesting. As any large community, YouTube is full of internal self-reflection. YouTubers constantly reflect on the state of their platform, its future and their place in it. The early history of YouTube and YouTuberdom was documented in a series of interviews conducted by well-known YouTubers Rhett and Link on the first 2 seasons of their podcast Ear Biscuits, there they interviews well-known YouTubers of the time — many of whom are no longer active. Two educational YouTubers CGP Grey and Brady Haran also often talk about YouTube on their podcast Hello Internet. But there are also countless YouTube videos reflecting on the state of YouTube both in serious and humorous ways. It is an exciting space to watch.
Audrey Watters put YouTube on her list of the 100 worst edtech debacles of the 2010s but her examples of negativity come from cliched news reports. I look at the Marblelympics and Norman J Wildberger’s math channel or even JK Party and my heart is filled with joy.
Online learning and education
Speaking of all the things YouTube changed, let’s talk about learning. Far from being just a place for fun and games, YouTube is also a site for learning (which, of course, can be done with fun and games). Many people are now used to going to YouTube first if they want to learn how to do something. There are detailed guides to different camera models, ways of fixing household appliances, recipes, and so much more. I was able to learn two musical instruments (Ukulele and piano) from scratch without once taking a class with a teacher.
People who want to share knowledge and skills with the world have started doing so on YouTube in large numbers. There’s hardly any software or app that doesn’t have a screencast on YouTube or somebody talking about it. So-called ‘unboxings’ of new products are a popular category on YouTube but they also have a learning component. It is much easier to buy things online when you’ve seen them ‘in the flesh’ — mediated by another person.
YouTube has launched a true revolution in online learning. But even people who want help with their formal studies can get a lot of benefit. There are entertaining channels such as Crash Course that will explain aspects of the school curriculum. These are accompanied by a whole class of channels like Veritasium or Physics Girl that tackle individual subjects. Perhaps most famous is KhanAcademy which started by Sal Khan making videos for his nephews to help them with High School math and is now a recognised non-profit institution.
YouTube is also an important repository of academic and cultural legacy of the world. Many important lectures and even university courses (e.g. from MIT) are available. Pick almost any important academic book of the last 20 years and you will find a lecture by the author about it or at least an interview with them about it. The channel Philosophy Overdose publishes videos of lectures and interviews with famous philosophers — and if you want to learn about what was important to Rorty and Davidson without reading their dense prose, you can now do it. When I wanted to recommend key books in historical revisionism recently, I was able to find videos for all of them.
Of necessity, the amount of content on YouTube can be a bit overwhelming. The production quality is variable as is the quality of instruction — although often the personal approach of a simple video by someone who has something to explain is more effective than sleekly produced infotainment. But YouTube is not the only place where this revolution in informal learning is taking place — although without it, it is hard to see how it could have been so profound.
The MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — launched into the world in 2011 (although the concept started in 2008) with two Stanford Courses which attracted over 100,000 participants. Almost immediately, the hype started and transformation of Higher Education was predicted to be just around the corner. By 2012 there were three big companies offering MOOCs and MOOC services to universities: Udacity, Coursera, edX later to be joined by FutureLearn and others. As the hype died down and it was clear that no transformation was forthcoming, Udacity stopped offering free MOOCs and switched to paid nano-degrees (an interesting concept in itself). But Coursera, edX and FutureLearn are still going strong and the legacy of the MOOC has become an important feature in the landscape of online learning — even if universities as such still looks very much the same. Anybody who speaks English (or one of the other few languages in which MOOCs are available) can learn from thousands of courses from hundreds of institutions for free. That was certainly not anything anybody expected in 2009.
But not all this learning is free. The 2010s also saw a huge growth in sites offering paid online courses — almost all video-based or with a video component. Many services like Lynda (now LinkedIn learning and its comptetitors fill an important niche.
When MTV kicked off its brief reign as a cultural behemoth with “Video Killed the Radio Star” in 1981, many people predicted the inexorable victory of video entertainment over all other forms. But the 2010s saw the place of radio-type content solidified with the advent of big-time podcasting. Spoken word on the internet had its origins in the 1990s but podcasts did not appear until 2004. They were made possible by two innovations: 1. adding audio attachments to the Real Simple Syndication (RSS) protocol that made it possible for people to subscribe to a podcast feed and receive new updates automatically; 2. The spread of portable audio playback devices — MP3 players — of which the iPod was the most popular. Thus the iPod provided the ‘pod’, RSS the ‘cast’ and podcasts were born.
Podcasts became popular very quickly. Apple added a Podcast section to iTunes in 2005 which has been critical to their rise. And that same year ‘podcast’ was declared the word of the year in the same year by the OED. Many radio stations started releasing their spoken word programming as podcasts with BBC being one of the first with In Our Time. But by 2010, it seemed as if podcasts had reached their zenith. The podcast ecosystem was healthy and growing modestly with no fears of decline but it was expected to remain a niche area. This all changed in 2014 when an NPR journalist released Serial — a true-crime podcast that reached tens of millions of listeners and became part of the national conversation in the US. 10 years after its introduction, the world discovered podcasts.
