How the internet turned us into content machines

In the beginning there was an egg. In January 2019, an Instagram account called @world_record_egg posted a stock photo of a regular brown chicken egg, and started a campaign for the photo to garner more likes than any previous image online. The record holder at the time was an Instagram photo of Kylie Jenner’s daughter Stormi, which garnered more than eighteen million likes. Within ten days, the number of eggs exceeded thirty million. It remains at the top of the chart till date with more than fifty five million years. The account’s creators, who hail from the ad industry, then teamed up with Hulu for a mental health PSA in which the egg “cracks” under pressure from social media. Egg’s arc was the epitome of a certain kind of modern Internet success: get a big enough audience around something—anything—and you can sell it to someone.

For media historian and New School professor Kate Eichhorn, the Instagram egg is representative of the ubiquitous yet elusive word we call “content.” Content is digital material “distributable solely for the purpose of circulation,” writes Eichhorn in his new book, Content, part of MIT Press’ Basic Knowledge short monograph series. In other words, this kind of content is empty by design, better to travel in digital spaces. “Genre, media and format are secondary concerns, and in some cases they disappear altogether.” Part of the intellectual property inspires a feeding frenzy of podcast, documentary and miniseries divisions. Single episodes of streaming service TV can last as long as a movie. Paintings by visual artists appear alongside vacation photos in impressive style on social media. It’s all part of what Eichhorn calls the “content industry,” which encompasses everything we consume online. “Content is part of a single and undifferentiated stream,” writes Eichhorn, referring to the overwhelming flood of text, audio and video that fills our feeds.

Over the past decade, a number of books have attempted to analyze how the internet affects us and what we should do about it. In 2011, Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble demonstrated the homogenizing effects of digital broadcasting. After Facebook and its ilk became more prevalent, technologist Jaron Lanier wrote a book called Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Accounts Now (2018). Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, published in the US in 2019, charts the systemic problems of mass data appropriation. Eichhorn’s is one of a new crop of books that focuses more directly on user experience, diagnosing the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between the single individual and the virtual crowd.

The Internet was once based on user-generated content. The hope was that ordinary people would take advantage of the Internet’s low barrier to publication and publish great things simply for the joy of open communication. Now we know it didn’t turn out so well. User-generated GeoCities pages or blogs gave way to monetized content. Google made the Internet more searchable, but in the early 2000s, it also began selling advertising, allowing other websites to easily insert their own ad modules. This business model is what most of the Internet still relies on today. Revenue is not necessarily derived from the value of the content, but rather from its ability to attract attention, the most ad-focused ads bought and sold through corporations like Google and Facebook. The rise of social networks in the twenties made this model even more dominant. Our digital deployment has increasingly focused on a few comprehensive platforms based on algorithmic feeds. The result for users was more exposure but a loss of agency. We created free content, and then Facebook took it out for profit.

“Clickbait” has long been a term for misleading, shallow online articles that exist only to sell advertising. But in today’s Internet, the term can describe content in everything from unlabeled ads on an influencer’s Instagram page to dubious pop music designed to play Spotify’s algorithm. Eichhorn uses the powerful term “content capital”—a corollary of Pierre Bourdieu’s “cultural capital”—to describe the way fluency in online posting can determine the success or even existence of an artist’s work. While “cultural capital” describes how particular tastes and reference points confer status, “content capital” refers to the ability to create the kind of ancillary content that the Internet feeds. Because the audience’s attention is focused through social media, the most direct path to success is cultivating a large digital following. “Cultural producers who in the past focused on writing books, making films, or creating art must now spend considerable time producing (or paying someone else to produce) content about themselves and their work,” writes Eichhorn. Pop stars record their daily routines on TikTok. Journalists are voicing trivia on Twitter. Best-selling Instapoet Rupi Kaur posts clips and photos of her typewriter poems. All fall prey to the daily pressure to create ancillary content—memes, selfies, shitposts—to fill an endless void.

The dynamics Eichhorn describes will be familiar to anyone who uses social media with any regularity. It doesn’t break ground on our understanding of the Internet, so much as it makes clear that it’s creating a brutal race to the bottom. We know that what we post and consume on social media is increasingly creating a sense of emptiness, yet we are powerless to stop it. Maybe if we had a better language for the problem it would be easier to solve. “Content begets content,” writes Eichhorn. As with the Instagram egg, the best way to build more content capital is to already have it.

Eichhorn’s sense of the way forward is unclear. He briefly mentions the idea of ​​”content resisters” who might consume vinyl records and photocopied zines instead of Spotify and Instagram. But given the extent to which the Internet has permeated our daily lives and experiences, such solutions seem strange. Like many technologies that came before it, it seems to be here to stay; the question is not how to avoid it, but how to understand ourselves in its inevitable wake. Justin EH Smith, professor of philosophy at the Université Paris Cité, argues in his new book, “The Internet Is Not What You Think,” that “the current situation is intolerable, but there is no turning back either.” Smith writes that too much of human experience has been condensed into a single “technological portal.” “The more you use the Internet, the more your individuality becomes a brand, and your subjectivity becomes a vector of algorithmically planned activities.”

According to Smith, the Internet actually limits attention, in the sense of a profound aesthetic experience that transforms the person involved. The business model of digital advertising encourages only brief, shallow interactions—consumer glances designed to absorb a logo or brand name and not much else. He writes that our feeds are designed to “transfer would-be participants from one monetized entity to another.” It’s had a calming effect on all kinds of culture, from Marvel blockbusters that optimize minute-by-minute attention to automated Spotify recommendations that push similar songs one after the other. Cultural products and consumer habits are increasingly adapting to the structures of digital spaces.

The Internet Isn’t What You Think It Begins as a negative critique of online life, especially as seen from the perspective of academia, an industry that is one of its corrupted victims. But the second half of the book moves towards deeper philosophical explorations. Smith writes that the Internet can best be seen as a “living system” rather than a tool. While this is disappointing, it is the fulfillment of the centuries-old human desire for interaction. Smith tells the story of Jules Alix, a Frenchman who popularized a kind of organic Internet made of snails in the mid-nineteenth century. It may have been based on the idea that any two paired snails remain attached over great distances, based on the doctor Franz Mesmer’s theory of “animal magnetism,” which posits the existence of a universal magnetic force that binds living things together. The technology—a telegraph-like device that used snails to send messages—failed, but the desire for instant, wireless communication remained until humanity achieved it, perhaps to our own detriment.

Smith seeks the most effective metaphor for the Internet, a concept that encompasses more than the void of “content” and the dependence of the “attention economy.” Is postcoital-like a snail telegraph? Or like a Renaissance wheel device that allowed readers to browse multiple books at once? Or perhaps as a bench that unites souls? Realizing that the interface of the Internet and the keyboard that provides access to it are less external devices than extensions of his searching mind, he is not content to respond. To understand the networked self, we must first understand the self, which is an ongoing effort. The main problem with the Internet may not stem from discrete technology, but from the Frankensteinian way in which human invention has outstripped our own capabilities. In some ways, the Instagram egg hasn’t fully hatched yet.

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