Minimal viable content: Why are we surrounded by shit content?



In a recent interview columnist Michael Wolff stated that digital media in 2015 is ‘a deluge of crap’. The controversial analyst gave his opinion during a conversation about digital media but it applies to online content in general. Technology and platforms like YouTube, Steam, Facebook mean it’s never been easier to be a content creator. With quality content the exception rather than the rule, is the ‘deluge of crap’ likely to improve?

Minimal viable content

In fact we have all become content creators. We all create videos and pictures that we broadcast to the world at large. This revolutionary technological development has not brought with it, however, an equal cultural development. Collectively we have more video capturing, editing and special effects capabilities than most 70’s directors could even conceptualize, to say nothing of the dizzying array of distribution methods.

We don’t all have, however, the same degree of training, creative vision or experience that most of these filmmakers had. The result of this gap between ability and technology is obvious to anyone who has spent any amount of time browsing popular videos on YouTube. In my particular corner of the world (Japan), the top videos at the moment are a man trying to eat a rice ball in fewer than 30 seconds, a popular YouTuber showing his new sofa and a man describing a mobile game he’s playing. This are just some examples of how many channels are rapidly producing content with as little effort as possible.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that this is not a polemic against modern culture or a grumpy diatribe that things used to be better. There is good content online, and television and movies have arguably never been better.

Let’s Play

Many of the most popular YouTube videos, called Let’s Play videos, rely on individuals, who are playing games made by other people, narrating their experience. They are about as entertaining as you would expect. Not to single out Let’s Play videos, but they are fairly representative of YouTube videos in general such as unboxings (this one has 275 million views), eating challenges, cat videos ad infinitum. All of these videos require very little in the way of preparation, research, creativity, review, editing etc. that we generally associate with creative works. The object of the video (the game, toy, or gadget) was created by someone else and the YouTuber essentially supplies the experience of the product, for the viewer to experience vicariously. Sure these videos can be entertaining but they really represent a minimal viable product in video form. The only way to get more minimal is to simply point your cell phone at something and hit record.

Eager amateur on a professional salary

This general trend of valiant amateurs replacing content made by paid professionals can be seen in journalism, music, film making and even videogames. Of course, keen hobbyists have always produced the content that they themselves are passionate about. Only a select few ever found out about these passion projects however. Now the tables have turned and a video on YouTube has the potential to reach a wider audience than any cinema release.

What this means is that many of these passionate ‘amateurs’ are making a living off YouTube and earning a professional salary (and sometimes more). While content creators are creating minimal viable content and distributing it, some are making a lot of money doing it. The lines between keen amateur, paid professional and studio sanctioned film or TV creator are becoming blurry.

Pro’s in the Amateur leagues

More and more mainstream professional channels are aping these low cost minimal viable content creators. It is no secret that many established newspapers are taking after Buzzfeed and Gawker when it comes to their online approach. Many newspapers are now using the same native advertising accompanied by clickbait to generate views. Low cost TV shows compete with serious creative efforts like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men.

The net result of this blurring between pro and amatuer, with higher end content competing with YouTube videos is that it becomes a race to the bottom, the dual bottoms in this case being the cost to make the media and the lowest common denominator of taste. Hence, the deluge of crap.

Turning the other cheek

In a recent South Park episode, the creators poked fun at kids more likely to watch someone play a game on a Let’s Play video than to actually play the game themselves. This new tolerance to this minimal viable content is interesting and something that genuinely divides gamers. Gamers in their 30s are generally less likely to be the audience of these videos than say a twelve year old.

At the moment the novelty of the technology, distribution paired with the generally free nature of this content is sustaining the audience. The current model isn’t really sustainable though, eventually the audience will react to being asked to consume this deluge of crap. Consumers will begin to expect something more from content creators who are seen as professionals on YouTube as opposed to hobbyists.

There are of course plenty of exceptions, with things like Idea Channel, Science Friction, and successful indie gaming studies showing the way forward. Perhaps YouTube and similar platforms’ deluge of crap can become a stream of garbage with a trickle of quality, like television. And hopefully as a species we develop an ability to resist clickbait.

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