Since then, podcasting has grown exponentially. By the end of the 2010s, about half of all Americans have listened to a podcast at some point and about 20% listen at least weekly. Having a podcast is common for YouTubers, comedians, celebrities, businesses, academics, educators, news organisations, radio stations and countless individuals. The growth and ubiquity of the smartphone has been a part of this change. In 2009, listening to a podcast on the go was a multistep process and required specialised software and an MP3 player for most people. Finding podcasts was also not straightforward outside the iTunes universe. In 2019, when having a powerful smartphone is the norm, all that is needed is to download one of the many podcast apps, search for something one might be interested in and podcasts just start showing up on your phone for you to listen. Culturally, it has also become much more acceptable to walk around with ear phones in one’s ear (Apple’s white ear buds and lately EarPods leading the way), so there are many more opportunities to listen.
Podcasting’s future also seems incredibly bright. Many are declaring 2019 to be the year of the podcast. Two audio behemoths Spotify and Audible have launched into podcasts, NPR purchased a popular podcast player, and advertisers are discovering the power of podcasts for marketing products. Podcasting is part of the culture. “Why don’t you start a podcast” is now a phrase you can use to shut somebody up. There are stereotypes about podcast listeners and podcast hosts. The force of audio is strong.
Audiobooks — Reading with your ears
Books and stories were being recorded as soon as it became possible to record audio at any reasonable length. But until recently audiobooks were the domain of people with vision problems and commuters. Their production and distribution were cumbersome, they were much more expensive than printed books and as a consequence only a tiny fraction of published literature was also available in audio. Because of copyright restrictions many audiobooks were only available in libraries for the blind.
Things started to change in the 2000s with portable audio players that could fit entire books and did away with having to spread them over multiple tapes or CDs. Audible was among the first to release a dedicated digital audiobook player and as its business grew, it started expanding the catalogue of available audiobooks. As with podcasts, audiobooks have come into their own in the 2010s. Now, almost any new book release will come with an audiobook — partly thanks to significant reduction in production costs. There are audiobook narrators who have their own following and famous actors have recorded audiobooks. There are hundreds of thousands of books available in audio and what’s more, they are growing at a much faster pace than ebooks. The audiobook space continued to be dominated by Audible (owned by Amazon) but luckily, it is a very vibrant marketplace and — at least from the perspective of consumers — it does not seem to unduly abuse its near monopoly.
Games and e-sports
Computer games are as old as computers. It could be argued that nothing radically new happened with games in the 2010s. There were no radically new game formats — perhaps with the exception of AR and Pokemon Go. Even some of the biggest titles of the decade were just continuations of older franchises: Legends of Zelda, Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, Supermario, etc. — unlike films, games usually get better with each subsequent release. There were also no radical new gaming platforms (although Nintendo Switch might come close) even though mobile gaming became a thing.
But what changed (and continues to change) is the status of games as a narrative genre. Narrative games are also not new — text adventures are a type of non-linear fiction. Only as people who grew up playing these storyful games age, they start thinking of them in the same way that people who grew up reading books or watching films. Full-blown narratives that are part of the pantheon of the stories that shape our lives. Computer games are an art form — they did not become one in the 2010s — but in the 2010s more and more people who grew up playing games in the 90s and 00s reached middle age and wanted to continue playing. Also, in the 2000s the first generation of serious gamers started having children and in the 2010s, they started thinking about how to best introduce their kids into gaming. And the conversation about games grew much more respectable than before. Children playing computer games is no longer automatically seen as the mindless activity it once was viewed as. And it is not nearly as unusual for adults to play games instead of watching a film or reading a book. And people like me who are not gamers should watch out because being able to play games if a sort of literacy.
However, the one thing that is almost completely new in the 2010s is the pursuit of watching other people play games. People playing and commenting on games is one of the biggest video genres on YouTube. The biggest channel run by an individual is Pewdiepie who gained fame by his funny commentaries on the games he was playing on screen — today, the channel has over 100 million subscribers. And Pewdiepie started his channel in 2010. In 2011, a new platform appeared called Twitch that is just for live video streaming of game play (although other things are possible) and Discord — a chat platform for people to use while gaming — is becoming a serious social network. In fact, Amazon bought Twitch for almost a billion dollars and now, there are a million people watching video streams on Twitch at any one time.
And watching video game play is not just a solitary pursuit. As e-sports have gathered steam in the 2010s, new social occasions are created and even new venues dedicated to e-sports are being built — such as this new e-sports stadium. Watching somebody play a game with skillful commentary and editing can be just as or more entertaining as watching sport or even most other TV.
Finally, no discussion of games in the 2010s would be complete without Minecraft which is ultimate proof (if proof were needed) that games are a space for people of all ages to be creative and communicative. Its 8-bit retro graphics show that the idea of exploration and communication is more central to gaming than violence or high graphics. When Microsoft bought Minecraft for $2.5 billion, it did that at least in part because it saw its potential as a learning space. As always, that claim was a bit overblown but Minecraft did have interesting educational applications from the very start.